Students minding the science gap in public health

I have previously written about the use of blogs by students and researchers at schools of public health (I called them Schools of Public Health 2.0). One example was School of Public Health at the University of British Colombia.

This week, I came across another school of Public Health Sciences that is actively using blogging in communicating with the world, and in giving students communication skills.

For ten weeks between January and April 2012, ten Masters of Public Health students from the University of Michigan (UM), have taken on a blogging challenge. On the website Mind the Science Gap they are posting weekly articles about various public health related news, research studies etc. The aim is for the students to learn how to translate complex science into something a broad audience can understand and appreciate. The objective of this whole blogging exercise is an ambitious one:

“to help ensure that UM School of Public Health graduates are some of the best communicators around when it comes to translating scientific evidence into something that others understand, and can act on.”

As part of the initiative, readers of the blog have been encouraged to write comments, both on the content and the form. So-called mentors from all backgrounds have signed up to comment on a weekly basis (you can still sign up here). With the comments the aim is for the students to improve their communication skills though the ten weeks.

I have read a few of the blog post and also commented and my impression is so far very good. Both because the blog posts are interesting and well written, but also reading the many comments to each of the blogs is great. There are good tips from experienced science bloggers that others than the ten students can learn from. And then I do in general appreciate the ambitious tone of the blog initiative: ensuring that UM School of Public Health graduates are some of the best at translating scientific evidence into something that others understand, and can act on. Imagine if they are succesful in this. Not only will that be an advantage for the work places that will later on recruit these ten students, it could potentially put pressure on other schools of public health to make sure that their students are even better – and are they succesful in that imagine all the benefit that could be achieved to public health! Okay, maybe this is a little naive – but one can always hope…

A blogging school

In addition to Mind the Science Gap, the MU School of Public Health also has a student blog where students blog about life as students of Public Health, and a long list of blogs from several SPH faculty, alums, and student groups. For example: Rackham Graduate School blogs, run by two Ph.D. students, a Risk Science Center blog, a Public Health Library blog, a UM SPH Epidemiology Student Organization blog, the blog 2020 Science about emerging science and technology and many more (see the complete list here).


The responsibility of public health people to communicate

Public Health is a broad field, and finding ones place in the palette of colours that public health consists of is tricky. I have been around many corners ranging from international health, health statistics and information systems to planning of care, health policy and governance. And lately public health communication. I don’t know if I have found my shelf, actually I kind of hope not, but I must say that the communication side of public health is crawling under my skin. Perhaps because it seems such a natural part of public health and in many ways a neglected part.

As I blogged about earlier this month, I have been reading “The Panic Virus” by Seth Mnookin. It’s a book that takes you through a historical journey from the invention of vaccines to its successes, failures and not least the role communication played/plays in both. Ranging from the communication done by experts, the media to laypeople and celebrities. The book is well written and based on a great amount of research. I finished reading it yesterday and despite having enjoyed it a lot it also left me with a slightly discouraged feeling. It is a perfect example of how panic can grab a bunch of worried parents, about how ‘Mommy instinct’ becomes superior to scientific research and how the media at times can put aside rationale in order to follow the conflict, the emotional story and forget the premises of scientific research which makes giving absolute ‘yes or no’ answers extremely difficult. My discouragement was very much: Well what do we do about this, how can we take on mommy instincts and heart breaking stories and scientists who do not apply to scientific standards? Risk is difficult to communicate, communicating all the things we don’t know makes risk seem even more scary. So what do we communicate, how much do we communicate and in what way? And where does public health communication specifically fit into all of this?

