By Anthony Hickey, PhD
While many fellows spend countless hours working solo in the lab, our success as scientists hinges on our ability to interact with others. We must communicate our research with other scientists, certainly. But what we may not think about enough is how to communicate our work with nonscientific audiences. This skill is becoming increasingly important, as technology allows for the widespread dissemination of information with the click of a button. Part of our training as scientists needs to include communicating our work to a wide array of audiences. The NICHD Public Communications Branch (PCB) is a good resource to do just that.
The PCB mission is to communicate to diverse audiences how the research conducted and funded by NICHD is making a positive difference in the lives of people, families, and communities, in addition to fostering collaborations within and outside the institute. Paul Williams, the director of PCB, understands the importance of public support for NICHD research. With a background in journalism and scientific communication, he grasps the role that postdocs play in scientific progress and encourages postdocs to use PCB’s resources to make themselves and their work known to the public.
On June 3, 2015, Mr. Williams and I discussed the functions of PCB and how the branch can help a postdoc during his or her NIH career. Below is a selection from our discussion together:
A.J. Hickey (AJH): I would like to thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.
P. Williams (PW): My pleasure.
Paul Williams’s office is located in Building 31, RM 2A32. He can be reached by phone at 301-496-5135, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AJH: If a postdoc or graduate student working within NIH wanted to get a better idea of what NICHD’s Public Communications Branch does, or what the PCB is all about, would going to the NICHD public website be a good place to start?
PW: Absolutely. PCB develops the content for the site, which covers current, relevant work conducted and supported by NICHD.
AJH: The website contains quite an impressive amount of information. Can you tell us about what is involved in getting this information together and organizing it?
PW: It starts with figuring out what is relevant. We begin with descriptions of basic programs at NICHD. From there, we decide what areas of focus we want to look at. We are trying to emulate what a user of the website is looking for, or would want to read about, in order to find out about what NICHD does—why the institute is relevant, important, and deserving of continued support.
AJH: Finding relevant material for the website means that PCB is always actively searching for new content. What about scientists within NICHD who wish to have their recent work or discoveries made public? Do scientists frequently reach out to PCB?
⇐ Don’t forget to run the idea by your advisor before initiating the conversation!
PW: Absolutely, and we want them to do that! We encourage scientists, both extramural and intramural, to talk with us about their portfolios and projects. Together, we may be able to find something that we can run with using the various resources we have at our disposal. It’s all about the conversation. Reaching out to us is not a guarantee that the work will be made public, but discussing it with us is a great start.
AJH: From what I understand, you are trying to get postdocs involved in this process as well, not just senior PIs?
PW: Yes. Postdocs are extremely important to the mission. They are our lifeblood in a lot of ways and the future in terms of new ideas and new perspectives. Postdocs tend to be cutting-edge people, so we want to really promote their capacity for innovation, their passion for science, and their desire to make the world a better place. I think that we could be doing a lot more in promoting the work that postdocs are doing and showing the public and other audiences what great scientists and great talent we have here.
AJH: Many of us as postdocs are focused on communicating our work as published manuscripts or as presentations in front of other scientists. What additional benefits would postdocs see in taking such opportunities to share their work with nonscientific audiences?
PW: I feel that it’s healthy for a postdoc to always be able to connect with nonscientists about their science. I think postdocs really need to work on how to distill what they are working on into a couple of bullet points summarizing the public health significance of their work. We are mandated as an institute to explain where the taxpayer money is going—how we are using it to improve health, to diagnose, treat and prevent disease.
AJH: I am sure that many postdocs would appreciate the opportunity to do this, however some postdocs may be hesitant to come forward—maybe because they feel like they just can’t commit the time outside of lab, or perhaps they are just intimidated by the idea of being interviewed. How would you encourage postdocs to break past that barrier?
PW: I do understand a postdoc’s time constraints. I can help this process by having a team here that will work with them and try to relieve as much of the burden as possible. For example, it could start with a quick email to us about a paper the postdoc is getting ready to publish that they think is appropriate for coverage by PCB. We can begin an exchange with this postdoc and go back and forth until we have a final. For other things, such as videos, we try as best we can to limit filming and/or interviews to just a couple of hours. If they can invest an hour of their life on a day for us, that hour would go a long way for them and really help them get their science out there.
AJH: With current technology, video has become much easier and less expensive to work with. How often would you utilize this medium to get a postdoc’s story across to the public?
PW: If I could, I would get every postdoc on film. I think it’s really fascinating to hear the ideas, see the passion, and witness the eyes light up when they talk about their science and their work. I think it would be immensely valuable for the institute to do something like that. Realistically, we can’t do it for everyone, but we’d like to do it for as many postdocs as we can. Part of my goal as director of communications is to get more postdocs on camera talking about their science, the significance of their research, and why people should care.
AJH: It sounds like PCB will take great efforts to reach out to postdocs, but let’s discuss the flip side of this. Say a postdoc has something they really want to communicate, perhaps a cool or exciting result, or they just simply have an idea and would like a forum to discuss it. What would be a good way for them to initiate contact with PCB?
PW: They can come right to me. I would like to keep it as informal as possible. What I don’t want is for it to become a bureaucratic exercise. They can call me; they can write me. I’d really be happy to hear from them. I am always looking for good ideas, and I am always looking to promote fellows. Like I said, they are such a huge and important part of this institute.
AJH: One of the goals listed in the PCB mission statement is to foster collaboration. In what ways could a postdoc’s involvement with the PCB allow them to do this?
PW: The more you are out there with your science, the more people are seeing your science. It’s easier nowadays to share information, especially by social media. Every website now has social media buttons where you can forward information to your contacts on LinkedIn or Pinterest or Facebook, or wherever you want to go. If you put your work out there and have a compelling story to tell, it will get shared. And who knows, it might get the attention of people who want to work with you.
AJH: And this can’t hurt in the future when the fellowship is near finished and postdocs are ready to take the next step and are looking for jobs.
PW: Right. It may also be beneficial for meetings and presentations. When you go to a scientific meeting, perhaps you can use an audiovisual element in your talk, so you are doing more than just shining a laser pointer at your screen. Maybe you can play a YouTube video of yourself with a patient, or perhaps a video of yourself in the lab with your colleagues, just to show another side of you that may not otherwise come across in the presentation.
AJH: So in closing, I want to go back to the subject of this being an investment of time on the postdoc’s part, which I do think is a worthwhile investment. What final encouraging words might you have for a postdoc that may be on the fence as to whether or not they want to reach out to PCB.
PW: Like you said, it is an investment—not only an investment in your career at NICHD/NIH, but also an investment in your career elsewhere, in the future. You learn, through this process, to distill your research into quick sound bites that retain all the precision and accuracy of your science. Being able to relate your work to nonscientists is a skill that is rare, but it is a skill that makes you more marketable…
...Scientists are always going to be in demand, and when discoveries are made, or new information becomes available regarding a disease or public heath matter, it behooves young fellows to learn these strong communication skills now, and this will help them as they grow in their careers to differentiate themselves from others.
AJH: I think that wraps up our session. Again, I wish to thank for your time.
PW: It was my pleasure. Thanks for doing this article.