As ‘science diplomats,’ graduate students are helping to create an informed public

[video:http://www.vimeo.com/39004994]

As his audience watches intently, Yale graduate student Kenneth Buck talks about the processes that take place in the complex circuitry of the brain, from the growth and development of neurons to the way it communicates messages.

Illustrating his talk with slides, Buck tells how chemical addictions have been proven to alter the brain, but notes that there is still room for debate about whether technology-related addictions — such as video games or the Internet — also affect how it functions.

Members of his audience clap when Buck has finished, and then offer him some feedback on his presentation. One suggests that he eliminate a word or two of scientific language. The graduate student nods his head in agreement.

Buck’s presentation on this day was a rehearsal for one he — with fellow Yale graduate students Lu Jin and Dipon Ghosh — later gave at the New Haven Free Public Library on the topic “Addiction in 2012: What Facebook, Xbox, and Extreme Sports Do to Our Brains.” For the rehearsal, his audience was comprised of fellow Yale graduate students, all of whom are scientists. For the actual talk the following week at the library, his audience members ranged from young schoolchildren to senior citizens — some with limited scientific knowledge.

The talk on addiction is one in a series of six presentations titled “Science in the News,” offered for free to the general public by Yale Student Science Diplomats (YSSD), a graduate student organization dedicated to educating people of all ages about scientific topics so they can make informed decisions. Earlier this semester, graduate students Daniel Field, Matt Davis, and Tim Webster spoke on the topic “Branding Brontosaurus & Labeling Lucy: How To Name Prehistoric Animals.” Future talks in the “Science in the News” series — each given by a team of three graduate students or postdoctoral researchers — will explore such subjects as artificial intelligence, preventing disease outbreaks, evolution, and climate change.

“We try to make the presentations fun but relevant, and to keep scientific jargon to a minimum,” says Griselda Zuccarino-Catania, a graduate student in immunology who is one of the co-founders of YSSD and now is a co-director of “Science in the News.” “The graduate students and postdocs who give the talks have been selected for being good speakers. In addition to holding meetings with each other to prepare, they rehearse it before the members of our group — who are in diverse scientific fields — and we offer suggestions to help ensure that the talks are interesting, polished, and simple. We want people from different age groups to be able to understand the topic.”

Yale Student Science Diplomats was originally known as the Scientists and Engineers for America chapter at Yale, which several graduate students co-founded in 2007 after attending a career fair in New York City. In addition to providing Ph.D. students in the sciences with opportunities to explore careers and to network, the group was founded with the goal of ensuring that government leaders, policymakers, and the public make evidence-based decisions about science-related issues.

The change in the group’s name coincided with the introduction in 2010 of “Science in the News,” which they modeled after a similar program at Harvard University.

“We started exploring how we could do outreach, as many of us were interested in that,” says YSSD president Elizabeth Winograd-Cort, a graduate student in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology. “We were thinking: ‘If music students can give free concerts, what can we do?’ ‘Science in the News’ fits nicely with our mission of promoting evidence-based science by reaching voters or young people who one day will be voters, thus helping to create an informed electorate.”

Many of the topics addressed in “Science in the News” talks are about headline-grabbing issues on which there is often public disagreement, notes Julia Brown, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology who serves as YSSD vice president and the series’ co-director. Among the talks in last year’s series were one on genetically modified foods and another on vaccines.

Yale Student Science Diplomats include Elizabeth Winograd-Cort, Sneha Mani, Griselda Zuccarino-Catania, and Keerthi Shetty, who are officers of the graduate student organization.

Cell biology graduate student Sneha Mani, also a co-director of “Science in the News,” says that for herself and many of the graduate students, YSSD has helped to get them out of the research laboratory from time to time, allowing them to connect with fellow scientists in a wide range of fields and with the wider public.

Ghosh adds that YSSD helps to dispel some of the stereotypical views the public may have about scientists.

“I know people have the idea that scientists are bearded people who hang out and do all these weird things,” he explains. “But a lot of us do things that have a direct relevance to real life.” He adds that the topic of addiction, for example, is one that “many people can relate to,” and he enjoys helping others understand the connection between addiction and the brain.

More than 100 people attended the “Science in the News” talk on addiction, and YSSD members hope to increase public interest as news of the series spreads. Many of the graduate student presenters have repeated their talks at New Haven high schools.

Speaking to high school-aged students has special benefits for student scientists, notes Monica Bowen, a Ph.D. candidate in genetics, in a post she wrote for the YSSD blog.

“Sometimes as scientists we fall into the perilous trap of adopting jargon and forgetting how to distill information into its most fundamental and interpretable pieces, and important messages get lost that way,” she wrote. “Having graduate student-researchers talk science with high schoolers helps both parties: the high schoolers are exposed to something new, and researchers learn to deliver information in a way that actually conveys what they are trying to say.”

In fact, says Zuccarino-Catania, sharing information with the public allows the audience to think like scientists themselves.

“We want people to ask questions,” she says. “That’s what science is about, and that is the beauty of it.”

Bowen, who with two other graduate students gave a public talk last year about genomes and stem cells, later repeated her presentation for students at High School in the Community.

“My favorite part of science isn’t the benchwork or the analysis,” she wrote on the blog. “It’s sharing ideas with other people. It’s making others aware of something that only seconds before was inconceivable to them. When you make someone’s jaw drop, you know you’ve done something worthwhile.”

Graduate students Lindsey Stavola, Tiffany Tsang, and Jonathan Holt will give the next “Science in the News” talk on the topic “Disease Detectives: Stopping Outbreaks Before They Stop You.” It will take place on Tuesday, March 27, at the New Haven Free Public Library, 133 Elm St. Free parking is available in Yale lot #51. “Science in the News” talks are supported by funding from the Graduate and Professional Student Senate and the Office of Graduate Student Life at the McDougal Center. For more information, visit here.

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Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,