I then realised that public health communication is perhaps exactly where some of the communication in the whole vaccine story went wrong. The media attention was taken over by people who took their starting point in individuals – in their own nine patients, their own child or grandchild or their own gut feeling. Even though organisations like the CDC, whose focus is population health, of course did and are doing their best to communicate the benefits of vaccines both to individuals and societies and draws attention to what the majority of the research findings is telling, I believe it is to some extend is still the failure of public health communication that may be to blame here. As I was taught from the very first day in my very first class in Public Health, Public health is exactly about the population perspective and we should be obliged to be much better at communicating this. Public health people should be the holders of that expertise – it is not the responsibility of the medical doctors or the statisticians or sociologists. We should be better at communicating risks and what they mean and be better at explaining what it is we don’t know. Most of public health research, whether it is done by numbers or by qualitative methods is about finding trends, causation in large groups etc that we can utilise to ensure or improve the wellbeing of the individual as well as the broader population. And we need to be better at communicating this. Not only to the public but also across scientific disciplines, across levels of society from decision makers to funders of health initiatives etc.

Taking my own public health training as my reference, I must admit, that I was not given much guidance on the communication side of public health. I was told that my expertise is that I have an insight into many disciplines and can bridge these disciplines, but how actually to carry out this bridging function I wasn’t given tools for. I hope I can be able to ‘catch up’ on this skill and that I can share my experiences with others. To a start I recommend people to read “The Panic Virus” and learn what the consequences can be if we don’t pay attention to the communication side of public health sciences.


Viral public health science communication

My new bedtime reading is made of dramatic stuff. It is about children with dangerously high fevers, about parents fearing for the life of their offspring, and about healthy maids milking cows. It is about the enthusiastic joy of getting closer to immortality and the birth of fears so great that people turn their backs on what their parents just a decade earlier glorified to the skies. It’s about vaccines and infectious diseases!

At Science Online 2012, I was so fortunate to win a copy of “The Panic Virus” by Seth Mnookin, and with a long stopover in Chicago on my way back to Copenhagen this was a perfect way to pass time and close Scio12 with a well written story about the role of public health science communication! I have not yet finished the book, but will most likely return with a separate blog post on it when I’m done. There is lots of interesting stuff in that book.

I will however just share a poster or infographic that I came across the other day. Actually, it kind of summarizes a big part of “The Panic Virus” or is at least a response to the panic which, among other things, a false report of a link between vaccines and autism created among parents. A panic that still has a strong take on many people today. The poster is created by Medicalcodingcareerguide.com and uses data on vaccine and disease by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

I like the poster for several reasons. Firstly, I find the layout very appealing. There is something very retro about it. The yellow colour, the choice of font and the style of the images. Secondly, I like that it plays with the format of a poster. It doesn’t use a conventional format, but plays with the proportion. Thus, it is long and thin (a little bit like a syringe) and it tells a continues story. You can jump in anywhere, but you can also let the poster tell you a story from beginning to end. Thirdly, the numbers are to the point. No excess information or complicated graphs. It gets the message across without being overly complicated, but not naively simple either. That goes for the text too. There isn’t a fear of using latin words, but it is still informative. And then again, it is just a poster/infographic so it can’t contain all the complexity. I still like it however.

One element of critic could be that the two crossing syringes in the title could be interpreted as a crossing out of the word vaccination – which is definitely not the intention by the designers I assume.

Voila the poster, an example of public health science communication:

Medical Coding Career Guide
Created by: Medical Coding Career Guide


The risky business of communicating science

Science Online 2012 is over, and I must admit that I’m still full of all the inputs, impressions and ideas that almost overloaded my head during those three days in North Carolina. Knowing were to start and were to end when giving highlights of the (un)conference is difficult. A blog post on my general reflections of the conference is coming up, but first I thought I’d just touch upon one of the themes I encountered at #scio12.

Risk. How do we communicate it? What is it really? What happens when a calculated, objective risk on paper is processed by a human mind? This is big challenge when communicating science – and perhaps especially in communication health research. Two of the sessions I attended at Science Online focused on risk. The first one, “Science Communication, Risk Communication and the role of social networks”, moderated by David Ropeik was a great session. David Ropeik pointed out that risk may very well be something that can be calculated to a percentage but to people it is a feeling. And feelings operate differently – and are not rational. I myself experienced that today. Being nearsighted I had a preexamination today for later lasic surgery. I had in advanced received a small folder explaining the procedure and of course – the risks. Even though the risks are relatively small, and despite the fact that I know several people who have had it done and are very happy with the result, when I read the small information brochure, I did all of a sudden have a feeling of “yikes – is this risk too big?” “How much is 1% really?” “If there were a hundred of me out there would one have worse eyesight after the procedure? Or would it look different if it was a hundred different people and not a hundred me? It is true, risk is a feeling. I felt like asking the doctor if he would do it if it was him. I wanted his feeling on this too.

