You are here

Squids Across America: How Biologist Sarah McAnulty is Making Research Accessible to All (And How to Make Your Research Accessible to All)

UL Grad School -- 11/01/2019

Biologist Sarah McAnulty giving a presentation to the UL Lafayette Graduate School about communicating research.

Biologist Sarah McAnulty recently brought her “Squids Across America” tour to UL Lafayette. As the founder of Skype a Scientist, a program that connects scientists with K-12 classrooms across the globe, McAnulty has made it her mission to increase awareness about the work that scientists do -- and to make scientists better communicators along the way. McAnulty spoke with UL Lafayette graduate students about the need for scientists to proactively communicate the impact of their research and introduced strategies for talking about research with non-academic audiences. 

According to the 2018 3M State of Science Index Survey, people have high expectations of science, but are unfamiliar with the work of scientists themselves. A Research!America report released in 2017 revealed that many people in the U.S. cannot name an actual living scientist. In response, scientists across Twitter began using the hashtag #actuallivingscientist to capture everyday moments in the life of a scientist and publicize the meaningfulness of their work. Today’s social media savvy researchers are helping to change people’s perception of science as esoteric and confined to sterile laboratories.

McAnulty breaks down her approach to communicating research into three steps:

1. Just start talking.
2. Practice communicating what you do.
3. Appeal to people’s emotions -- don’t just hit them with cold, hard facts!

Her approach has been put into practice through the video-conference talks facilitated by Skype a Scientist, and at the organization’s in-person science communication events that invite people to learn about research in a fun, interactive setting.

Whether holding an event or preparing for a research talk, McAnulty advises the following:

Ask the right questions!

Who is your target audience? What do you want them to know? How do you want them to feel? Compile your information and decide what format will work best for your initiative. Investigate the values of your target audience and the kind of problems they are facing. Connect your research and show how it benefits the community, meets their needs, and impacts our world.

Consider social media!

Social media can act as a counterpart to an in-person event, or can stand on its own. Each platform has its own strengths and weaknesses for communicating research, so remember your goals! Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Reddit all bring opportunities to communicate with the larger public.

Get out into the community!

You could hold events at bars, farmers markets, stores, etc. Think about how to make science talks entertaining, and brainstorm what you would enjoy doing. Include some interactive activities. (Check out Science on the Bayou, here in Lafayette, for a great model.)

Collect data!

If you are able to get your attendees’ email address, send them a survey. McAnulty asks audience participants to address a postcard to themselves that she collects, writes a short note, and later mails to them. You want to provide a way for them to stay connected.

Make it accessible!

One final consideration when talking about your research is to make sure it is accessible to all. Consider the impact of your words. Use inclusive language (for examples, check out this compilation, created by McAnulty, of Twitter users that exemplify inclusive language). Also, make sure your event is truly open to everyone. Can people with disabilities participate in the activities, and is the event accessible to all socio-economic levels?

Ready to up your research communication game? Time is running out to register for the Graduate School’s annual Three-Minute Thesis competition. 3MT® challenges graduate students to present a compelling short talk about their research and its significance in just three minutes with just one powerpoint slide!