By Cori Fain
Relaying to the public the importance of your research and the possible impacts that could arise from it is one of the best ways that we as scientists can advocate for research. As scientists in training, graduate students, postdocs and other lab members may learn to communicate their research to the scientific community. It’s significantly harder, though, for them to gain experience communicating their research to nonscientists—a skill which has become indispensable. One way to get students involved is through scientific outreach. Outreach connects mentees with their surrounding community and helps to build trust between the public and researchers, but the advantages don’t stop there.
Scientific outreach may also help labs address the challenge of intralaboratory communication. The research of a lab usually has an underlying theme centered on a particular organism, protein, problem, etc. Bouncing ideas off one another and sharing different perspectives on the same subject is integral to furthering a lab’s research. But people are shy or introverted, don’t know how to communicate well, or have questions they are too embarrassed to ask. Others may become so immersed in their projects that they leave little time for things like socializing. All of this can inhibit communication between lab members. How can you get the communication flowing?
Team building has been used by businesses for years to improve employee relations, bolster communication, and improve performance in the workplace. Team-building exercises usually consist of games or activities that require members to cooperate and get to know each other. A new concept that I have deemed “team outreach” combines the benefits of outreach with that of team building. Team outreach consists of outreach activities that lab members participate in as a group, with the elements of team building as an added benefit. Team outreach can help improve the environment in the lab, provide experience outside of the lab, and bolster team communication. Students gain insight into careers in scientific outreach while your lab builds a feeling of community in knowing that they are involved in work that is making a difference.
Here are some ideas on how to implement team outreach in your lab.
Serve Patient Families. Have your lab group volunteer to cook a meal for patients’ families at your local Ronald McDonald House. This experience is especially nice for labs focused on finding cures for particular diseases. The researchers can connect with real patients who may be affected by the outcomes of their research; this connection can motivate them to find deeper meaning in their work. Speaking with patients about areas of research that are promising may also provide some hope. For example, many cancer laboratories have team volunteered for programs like Hope Lodge.
High School Visit. Partner with a local high school and team-teach a science lesson. Volunteers can work with teachers to choose from a range of subjects to talk about – try ASM’s K-12 lesson plans or National DNA Day activities. Having already-prepared materials makes this a fun, stress-free outreach activity.
Science Festival. Put together a science-themed festival for local grade schools. This idea requires a little more planning by your team, but if everyone is assigned to coming up with and implementing one idea, it is manageable. I have done this and created a game called Science Walk. The idea is the same as a cake walk—students walk in a circle on a path made of photographs of famous scientists. When the name of a scientist is called, whoever landed on their picture wins a prize. Be sure to have a picture booth with faces of famous scientists to pose with and props like gloves, lab coats, and goggles!
Career Day. Work with your institution to host a career day on your campus for underrepresented populations in science. Invite high school students to your campus and let them spend a full day with your research group. Provide short presentations, let them tour labs, attend classes, see dorms, and build peer-mentor relationships.
Museum Scavenger Hunt. If you have a science museum on campus, your lab can work together to create a scavenger hunt. This activity might be open to the public or for a special group like a science club. This is a great way to be creative about science and bond with other lab members.
Science Modules for Impaired or Hospitalized Students. Partner with a local children’s hospital or other facility to lead low-impact science experiments suitable for kids with impaired mobility or those missing out on school due to hospitalization. This can also be translated to elderly patients. The LABScI outreach project created a set of experiments for this purpose.
Cori Fain is a Post-Baccalaureate researcher at the University of Kansas Medical Center Cancer Center and will soon begin her Ph.D. at Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. She has a long research background in areas such as Developmental Biology, Neurobiology, Genetics and Virology. Cori has also been heavily involved in many outreach programs throughout the years and has a passion for teaching and helping others.