Risk really is a challenge to communicate. And perhaps particularly in health, because disease and sickness is something that is very real to us and easy to imagine. In this regard, social media can be a challenge. Things have the potential to spread like viruses when they go online. Rumours of risk a radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant made friends and family in Denmark fear for my wellbeing when I was in Kobe, Japan although I was more than 600 km away from the Fukushima plant. People in Denmark even feared that with wind coming in over Denmark from Japan they would too be at risk, if the situation got worse. And fears like that may be reinforced with unimaginable speed once they go viral.

So how do you balance communicating the facts when you at the same time risk steering fear? Are there ethical obligations to communicate all available research or the  opposite – should researchers be obligated to hold back certain kinds of information in the interest of public health, and the interest of the individual? Communication in public health is central, and reflecting on how to deal with risks should be a requirement for any public health researcher or professional (and for journalists too!). The web’s role in this is tricky. It is important to get the facts out there – and try to illustrate the proportion of risk, but the web also provides a fora where you can find confirmation of the risk of almost anything you like.

The discussions at Science Online didn’t give answers to how with deal with risk, and there most certainly is no magical solution. But the discussion triggered reflection, which should be required by all public health professionals when they communicate, whether to the public, to a journalist, at decision maker etc.

And as an end note: I did decide to go ahead with the lasic surgery – after carefully evaluating the risks and interpreting the doctors attitude and behavior. So in April, when I am without glasses, I will hopefully be able to say that it was worth the risk 🙂


Lots of Twitter communication about science communication

Before the year of 2011 came to an end, I did a few posts about science communication and the challenge of communicating science communication. This was inspired by various talks I had had with friends, colleagues and the planning of a masters course in Public Health Science Communication.

And as one of the first things in 2012, the #hcsmanz weekly Twitter discussion group on Health Care and Social Media in Australia and New Zealand decided to base their first chat of the year on some of my reflections. Unfortunately, I was on a plane when the discussion took place, so I couldn’t participate myself. But luckily transcripts are made of these discussions and thus also for this one!

Since I couldn’t join the discussion, I thought I’d share some highlights from it here. First of all, it was great to experience that something I put out there in cyber space triggered others to start discussing. And people whom I would have been unlikely to discuss this with otherwise. It is a great example of how sharing thoughts and views in the process can be beneficial to the bigger project/research study!

The #hcsmanz discussion was structured around five elements, which I in my blog post had highlighted as important to communicate in a course on science communication. They were converted into the four questions/statements below:

  1. Communication should be considered as an integrated element in the research process.
  2. Communication can be beneficial to the research process.
  3. Who should researchers be communicating with and what channels can utilised?
  4. What is the secret sauce of communication that generates feedback/reaction?

These four questions (refered to as T1, T2, T3, T4 in the chat) generated a lot of interesting tweeting, not just from people in Aus/NZ but also participants from Canada and the Netherlands. Some of the interesting things that were brought forward I’ll try to summarize below supported by 23 tweets (out of hundreds) – I should probably also have used the cool tool Storify for this, but that will be next time 🙂

  • Communication is an integrated part of research, but requires that researchers are trained and the necessary support is available – both to give guidance but also to support the prioritization of spending time and effort in communication activities.

  • Communication also of non-news material is important.

  • Social media provides new opportunities for science communication, but is not yet well-regarded and knowledge is still limited among many researchers.

  • Science communication is beneficial to the research process – if you communicate with the right ones and in the appropriate way depending on who they are. The importance of making feedback easy and quick is not to be underestimated.

  • One thing is to communicate and the best ways to do that, but to communicate so that you engage your audience is an additional challenge. A keyword is to provide efficient feedback opportunities for the reader and the researcher. Social media such as Twitter and blogs provides forums for this (but does not solve the engagement challenge all together).

