#MySciComm: William Chen on games, conferences, and transitioning to a scicomm career

This week, William Chen responds to the #MySciComm questions!

will chen bio photo

William in Seattle, Washington (Photo courtesy of Tal Noznisky)

William is a science communicator interested in writing, storytelling, and interactives. After obtaining a Master’s degree in Quantitative Ecology and Resource Management at the University of Washington, he is transitioning into a career of science communication. This starts with an internship at The Nature Conservancy, where he engages diverse audiences with stories about protecting and restoring nature both for its own sake and for people. Connect with him @ChenWillMath and mathecology.wordpress.com.

The #MySciComm series features a host of SciComm professionals. We’re looking for more contributors, so please get in touch if you’d like to write a post!


Okay, William…

1) How did you get into the kind of SciComm that you do?

Playing off of my board game hobby.

My graduate research focused on the difficult decision-making inherent to managing water for both societal and environmental needs. I often thought that the tricky decisions natural resource managers undertake daily could be the basis of a great game. When EarthGames announced they were hosting a game jam, a mere 48-hour time commitment, I jumped at the chance to try my hand at creating a board game about science.

The theme was climate change adaptation: given that climate change cannot be completely mitigated, how might society adapt to the inevitable consequences?

Our serendipitously-complementary team comprised an ecologist (myself), a computer scientist studying learning and problem solving, and an artist with a keen interest in science communication.

Together, we designed AdaptNation, a board game about cities working together to meet their needs for food, power, and water while dealing with increasingly severe environmental phenomenon such as wildfires, droughts, and ocean acidification.

Amazingly, our game placed third nationally, which earned us a trip to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History to present our game! Between cries of “Oh no, another heat wave!” and exclamations of “Woo, we survived!”, we discussed the insidiousness of ocean acidification and the counterintuitive solutions to reducing wildfire risk. More importantly, AdaptNation showed players that despite the daunting challenge of adapting to climate change, cooperation provides the opportunity for triumph. I loved being able to share in that discovery process through the medium of games.

The success of AdaptNation motivated me to seek out further science communication training.

At the University of Washington, I enrolled in the Engage Science Speaking Seminar, where I developed my ability to orally communicate my research to non-scientist audiences. Through Engage, I gave a public talk for Town Hall Seattle, where I spoke about the ways math and statistics can help us improve dam management for both human societal benefits and fish conservation. In Boston, I attended ComSciCon, a national conference connecting graduate students with science communication professionals. There, I workshopped a written piece on the wonders of freshwater fish – including, for example, a species that uses its mouth to climb waterfalls – and how they are threatened. Both trainings were created by graduate students for graduate students. They engendered incredibly welcoming communities with aligned interests in making science fun and accessible.

Inspired by the efforts of ComSciCon’s graduate student organizers, I jumped at opportunities to give back to the communities that fostered my growth.

I started organizing science communication trainings, rather than simply participating in them. I joined the board of directors for the Engage seminar, became one of the founding members of a Pacific Northwest chapter of ComSciCon, and returned to Boston a year later to lead sections of the national ComSciCon conference. Yet, I still thought I was an initiate in this field. It took talking with more experienced communicators, about feeling like a beginner, to help me realize I wasn’t an amateur any more. I had actually cultivated the connections and ability to not only communicate science, but to also enable others to forge their own science communication paths.

Through organizing science communication trainings, I realized that while I loved the science, I lacked the passion for research that I saw in my compatriots.

Rather, friends and colleagues alike saw the gleam in my eye when I talked about my various science communication projects. My true passion was in science communication. The more I did it, the more I found I could apply the lessons I learned as a graduate student to growing as a science communicator. Skills like networking, collaborating, and keeping up with the literature enhanced my capacity to work effectively in science communication.

Now, I am gearing up to tell the science stories of The Nature Conservancy. I hope to use my experiences in game design and organization of science communication conferences to engage, energize, and empower diverse audiences in environmental conservation.

2) What are your top 3 SciComm tips and/or resources?

1. Start now. To borrow from Atlantic science writer, Ed Yong, you are either a science communicator or you are not; there is no aspiring. The best way to get into science communication is to start doing it. When it comes to designing games, the advice I always hear is to build a prototype and test it with as many people as you can. Similarly, if you want to start writing, podcasting, etc., then make something and show it to friends, family, or post it online. Welcome constructive, critical feedback. Your first few pieces may not be very good (at least mine were not). That is perfectly alright. Quality comes with time and practice, just like it does with our science.

2. Find science communication mentors. Seek mentors who will not only provide you with opportunities and guidance, but who will also advocate for your science communication work. As someone stepping off the research path, I felt that I was losing a part of my identity. No longer was I aiming to be a professor at a top-ranking liberal arts college. I feared the unknown, no longer pursuing the defined goals of PhD to post-doc to professorship. Having a mentor assuage those worries empowered me to value the importance of my science communication.

3. Aesthetics, content, and fun all matter. I attribute the initial success of AdaptNation not to its adherence to scientific principles, but to its aesthetic appeal. The beautiful visuals of players’ would-be cities drew people in. Others were hooked by clever game mechanisms that simulated cause-and-effect in the real world. Still others simply appreciated learning and interacting with friends to meet a common goal. The way people responded to my first game impressed upon me an important lesson. Blending visual and analytical appeal, and prose with play, enhanced the reach of my work and increased the influence of the messages AdaptNation was designed to amplify. I suspect combining aesthetics, critical thinking, and play is central to most successful science communication.