Symposium considers the benefits and pitfalls of science communication

Effectively communicating new discoveries and the benefits of science to audiences without the same technical background is challenging. Science is not only about producing objective knowledge; science is about developing solutions to problems that can affect society.

On April 5, the Association of Graduate Students in the Biological Sciences (AGSBS) hosted its 45th Annual Biology Symposium at the Life Sciences Building at York University. The symposium was organized around the theme of science communication because it was felt that more should be done about ensuring the public understands the science that will be used to solve their daily problems and improve their quality of life.

This year’s edition was titled “Amplifying the Signal: Communication In and Out of Academia.” The symposium was organized by biology graduate students Simon L’Allier, Jennifer Porat, Nicholas Braganolo, Emma Kite, Sarah Mackell and Soma Tripathi. The goal of the symposium was to engage faculty, graduate and undergraduate students in discussions of current research topics in biology and determine the most efficient way of communicating these scientific discoveries to the general public.

Marc Dupuis-Désormaux, a postdoctoral visiting Fellow at York University, during his presentation titled “Human-Wildlife Conflicts: Turning Science into Outcomes.” A lot of his research relies on citizen scientists to collect data

 

Symposium participants considered how science communication illustrates the pros and cons of using the internet to spread information. Some of that information can be communicated effectively, but it can sometimes miss the point and individuals can either misinterpret the information or even use it to attack science. Social media are great platforms for sharing scientific discoveries and developments, yet social media is also a place where false information or alternative facts can freely move around. Other problems remain. How accessible is scientific research to the general population? Is reporting on scientific discoveries enough to ensure public understanding and engagement? The goal of the 45th Biology Symposium was to bring these issues to light and encourage discussions among students, faculty members and science experts.

The eventful day started with a talk on human-wildlife interactions given by Marc Dupuis-Désormaux, a postdoctoral visiting Fellow at York University. He suggested citizen science as a way of inviting people to invest themselves in science. Citizen science not only facilitates research by having more people involved in conducting the experiments, it also increases the impact of the work through active public involvement. Communities need to understand scientific evidence so that they can support the research occurring in their region, which leads to informed and democratic policy-making.

Science students presented their research at a poster session where they communicated their projects to people from diverse research backgrounds. The first-place winner was Malory Owen from Professor Christopher Lortie’s lab. Eleni Fegaras from Dr. Forer’s lab won second place and Theanuga Chandrapalan from Dr. Kwong’s lab won third place. Special thanks goes to poster judges Dr. Mark Bayfield, Dr. Robert Tsushima and Dr. Sheila Colla.

The symposium continued with a panel discussion on the ethics surrounding gene editing technology. Although the topic of gene editing is widely known to scientists and the public alike, the negative connotations associated with gene editing make it a divisive yet critical issue. The discussions focused on the technical challenges faced by researchers studying gene editing, as well as strategies for public communication. The general consensus was that scientists should work on broadening outreach techniques such as using animations to make complicated research more easily digestible to the public. Experts on the panel also emphasized that although a large part of the field relates to expanding this technology to human patients, there are also agricultural and industrial applications that have been revolutionized by recent advances in gene editing technology. By shifting the focus from outright bans on gene editing technology to putting ethical guidelines and practices in place, scientists can ensure not only the continued forward progression of research, but also that this research remains accessible to the public.

Speakers on the panel discussion on the ethics of gene editing, from left to right: University of Toronto Professor Janet Rossant  and Associate Professor Alistair Dias, Siofradh McMahon, senior manager, Clinical Translation and Regulatory Affairs at the Centre for the Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, University of Toronto Assistant Professor Karen Maxwell and York University Professor Kathi Hudak

A workshop on career discovery was offered in the afternoon, presented by Carolyn Steele of the York University Career Centre and designed to aid students in discovering a beneficial career path. Emphasis was placed on efficiently networking with experts in the position that the individuals in the audience strive for. Graduate biology student Laura Ana Cuciureanu held the proceeding workshop on image design for publications, which provided the audience with useful guides and resources for making figures that draw reader attention. The symposium concluded with an evening networking event where students connected with each other and industry professionals over food and drink.

Is science communication effective enough to reach out to people? Discussions between students and faculty revealed a common goal for making science accessible for those engaged in research, as well as those directly and indirectly affected by the research. This is true of all sciences and is in no way restricted to life sciences. Still, it is important to consider that biology researchers should try humanizing their research to include the general public with the goal of a better-informed society.

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