I could have highlighted lots of other tweets, and would as said have loved to participate in this, I hope however to join next time and continue to share thoughts and reflections with the rest of you. And big thanks to Kishan Kariippanon (@yhpo) for taking up this topic!


ScienceOnline2012 – a look at the sessions on students and online science communication

Is it possible to split oneself into several Is? Could I perhaps borrow Hermione’s time turner next week and thus be able to travel back in time? Both would be great solution to this small problem I have. Next week, I’m attending the ScienceOnline2012 conference (see more below) in North Carolina, and the programme is simply packed with super interesting sessions – many of them taking place in parallel.

I will not try to summarize the full agenda of the conference, but encourage you to take a look at it yourself. Even if you can’t attend there will surely be lots of live-tweeting from it.With a masters course in Public Health Science Communication coming up this fall at University of Copenhagen, (mentioned in earlier posts), it seems only relevant to try and make it to some of the sessions that focus on students and science communication. I have listed some of them below. It looks like a great place to get some inspiration on both tools to integrate into the classes (eg. blogs), and topics and themes to bring up. It will also be great to hear from students who themselves have blogged and acted as messengers of science.

Blogging in the undergraduate science classroom (how to maximize the potential of course blogs)

Thursday January 19, 2012 2:45pm – 3:45pm

This session will mainly feature a roundtable discussion of “best practices” for incorporating blogs into undergraduate courses. Possible topics that will be covered: Developing, evaluating, and grading assignments, incorporating blogs into syllabi, how blogging can contribute to learning goals, privacy versus openness, especially with respect to FERPA, and interacting with students with social media more broadly (e.g. twitter, G+, Facebook, etc).

Undergraduate Education: Collaborating to create the next generation of open scientists

Thursday January 19, 2012 4:00pm – 5:00pm

Science faculty and librarians can collaborate on many aspects of undergraduate education – two ideas are the focus of this discussion. First: How can we best help undergrads understand and explore the scholarly information landscape? In addition to formal sources like journal articles, informal sources (e.g., blogs) are of increasing importance/relevance, which raises a question: How do we get students to think about what formal and informal really mean? How do we – faculty, librarians and others – work together to teach students to navigate the disciplinary landscape and become productive and critical consumers of – and contributors to – the disciplinary conversation? Second: How do we introduce students to the great big wide world of open science? How do the various players in higher education communicate to the next generation the incredible depth and complexity of what going on out there? How do we raise (inspire? support?) the next generation of Cameron Neylons, Steve Koches and Jean-Claude Bradleys (not to mention the next generation of Dorothea Salos and Christina Pikases)?

Next generation of Bloggers

Friday January 20, 2012 10:45am – 11:45am

From classroom blogging, to blogging at Nature, these students had quite a year! They’d like to start by talking about their experience with blogging so far, what they’ve learned, where they’ve had problems, and where they’ve been successful. Then, they want to get ideas from the audience on how to start a 1 day conference in NYC for middle/high school students interested in blogging.

Students as messengers of science

Saturday January 21, 2012 9:30am – 10:30am

High school and undergraduate students have a unique place in engaging their communities through science, while becoming the next generation of scientists, science writers, and journalists. As an increasingly diverse pool of students engage their families in their pursuits through mentoring, research and other immersion programs, as well as writing and journalism, they lay the groundwork for making science accessible for the non-scientists in their lives, representing a range of diverse ethnic and socio-economic communities. How as educators and mentors do we nurture them as scientists and communicators? What skills and practices are key for helping young people reflect on learning while also developing effective communication skills? This session will foster a discussion of the barriers, challenges and best practices for creating the infrastructure, mentoring relationships, and building the confidence of students as they experience science to help them develop their voices. The session will also explore how we recruit readers of such sites, and will explore examples of online media connected with science engagement programs geared toward high school and undergraduate students that are creating a local culture of science, among traditionally underrepresented communities, with a local impact.

