Students learn skills to become better scientific storytellers
February 4, 2021
Fikriyah Winata had her research down. The doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was preparing to present her work exploring the everyday lives of Indonesian female domestic workers in Hong Kong at this month’s Women and Gender in Development Conference.
The problem, though, was how to explain complex data while also effectively engaging the conference audience — and to do so in just four minutes.
She was preparing to take part in the conference’s 4 Minute Student Flashtalks. Inspired by a similar competition developed by the University of Queensland, these talks promote student engagement by encouraging graduate students to present their work through short videos. The goal in those four minutes is to inspire the audience and leave them with an understanding of why someone would be interested in the research.
“The flashtalks let us share the hard work and interesting stories these young scholars have. They are the future of the field, and we want to do anything we can to empower them to be more effective in addressing gender inequities and the many development challenges in the world,” said Maria Elisa Christie, director of Virginia Tech’s Women and Gender in International Development, which is organizing the conference.
She said it can be difficult, though, for scientists and people in highly technical fields to connect and communicate with people outside of their fields — to communicate across differences.
Enter Patty Raun, a professor in the School of Performing Arts at Virginia Tech and director of the Center for Communicating Science. Christie enlisted Raun to lead a virtual workshop to help the flashtalk participants polish their presentations.
“Scientists are often taught that they are to leave themselves out of their presentations — that it’s all about the data,” Raun told the participants. “But, actually, when communicating with the public it is not that way.”
Through a variety of creatively interactive exercises, Raun helped the students explore how to craft stories about their own experiences to explain complex research. “There’s this thing that happens when we tell each other stories called ‘narrative transportation.’ This allows us to remember details and facts that we wouldn’t remember had they not been embedded in a story,” she said.
Sumac Elisa Cárdenas Oleas, a researcher at Iowa State University, learned that sharing some of her personal history of growing up in Ecuador could increase her audience’s comprehension, interest, and engagement. Talking about why she wanted to study indigenous women’s empowerment as quinoa producers — “Quinoa is part of my identity” — could help her convey how her research is fueled by her passion for social justice.
Raun also offered tips on how participants could be more direct — for example, why it’s important to leave out jargon and “words that push other people away.” She encouraged the students to be more responsive with their presentations and anticipate their audience’s needs and questions.
Winata said the workshop taught her to be more confident in knowing that her research is important and that it’s possible to share that research with a wider audience. “I want to communicate my research to people who don’t know what I am doing, and I want them to understand what I am talking about,” she said. “It is a little bit challenging, but I think that is the importance of science communication.”
Christie said the enthusiasm of the young women and gender in development scholars impressed her. “They all seemed excited about how they could present their work and develop skills not just for the flashtalk competition but to use to further their careers.”
The four-day Women and Gender in Development Conference will take place online starting Feb. 23. It aims to give students, early career faculty, practitioners, and Extension professionals an opportunity to learn from gender experts and international agriculture experts promoting inclusive agriculture and rural development. The focus this year is on developing a dialogue between people working internationally and those working in the U.S.
Christie said the conference offers many opportunities for students and other attendees to network and engage in conversation with each other and with speakers. Keynote speakers include Jemimah Njuki, Africa director for the International Food Policy Research Institute, and Carolyn Sachs, professor emerita of rural sociology and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Penn State.
Women and Gender in International Development is housed at the Center for International Research, Education, and Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs. The conference is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Innovation for Rural Entrepreneurs and Communities program.
Written by Rich Mathieson