Science Communication at URCA: experience and education

Before I begin discussing science, I would like to acknowledge the unexpected, tragic shootings of Isla Vista:

Five days ago, our IV and UCSB community experienced an unthinkable act of violence and tragedy. The outcome was disturbing, as many of our friends and students were traumatized, and the deaths shook people both locally and nationally. I was touched by the memorial ceremony yesterday by the turnout, heartfelt speeches, songs and strength of the families and community. Without addressing the root cause, the problem that induced such violence, we cannot progress as a society, but instead remain in a static pattern of shootings, violence and tragedy. So, although I’m very appreciative of the UCSB family and IV community responses, and touched by the support, memorials, comfort we’ve found through each other, I really hope that this can be our wake-up call which plants a seed of sanity in our society for gun reform and mental health. I imagine the beautiful souls lost through this terrible act will be remembered as the pioneers whose events will stimulate enhancements in safety, public health and security. I hope we can come to realize, as a Nation, the “irresponsible, craven politics” so that “not one more” such terrible action will occur.

This quarter I attended a presentation by Chemistry Prof Read de Alaniz describing the funding challenge facing science in the US. I was surprised to learn that 43% of the National budget (federal tax dollars) is allocated towards Defense and International and social security, according to the center on budget and policy priorities. Following Medicare/Medicaid/CHIP, safety-net programs and interest, only 18% is allocated within an “All other category”, 2% of which is distributed to Science and Medical research. Additionally, the NIH, a major source of funding for many basic science, biology and medical related research lab projects, invests 30.1 Billion dollars for medical research, and awards 80% of this in grants towards individual projects at university labs Nationwide. Although this may appear like a high amount, the competition and large numbers of grants ultimately dilute down the funding useful for a given research project. Due to increase in competitiveness and selectivity of grant acquisition in recent years, a few patterns are emerging that are arguably declining the rate of scientific progress in America. First, less undergraduates may be applying to graduate school because of the lack of money, and second, less graduate students may decide to pursue a career in academia because of a similar concern. Finally, current professors running research labs, may find themselves writing more grants, and applying more frequently and possibly not experience grant renewal like previous years.  These changes have the potential to slow our rate scientific progress and medical advancements, unless we realize the importance of science communication and explain the need for better funding.

So, we ultimately learned that science communication – explaining the project goals and applications to a general public, or even a specific audience, creates awareness of the importance of science to society, and can thus change our funding situation. And our student researcher population was recently able to participate in an annual symposium held by the URCA program, and present posters and practice communicating effectively to a people from a variety of backgrounds. The 2014 URCA Symposium held on May 20th, displayed hundreds of student researcher poster presentations, including many from biology. I enjoyed creating the poster, which allowed me to synthesize several months of research projects, and also interacting with other students, faculty members and interested people who came by. I learned to modify the presentation in terms of length and depth based on the backgrounds of the viewers, and enjoyed hearing the thoughtful questions of some enthusiastic viewers. Additionally, interacting with other student researchers and seeing their posters was interesting and enriching, as I was exposed to other fields like psychology, linguistics and engineering research projects. This poster session allowed me and other students to practice science communication, an important skill that, through practice, can serve to effectively educate others on the importance of both goal directed, or curiosity based scientific discovery.