Some facts

ScienceOnline2012 is the sixth annual international meeting on science and the Web. The participants are scientists, students, educators, physicians, journalists, librarians, bloggers, programmers and others interested in the way the World Wide Web is changing the way science is communicated, taught and done.

ScienceOnline2012 – #scio12 across social media – will take place January 19-21, 2012 on the campus of N.C. State University, with some 450 participants


Still communicating about how to communicate science communication

Even though I have been blogging for almost half a year, I can still be amazed by the experience of other people reading my posts, reblogging them, commenting and retweeting them and contacting me directly to express their thoughts. I must admit that it gives me a kick every time. It is not a snow avalanche, but it is enough to increase my motivation and very often it is interesting comments that gives rise to further reflections that again feeds new posts.

Earlier this week, I wrote a post about the challenge of communicating science communication. This particular post has resulted in a few comments on Twitter that I thought I’d just share with you:

And questions:

I have had a great discussion by Gmail-chat with a friend from university about the challenges of communicating research and turning research into practice. And about the lack of acknowledgement of communication activities, if it has to do with anything other than  the publishing of articles in peer-reviewed journals. Parallel to the Gmail-chat I had live in-person discussion with another friend also from university, who had a present challenge of how to communicate the results from an infectious disease epidemiological study to staff at health clinics. Very inspiring discussion – for both of us!

All in all really inspirering. I look forward to more of this and hope that everyone who has inputs, views, reflections etc, that I should integrate into a course on Public Health Science Communication will not hold back.

All the best wishes for the new year to everyone and see you in 2012!


The challenge of communicating science communication

How do you communicate the relevance of science communication to a fellow public health person? Can I make a convincing argument for why things such as Twitter can be a useful tool in the communication of research?

In the days leading up to Christmas, I was challenged by these exact questions, when I after dinner had an interesting discussion with a good friend and skillful researcher in public health sciences. I am not sure that I gave the best arguments for science communication or for why Twitter could be useful for his research, but it made me reflect on where the scepticism, which many researcher have towards communication of research, comes from.

Based on my own experience, both as a public health expert and in talking with friends and public health colleagues, it is my feeling that most of us, through our university studies have indirectly been taught that communication is something that comes at the end of a research project. It is to a large extend perceived as a separate element that is added as the final phase of a very often long process. It sort of becomes a sometimes troublesome appendix which can be prioritized  – if time and money permits and if the communication department will take much of the responsibility on their shoulders (although they are worried that the communication department will simplify every thing too much and they’d therefore almost rather that they didn’t communicate it at all).

Another source to the scepticism against the communication element of research, is that communication is often considered in its more narrow form, meaning that it only covers communication to the general public. It is very much one-way based and it is about making simple messages which, seen from the researcher’s perspective are oversimplifications.

My basis for the above is purely my own experiences and conversations with different researchers in various fields. However, it is my impression that I’m not alone in suggesting that the issues above mentioned are two important barriers for researchers enthusiasm for science communication.

I have the last couple of days been working on a description for a short course on Public Health Science Communication, which most likely will be offered to students of Public Health Science at University of Copenhagen in the fall semester of 2012. My pre-Christmas conversations have been useful for this work. What was it that didn’t work in my argument? Did we talk past each other? Could awareness of the role of science communication earlier on in our public health training have made a difference? All these questions and more are buzzing around in my head.

Some of the things I feel will be important to communicate in a course on public health science communication are:

  1. Communication should be considered as an integrated element in the research process
  2. Communication can be beneficial to the research process.
  3. Communication is broader than explaining your research to a general public, but also involves communicating with fellow researchers, researches in the periphery of our area of our research and from completely different fields (actually public health has an advantage here, because we are by definition interdisciplinary and used to working with people with very different educational backgrounds)
  4. Communication is not equal to dissemination. Communication is two-way based – a with contributions and response from both sender and receiver.
  5. The person best equipped to know what is of relevance to communicate and to whom is the researcher him/herself.

I’m sure I’ll think of lots of other messages and luckily there is still plenty of time to prepare. All inputs of things to cover in a course on public health science communication are more than welcome, suggestions on good background reading material etc. likewise.