First, a confession: I never meant to be a science communicator.
I’m an aerospace engineer specializing in fluid dynamics, the physics of how liquids and gases (and granular materials and pretty much anything that’s not a solid) moves. As an undergraduate, I fell in love with the subject in part because of the incredible photos my professors used to help us see and understand how fluids behave. As a PhD student, I was frustrated by how little information there was online for the public to learn about this subject that impacts our daily lives.
From that frustration, my website FYFD was born as a place where I could share the beauty of my subject with the world at large.
Like many scientists, I began communicating science for selfless and altruistic reasons. But along the way, I learned there’s a lot to be gained for the communicator as well. So I’d like to share a few of the selfish reasons to communicate science.
The first one may seem a bit obvious, but engaging in science communication is a great way to hone your communication skills. Whatever path your career leads you down, those skills are key. Communicating science to the public, whether online or through local means, is generally a low-risk operation, but it’s an opportunity to practice and improve your skills so that when it really matters you can nail that job interview or research proposal.
Participating in science communication regularly is also a great way to develop expertise in your subject area. When I started writing FYFD, it seemed like spending part of every day reading journal articles that had nothing to do with my research might be a waste of time. After all, learning the latest on how droplets splash was not going to help my work on high-speed aerodynamics. But toward the end of my PhD—after a few years of writing FYFD—I noticed that when professors and other students had questions that reached beyond our own area, the first resource they turned to was not Google Scholar—it was me.
The first time a professor asked me if I knew anything about the unexpected behavior they were seeing in an experiment, it was a revelation for me. I had unwittingly turned myself into an expert, not simply on the subject of my own research but on fluid dynamics in general. That broad familiarity with the field continues to be valuable today. It allows me to see connections between disparate studies and subjects, a skill that’s key to discovering new avenues for research.
If you choose to use science communication to raise awareness of your own work, it can help you gain exposure. A recent study showed that social media use can help increase a scholar’s scientific impact. It can also help you gain the notice of journalists, and there is evidence that media coverage of papers leads to more citations. Personally, my science communication efforts have almost exclusively highlighted the work of other researchers, but I have nevertheless benefited in terms of networking and new opportunities within my field.
Of course, setting up a Twitter account or a blog is no guarantee that you’ll start seeing your papers in The New York Times. Fortunately, that kind of audience isn’t necessary to see some personal benefits. One of my favorite aspects of science communication—especially in-person—is witnessing a positive-feedback loop of enthusiasm. When you’re genuinely excited about a subject, whether it’s fluid dynamics or unionid bivalves, that enthusiasm impacts your audience and can get them excited. Seeing that excitement in others simply reinforces your own enthusiasm.
Maintaining that reserve of enthusiasm for your subject is vital for motivating yourself when things are going poorly. As an experimentalist in graduate school, I faced a series of setbacks in my research, including spending half of the last year of my PhD rebuilding lab infrastructure instead of gathering data. We all periodically face moments when we ask ourselves: why the heck am I doing this? For me, spending a part of every day searching for a piece of my subject to share with the world was a chance to remind myself of what I love about fluid dynamics. Communicating science is an opportunity to see your field anew and renew your motivation to carry on in spite of the daily frustrations.
As you can see, there’s a lot to be gained, both personally and professionally, from engaging in science communication. If you’d like some resources or guidance on how to begin, UCS is a great place to start. AAAS also offers resources for scientists and your professional society may as well. For guidance to better online science communication, I recommend Science Blogging.
Good luck and remember to have fun!