A scientist at the SSRC participates in a post-workshop interview at The Message Laboratory. (photo by Alan Burns)

By Alan Burns

After a workshop at Mississippi State University, the Social Science Research Center has established a valuable connection and relationship with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science was at Mississippi State University to conduct a workshop on effectively communicating research this past August. Three Social Science Research Center (SSRC) scientists participated in the workshop, while The Message Laboratory located at the SSRC collaborated with the Alda Center to evaluate the workshop.

The Alan Alda Center, which was founded at Stony Brook University in 2009 by the famed M.A.S.H. star of the same name, seeks to help scientists and medical professionals to better communicate complex topics more clearly. The Alda Center’s faculty specialize in many fields, including improvisational theater, communication, journalism, medicine, public health, and more.

The workshop was centered around helping MSU researchers and administrators communicate more effectively with the general public, policy makers, media, and potential funders and collaborators. It was funded by the California-based Kavli Foundation and the Mississippi-based Robert M. Hearin Foundation.

“I think having participated in this workshop will greatly impact how we, as scientists, convey our research here at the SSRC,” said Dr. Holli Seitz, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Communication and Director of The Message Laboratory at the SSRC.

“We will be able to better connect with our audience and those we serve with our work, and better convey the implications of our research findings. I hope we can use this to improve outcomes in our state,” she continued.

Others in attendance from SSRC were Dr. Arthur Cosby, Director of the SSRC, and Dr. Heather Hanna, an Assistant Research Professor at the SSRC and Co-Director of Mississippi KIDS COUNT.

“Through this training on science communication, I learned how to grab an audience’s attention, connect personally with the audience, and to consider the audience’s viewpoint when conveying messages about my work, altering the message as needed,” explained Hanna. “These are skills I employ during one-on-one conversations that I now realize can translate to public speaking for greater effectiveness.”

Workshop Evaluation

The Alda Center has partnered with George Mason University and The Message Laboratory at the SSRC to perform an evaluation on the effectiveness of this workshop. This evaluation is using pre- and post-workshop videos of participants describing their work to determine the effect. The Message Laboratory has helped coordinate the recording of these presentations for the Alda Center, and Dr. Seitz was subsequently brought on as a research collaborator.

“Science communication is one of my areas of focus, so I volunteered to host the recordings in our lab. After we talked about the research design, the Alda Center team was kind enough to invite me on as a partner in the study. This is truly an amazing opportunity, as they have so much expertise in the science communication area,” said Seitz.

The benefits of the evaluation have the opportunity to reach further than MSU, potentially impacting how scientists and researchers around the world tell their stories.

“I think the immediate takeaway is that we get to evaluate their unique hands-on, experiential training in science communication and how it improves the way that we communicate and connect with our audiences,” Seitz stated. “And I think there are many possibilities here to go beyond just effectiveness to look at other factors that affect how communicators appeal to their audiences.”

Dr. Laura Lindenfeld, Executive Director of the Alan Alda Center and professor in the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University, oversees the operation of the Alda Center and the work it’s done extending to over 40,000 people.

“Our ability to empirically measure the effects of our training is central to what we do. We teach our participants to shift their focus to their audience to ensure that a message lands,” said Lindenfeld. “Having data that demonstrates that this training impacts scientists and shows how it achieves this is critical to our work. Partnering with Dr. Seitz has added tremendous value to our ability to conduct cutting edge social science research about our training method.”

The Future of Storytelling

According to Seitz, one of the most important issues to be addressed following the study is identifying factors that make science communication more effective in Mississippi.

“Emerging data suggests there may be rural and urban differences in how people perceive scientific messages, so I think looking at who the most effective messengers for our specific audiences are will be a great question for future work,” Seitz said.

“Through the work of Dr. Chris Volpe, Executive Director of ScienceCounts, we are able to understand how different publics view and form opinions about science, and we integrate that data into our workshops to help scientists better understand the audiences with whom they communicate,” Dr. Lindenfeld emphasized. “These types of partnerships – with ScienceCounts and the Message Laboratory – represent a concerted effort to elevate our ability to work collaboratively in support of scientists to advance the public’s awareness of science in the US. This is just the beginning.”

“I think it is tremendous that we have this opportunity with the Alan Alda Center,” said Dr. Arthur Cosby. “Establishing a research collaboration between them and the Message Laboratory at the SSRC will provide a unique chance to study science communication and messaging.”

Seitz stated that she believes this is the beginning of a very productive and collaborative relationship with the Alda Center.

“I hope this is the beginning of a strong partnership and a focus on science communication for The Message Laboratory,” she explained. “I believe there is potential for us to collaborate on projects in the future, and working with such respected partners will provide us with new opportunities going forward.”

A Connection with The Alan Alda Center
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