Translating Science

Julie Mida Hinderer – BS 2007 Environment; MS 2010 Natural Resources and Environment

I’m just going to put it out there: most scientists are clueless when it comes to communicating with the public (or with any non-scientist, for that matter).

We scientists have a particular writing style geared towards publication in peer-reviewed journals. We attend highly specialized conferences and present our work to small groups of our colleagues who speak the same language. But if our findings never reach the majority of the public, is our work relevant?

Inspired in part by my undergraduate liberal arts degree from LSA, I’m on a mission to move away from “communicating with scientists” to truly communicating science. After completing a Master’s degree in aquatic sciences (read: fish nerd), I decided to escape academia for the “real world.” I did a one-year fellowship at the Great Lakes Commission, an agency that coordinates the eight Great Lakes states on environmental and economic issues. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t doing science. Instead, I was facilitating communication across the region on complex scientific issues such as invasive species and wind energy.

Given my technical scientific training and countless hours logged behind a microscope, I could have been completely lost.

Instead, I felt surprisingly prepared to boil down dense scientific jargon into something palatable by all sorts of groups – policymakers, educators, natural resource managers, and interested citizens. Thanks to the writing skills I honed at LSA, I found I could override the tendency I picked up in graduate school to write for other scientists. Having a backlog of experiences and knowledge to draw upon unrelated to my professional field was the key to success in fulfilling my duties at the Great Lakes Commission.

Over this past summer, I had the opportunity to further my communications quest as a research assistant at the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office. I served as the primary author on a report summarizing a large body of scientific research on the impacts of invasive species, nutrients, and other stressors on the Great Lakes ecosystem. The challenge was to be technically complete and accurate, while at the same time explaining concepts in language readily understood by policymakers and the public. The report was released in early October and has so far been met with success. (The report is available here).

My advice to current LSA students or anyone pondering a liberal arts degree – there is always time for specialization in graduate school and beyond, but when else will you be able to learn Italian and study Great Books? The education you receive at LSA will help you in your career, whether you are a scientist or not.

Now, I’m working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory – and learning how to translate acronyms!

Julie is a member of the LSA Dean’s Alumni Council.


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