Empowering Ambassadors of Science

BSP students at Hastings Natural History Preserve in 2019. Photo by Louis Tan.

Researchers who collaborate with others must be able to describe and discuss their work with fellow scientists, both within and outside their area of expertise. We’ve noticed that those who work best on the cross-disciplinary teams that form at KI events are not just translators, but ambassadors. They are sensitive to differences in language and culture between disciplines and can bridge the gaps between them, leading to innovative research.

I was recently invited to two university campuses to talk to undergraduate biology students about science communication. A co-worker, Izzy Mamnoon, and I drafted an initial design of an interactive workshop we hoped would empower students to see themselves as ambassadors of science.

Then the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 pandemic. University officials moved classes online, we quickly adapted our pro bono workshops to be delivered virtually and we realized that we had the opportunity to be of service to students in ways we hadn’t anticipated.

Living in a VUCA World

First up were the students of the Biology Scholars Program (BSP) at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB). Funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, BSP has been a fixture at UCB for 28 years. The program is made up of students from underrepresented groups in the biological sciences. At UCB, 80 percent of BSP students are first-generation college students and from low-income backgrounds. 

These students are the bridge between the university and their families and communities, says John Matsui, Ph.D., the Director and Co-Founder of BSP. “What we have not done at the university is teach people how to speak to other audiences about science.” Over the years, students said that, when they go back home and are asked to explain their research, they have a hard time translating it. “I really wanted to help them develop that skill set and that understanding of the gap between science and the public.”

Since BSP’s inception, Matsui has focused on responding to the needs of students. So, when we suggested we add something to our workshop to address the sudden upheaval in students’ lives, he was all for it.

By Izzy Mamnoon

The workshop started in mid-March and spanned three class periods over three weeks. First, we  introduced students to a tool to navigate a world characterized by VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Exercises revolved around how to respond to those challenges with vision, understanding, collaboration and agility. 

“Given the time that everyone’s living in, where things feel uncertain, I think it was really grounding for them,” says Emilio Soto, a Graduate Student Instructor for the course. “These are skills that older adults use all the time to make decisions. And put names to things they already do, but also identify things they didn’t know how to do yet that might help them through this time.”

The students agreed. “It allowed me to find some balance and stability in the quarantine times,” says Eyiwunmi Laseinde, a sophomore who intends to be a pre-med major. “It also allowed me to do some reflection. I realized that I’m not cutting myself any slack. It’s hard not being able to be productive. But I don’t need to be so hard on myself because things are just hard in general.”

Having What It Takes

In between the in-person meetings, students were given an assignment to use  writing prompts to create a three-part story about their past, present and future. That  prepared them for a  workshop activity that focused on the  attributes that have helped them survive and thrive and that would also allow them to be effective ambassadors of science. 

BSP Student Marcelo Quijano

Marcelo Quijano, a senior, says the three-part story made him realize the impact of his second grade teacher. “I’m very passionate about animals and very passionate about culture. That’s why I went into anthropology and biology. But I never thought about the fact that my passion for biology probably came about from my second grade teacher.” Quijano says he struggled with ADHD as a child and was very disruptive in class. “I would get all my work done quickly. Then I would have nothing left to do. Rather than giving me more of the same work, she would actually give me books — to keep — on animals and biomes. Through those books, I found my passion.”

During the third part of the workshop, students interviewed one another, sharing their stories and then capturing in those personal attributes they felt would make them effective ambassadors of science. They also had a visit from Raven “The Science Maven” Baxter, a molecular biologist pursuing a Ph.D. in science education who is also a musical ambassador of science. Her COVID-19 parody music video was a big hit with the class, as was her three-part story.

What did Baxter discover about herself that set her up to be the successful ambassador of science that she is today? 

Raven Video from Knowinnovation Inc on Vimeo.

“Once I realized that most of the things that hold people like me back from being in science, let alone a science ambassador, are boundaries and stereotypes … that kind of gave me the licence, if you will, to go out and communicate science the way I want to communicate science — and not how it’s been traditionally done, not by any rules that have been put in place for me to communicate the science.”

Students appreciated Baxter’s sincerity. “When she was talking you could tell that she created that video for the sole purpose of communicating science. She wasn’t doing it for the attention or to get a million followers,” Quijano says. “She’s doing it because she genuinely loves promoting science and she genuinely loves being that person who is able to communicate it in creative ways.”

Emily King, also a Graduate Student Instructor for the course, says Baxter made a big impression on the students. “There is something empowering about seeing someone who looks like you do what she does and have the platform that she has. So I think that it really helps them think about: ‘Well, yeah, what can I do?’.”

Associate Professor Michele Johnson, Ph.D. (third row, far right) and her Biology Senior Seminar class, Trinity University, Spring 2020.

Graduating Seniors

KI also had a chance to visit with graduating biology majors at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. By April 20th, classes had been online for a month and at least one of the 13 students was awaiting COVID-19 test results (which came back negative). This shorter (one class period) workshop focused on the theme of being ambassadors of science. 

Michele Johnson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biology, teaches the senior Biology Seminar class. Before the workshop, Johnson had the students write about what in their undergraduate career had prepared them for the line of work they planned to pursue. What was it about their personal lives or personalities that also prepared them for their futures? They were put into pairs in which they discussed what brought them to science in the first place. 

“I think it gave them a different sense of identity as a scientist, maybe even a different sense of their responsibility,” Johnson says. Many of her students are going into health care fields and see themselves as future providers, but hadn’t considered themselves as future science communicators. “The session gave them a broader way of thinking about themselves…It really couldn’t have come at a better time.”

Giving Back

So, maybe it’s a little late for full disclosure, but I was born in San Antonio and I went to graduate school at UCB where I taught BSP students in the same course. I will always have a special place in my heart for BSP students. I see myself in their eyes and in their stories — which I let them know by sharing my own unique, three-part story with them. 

It’s hard to describe how it feels to give back to these students in this way, especially during a pandemic. What I can tell you is that Izzy and I could not stop smiling every time we met with students. We enjoyed getting to know the instructors, who generously allowed us to prototype a way to help future scientists be future collaborative scientists. And the students confirmed with their  generous feedback that we helped them catch a glimpse of their potential impact on society as ambassadors of science. Now that’s a wave of hope we can ride through this crisis.