The Vancouver Rat Project is a 10-year research initiative that targets urban rats’ health, their movement and their ability to carry disease. Photo: CWHC.

Five ways to help people care about science

Last summer, I learned to not be such a scientist. As a veterinary student and biologist, I have spent the last decade working in science and trying to make a tiny contribution to what is known about the world.

By Lisa Lee

However, the inaccessibility of science and a seeming lack of application almost deterred me from pursuing a career in science. I have always felt that translating and communicating research are the greatest barriers to the effective use of science in our society.

In 2020, I worked as a summer research student at the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative in B.C. (CWHC-BC) — a regional centre that’s part of a national wildlife health partnership. Under the mentorship of Drs. Chelsea Himsworth (DVM, PhD) and Kaylee Byers (PhD), I have discovered that the solution to this knowledge gap may lie in harnessing a skill that veterinarians practise every day: communication.

Why is science communication so important? Most research is funded by public agencies with the ultimate goal of using this knowledge to improve policies and practices. To make research relevant to everyone, we need to present our studies and findings as easy-to-digest information.

This focus on knowledge translation immediately attracted me to the CWHC-BC. Specifically, I was drawn to the organization’s knowledge translation products from the Vancouver Rat Project, a 10-year research initiative that targets urban rats’ health, their movement and their ability to carry disease.

Project organizers regularly release urban rat information bulletins for the public. As a Vancouver resident, I found these bulletins had information that meant something to Vancouverites; the bulletins were easy to understand, and each one told a story. As veterinary researchers whose work can have an impact on animals, ecosystems and people, we should strive to have our research as accessible to the public as possible.

Byers is the regional deputy director of CWHC-BC and co-boss of two local initiatives: SciCATs, a science communication training program, and Nerd Nite Vancouver, a monthly science seminar series that she co-founded. She has five main tips for engaging ways to communicate science.

1. Explore different mediums. “It’s important to explore all kinds of science communication,” says Byers. With many people looking to online sources for information, the sky is the limit for how you may choose to get your message out there — art, blogs, podcasts and more. Imagery is especially powerful, and a unique feature of art is that it can be interpreted in different ways. Photos and videos can help to develop a more meaningful and impactful story, and they can greatly enhance blogs, social media posts and news articles.

2. Package your research into a clear, concise message
. “With time, the key points and messages we want to send just get clearer and clearer and shorter and shorter because that’s how people consume information,” explains Byers.

At a CWHC workshop, Byers taught us how to frame our message using the “and-but-therefore” (ABT) statement. The ABT can provide a clear narrative of your research: introduce your two main ideas with “and” followed by an issue you are trying to address with “but,” and finally, how you are going to solve this problem using “therefore.”

This process enables you to capture the essence of your story in a single sentence. As an example, here’s an ABT statement describing my summer research: Rats and cities have co-existed for a long time, but the factors that influence rat infestation in Vancouver are not well understood; therefore we aim to use public complaints about rats to further investigate this issue.

3. Know your audience. “Who am I talking to today and how am I going to share that information?” says Byers. Veterinarians interact with so many different groups of people including the public, scientists, government officials and other veterinarians. What’s the one thing that the individual (your audience) would like to know from you, and how can you achieve this most effectively?

4. Keep it simple! “You spend so long getting a degree and learning so many technical terms you want to use them,” points out Byers. “Thinking about whether or not it’ll be understandable to your audience is really important.”

For example, I could say that I’m suffering from borborygmi — or I could just say that my stomach is grumbling. Ask yourself if you really need to use the fanciest possible word you can think of as you speak or write. Understanding how to simplify your message will go a long way to developing a great relationship with your audience — and that’s also true for veterinarians to keep in mind as they meet with clients.

5. Practise, practise, practise. “It’s just about practising and finding your own voice. Ultimately it’s your voice that makes it [the information] compelling,” says Byers.

I have come to realize that science communication is a continuous, dynamic journey. I’m still discovering my voice, and my perspective will likely evolve as technology and time advances. It’s important not to get too caught up in how many people I reach. Instead, I’m trying to focus on the quality of my storytelling.

This framework has completely shaped the way that I now approach science and veterinary medicine. For my research with CWHC-BC, I’m working to understand why rats are a concern to Vancouver citizens, and my goal is to translate those findings into something the public can appreciate and that the city can use to make meaningful changes.

Overall, my experience with CWHC-BC has taught me that science communication is fundamental to both veterinary medicine and research, and it will continue to influence me throughout my career.

Lisa Lee of Vancouver, B.C., is a 2021 Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) graduate whose research position was supported by the college’s Interprovincial Undergraduate Student Summer Research program. Her story is part of a series of articles written by WCVM summer research students.

Dr. Kaylee Byers is one of the keynote speakers at the "Power of the Spoken Word: Challenges in Communicating," a free two-day science communication workshop (June 1 and 3, 2021) that's open to all USask students. Click here for more information.