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Communicating science effectively – An interview with Cylita Guy

Josh Clark, 9th August 2019

We speak to researcher and expert science communicator, Cylita Guy, about promoting her work on and offline, tips for finding the right communication channels and much more.

Ensuring that your work is promoted effectively is often becoming a requirement of doctoral training programs and grant application processes. More than that, it is the responsibility of researchers to make sure the wider society is aware of new discoveries and how they impact them.  

In this interview, we speak to the researcher, science educator, and storyteller, Cylita Guy. Cylita is an experienced science communicator, having promoted her work on a variety of YouTube videos, podcasts, and blogs as well as giving presentations to high school students and sharing her fieldwork stories in a children’s book

Read on to find out how Cylita got started with science communication, the promotional channels she finds most effective and much more. 

 

Hi Cylita, Can you introduce yourself and tell us what you’re currently working on?

Hello! My name is Cylita Guy. I recently (May of this year!) completed my PhD in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto. My research focuses on bats and the viruses that they carry. 

In addition to my research, I’m constantly looking for different ways to share my enthusiasm and passion for science with others through various science communication initiatives. I also do a little part-time work on the side helping companies understand their data better. 

 

From browsing your website it’s evident that you’re passionate about communicating your research to a wider audience. How and why did you get involved in science communication?

Yes! I love sharing what I learn with various audiences and stakeholders. However, my passion for science communication started long before I was a scientist. During my last year of high school, I had the opportunity to take some of my classes at the Ontario Science Centre (OSC). While taking classes at the OSC I also volunteered there, helping the public engage with our exhibits. The joy and excitement I found while helping people to explore at the OSC during high school and my undergraduate degree has inspired me to find new ways to share my research throughout my PhD.

 

When you publish a new article do you plan how you will promote the research? If so, how do you approach the planning process? 

I won’t lie, whether or not I develop a plan for promoting a new publication often comes down to how busy I am at the time! However, moving forward I’m trying to have a more cohesive plan. 

For each paper I’ve got in the works I’d like to develop a press release to have at the ready for interested journalists once the paper is accepted. I’m also planning to create short, non-technical summaries for each paper to upload to my website. I plan to distil these summaries into even shorter chunks to share on Twitter as a thread, and turn at least one main text figure into a GIF to help visualize key results. 

Finally, for the papers I’m most excited about I plan to reach out to particular journalists in my network to pitch my science to them

‘For each paper I’ve got in the works I’d like to develop a press release to have at the ready for interested journalists once the paper is accepted. I’m also planning to create short, non-technical summaries for each paper to upload to my website.’

Screenshot taken from Cylitaguy.com

 

How do you decide on the most effective methods of science communication to use?

There are so many ways to communicate science – informal discussions, written articles, blog posts, infographics, guided walks, tweet series – just to name a few. Deciding which method is most effective depends a lot of personal preference (e.g. I prefer to communicate with audiences orally over writing), but mainly on the audience you have in mind! 

Before getting ready for any event or piece I may be working on I spend a lot of time figuring out who will be in the room. What are their ages? Education level? What setting will I be engaging this audience in? How much do they already know? What do they normally like to do/read/consume? These are all important questions to ask, and based on those answers I’ll choose my method. 

 

What are the most effective science communication channels in your opinion?

Again, audience is key to answering this question. It depends on who you want to target and why. If you’re looking to communicate your research results to other academics, I feel like Twitter or summaries on personal websites are fantastic. If you want to spread your science to a more general audience, then delivering outreach talks, writing blog posts/articles, or chatting with the press might be a better way to get things out there. 

‘If you want to spread your science to a more general audience then delivering outreach talks, writing blog posts/articles, or chatting with the press might be a better way to get things out there.’

Much of your science communication is aimed at a younger audience such as high school students. Can you tell us what inspired you to focus on this audience?

I think this is partly, again, because of my time working at the Ontario Science Centre. I spent a lot of time delivering programming for our under 10 audiences. However, part of my motivation for continuing to work with a younger audience is rooted in the fact that, through my presence and excitement about what I do, I hope to help motivate the next generation of diverse scientists. 

Growing up I didn’t have the opportunity to interact with many scientists or role models who looked like me. For a long time, this strongly shaped my thoughts on who participated in science. As far as I was concerned, because I didn’t see people like myself doing science, being a scientist wasn’t for me. Despite this, I ended up as a scientist and – as a young, black female scientist – through my outreach, I hope to let other young girls and persons of color know that this career path is accessible to them.

Can you tell us about ComScicon Canada and your involvement with the organization and workshop?

Yes! ComSciCon Canada is Canada’s first national science communication workshop and conference for graduate students. In 2013, ComSciCon was founded by graduate students at Harvard University, who realized that there was a lack of professional development and training opportunities for graduate students. To fill this gap they developed a series of workshops – organized for graduate students by graduate students – to facilitate science communication skill building. While this framework has existed in the United States since 2013, there was no comparable counterpart in Canada. 

For the last year I’ve been working with a small team of dedicated co-organizers to bring ComSciCon north of the border for the first time! I’m not only passionate about science communication, but also about building science communication capacity in other graduate students – so helping establish this event was right up my alley.

 

You’ve featured on podcasts such as The Story Collider, been interviewed by the Roving Naturalist and have had your fieldwork stories published in a children’s book. Can you tell us how these opportunities come about?

Through a lot of networking. Most of my science communication opportunities have come about through informal chats with people at meetings, conferences, or on Twitter! 

For example, the writing I did for the Fieldwork Fail book occurred because I reached out to the author directly on Twitter. He had been illustrating the #fieldworkfails of various scientists around the world, and I suggested that it would be cool if he interviewed each scientist as well. A few other folks and I also mentioned to him it would be great to compile all these fails into a book! 

Some of the other opportunities I’ve had have come from someone seeing me give a talk and inviting me to do the same elsewhere or because I’ve asked someone to chat over coffee and they’ve suggested that I do something else. The take home from all of this though is to talk to people already doing science communication! Ask them questions and tell them about yourself. You never know what opportunities will come from that. 

 

What’s your next big science communication project?

This is a great question. Two projects are top of mind for me. After the success of ComSciCon Canada I want to help expand this program within Canada. This includes running another national meeting next year, but also seeing if we can expand to run several coast-to-coast smaller local meetings as well. However I’m also working on expanding the Junior Bat Biologist program beyond High Park to deliver bat-themed citizen science programming to people in public parks across the Greater Toronto Area.

What’s the best piece of advice that you would you give to researchers new to science communication?

Keep trying, keep iterating, and don’t be afraid if you don’t always get your message across in the way you envisioned. Science communication can be hard at times, especially when we are still learning to identify our audiences and best engage them. I’ve spent years working on developing my science communication skills and sometimes the activities I plan or the talks I give don’t always go well. But that never stops me from doing it all again! 

Beyond practice, if you’re a researcher who is newer to the game of science communication remember that knowing lots of stuff is good, but showing your enthusiasm and passion for whatever you do is more important. Connecting with your audience through the human side of science (i.e. YOU, your failures, your success, and your stories) – is what will help your message resonate with your audience. 

 

‘Keep trying, keep iterating, and don’t be afraid if you don’t always get your message across in the way you envisioned.’

If you would like to find out more about Cylita, her research and science communication projects visit her website www.cylitaguy.com, follow her on Twitter at @CylitaGuy, and connect with her on LinkedIn.

 

 



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