Our Mission: Helping Scientists Reach the General Public
Has there ever been a more important time for scientists and physicians to learn to communicate effectively to lay audiences? We don’t think so.
Researchers need to be able to talk about their work clearly, concisely and accurately not just to funders and peer reviewers, but to colleagues, patients, and the public at large. They must not only explain the latest findings from the laboratory or clinic, but convey the underlying passion, excitement, and resourcefulness that produced those discoveries. And they must do all this while also learning how to achieve critical distance from their own field in order to become reliable, trustworthy commentators.
With that in mind, the Carter Institute in 2009 began offering workshops taught by nationally prominent science writers to Ph.D. students and post-doctoral fellows in the sciences at NYU. In 2013, we expanded to include the medical school, and in the fall of 2016, we expanded again to reach faculty in the sciences and medicine. In 2018, we expanded one more time, this time by adding spoken-word workshops for faculty who want to improve their skills for TED-type talks and other oral presentations to mass audiences.
To date, more than 800 early-career researchers have participated. Each workshop consists of four weekly sessions of three hours each. There are typically ten students per workshop. There is no charge to students, and no university credit is given. In the 2018-19 academic year, NYU will offer 15 four-week workshops: eight introductory, two advanced, and five for faculty (two introductory, two advanced, plus a spoken-word workshop).
Workshop graduates have published in dozens of prominent outlets, including Scientific American, Slate, Science and Nature. They have also written books, recorded podcasts, blogged, and participated in live storytelling events such as The Moth, Story Collider and TED. Please see the Alumni Story Gallery to see some of their published work.
Stephen S. Hall developed the curriculum and has been teaching the writing workshops since 2009. He was joined in 2015 by Virginia Hughes and in 2016 by Brooke Borel. In 2018, Ben Lillie, co-founder of the event space Caveat, came on board to teach spoken-word workshops.
Dan Fagin is the director and founder of the Science Communication Workshops. He is also a professor of journalism at the Carter Institute and the director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting M.A. program, in which Hall also teaches.
The goal of the NYU Science Communication Workshops is to improve the communication skills of all participants, regardless of previous training in writing and speaking. Students learn to describe complicated, technical research in clear, jargon-free language; they learn to write persuasive opinion pieces about matters of broad societal concern emanating from the scientific and medical arenas; and they learn storytelling skills to convey the real feel of science and medicine on the move. They also learn how to communicate with scientific colleagues outside their immediate field, how to identify the audiences with whom they wish to communicate, and how to write for general interest publications. All writing assignments are workshopped in class and also critiqued in detail by the instructor.
While the workshops are focused on helping researchers communicate to the general public, workshop alumni often report that the training has also improved their grant writing, fellowship applications, institutional progress reports, and even preparation of scientific papers.
Workshop students and alumni also participate in the Kavli Conversations on Science Communication at NYU, which are public dialogues between journalists and scientists focused on improving science communication, as well as in other events organized specifically for them. There were two of these special events in 2017, for example: “Lab Lit: Writing, Publishing and Reviewing Books About Science” (featuring a New York Times book reviewer, a prominent publisher, and a Nobel Prize-winning author) and “Science + Opinion = Op-Ed” (featuring editors from the Times, Slate and The Conversation as well as a physician/essayist). You can watch part of the op-ed event here:
Because the workshops are free and funding is limited, the NYU Science Communication Workshops are currently open only to NYU Ph.D., M.D., or post-doctoral students in the following eligible subjects: Biology, Biomedical Engineering, Biomedical Science, Chemistry, Computer Sciences, Dentistry, Mathematics, Medicine, Neural Science, Nursing, Physical Anthropology, Physics and Psychology. All other Ph.D. students, post-docs and engineering students, as well as master’s students, undergraduates and non-NYU students, are not eligible. We hope to be able to open the workshops to these groups in the future.
Eligible NYU students who wish to sign up should keep an eye out for the enrollment notice that goes out via email to administrators and directors of graduate study in the relevant departments and schools during the first week of the fall and spring semesters. Those administrators then distribute the notice to eligible students. The notice will include a date and time at which enrollment will open, as well as instructions for how to sign up. All workshop slots are typically filled within a few hours, and there is always a long waiting list, so it’s important to get your request in promptly once open enrollment begins. The workshops are filled on a first-come-first-served basis, though we also take steps to ensure that each cohort reflects a diverse array of scientific interests.
Faculty in the sciences and medicine interested in enrolling in a faculty workshop should be alert for a separate notice from their chairs and administrators. It usually goes out the second week of the fall and spring semesters.
Questions? Send us an email.
Free to students, the Science Communication Workshops could not exist without the generosity of our funders, most of whom have been supporters for years.
Current funders include the Simons Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the New York Cardiac Center, the National Institutes of Health via the NYU Science Training Enhancement Program (Prof. Carol Shoshkes Reiss), Director of Postdoctoral Affairs Christine Ponder and NYU Medical School Postdoctoral Program Director Keith Micoli), the National Science Foundation (Prof. Sergei Dubovsky) and the offices of NYU Senior Vice Provost for Research Paul Horn, Dean for Science Michael Purugganan, NYU School of Medicine Associate Dean for Medical Education Melvin Rosenfeld and Associate Dean for Student Affairs Linda Tewksbury, and Professor of Nursing Christine Kovner.
The workshops would never have gotten off the drawing board in 2009 without the ideas, enthusiasm and financial support of Pierre S. Hohenberg, Paul Horn’s predecessor as senior vice provost for research, and Daniel Stein, Michael Purugganan’s predecessor as dean for science. We’re also very grateful to the Arnold P. Gold Foundation and NYU Executive Vice President for Health Robert Berne, whose support made it possible to expand the workshops to the NYU School of Medicine.
At the Carter Institute of Journalism, the workshops rely on the skilled support of Administrative Aide Donald Starr and Director of Administration Rose Sculley. If you’d like to support our work, please email us.
A selection of articles published by workshop graduates, including some originally prepared as workshop assignments.