Jason is an Assistant Professor of Anatomy & Cell Biology at Indiana University School of Medicine. His research focuses on how the shape and structure of bones and muscles influence the way they work. He is on the Board of Directors of the American Association of Anatomists and co-edits the science communication blog at PLOS.
What sparked your interest in the work you're doing?
I studied anthropology as an undergraduate. In anthropology there are four subfields: biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics. My approach was always a biological one. I realized that I didn't have the same vocabulary that the rest of the anthropologists did. I wanted to talk about bones and fossils and how we interpret behavior from things that have been dead for millions of years. The cultural anthropologists didn’t want to talk about bones. They wanted to talk about religion, and politics, and language, but not bones. What sparked my interest in science communication was seeing how four different subgroups of people don't have a common language to talk about the one thing we all study.
How did you get involved with blogging?
I started blogging because I wanted to get better at writing for the public. I had been reading this one blog that just fascinated me. When I realized that the guy who wrote that blog worked 40 feet down the hall from my lab, I worked up the courage to go talk to him and say, “Hey, I'd love to give this a shot.” Over the three years we worked on that blog, we pulled in about 200,000 page views. We had to build our audience from scratch and were thinking about what platform we could move to to get more exposure. We started reaching out to all of these different outlets. PLOS liked our approach to science communication, so they asked us to take over the reins of their science communication blog. In the 11 months since we took over, we have almost matched what we did in three years in our own blog in terms of page views and cultivated a decent Twitter following. We're pretty psyched about how well it's been received.
How do you use what you learned at boot camp in your work?
The approach of combining message distilling techniques with storytelling was really instilled in me by the Alda Center faculty. One of the major focuses of the blog is to teach people how to do that. We teach people about the importance of connecting with an audience through emotion and empathy, and how to make sure that you are not writing to dumb down the science but to make that science accessible.
The general public is fascinated by what we do and if we don't tell them why it’s important, and how we do it, and what it means to them, then they're not going to advocate for science.
Do these skills translate into other areas of your life?
In addition to preaching the importance of these approaches, I also practice them. I do a lot of advocacy and outreach myself. Before I start going down the road of trying to change an opinion, I want to make that connection with an audience or with an individual. Even in a one-on-one conversation, if I don't make a connection, there's no way that I'm going to move the needle. It's not just good for communicating science; this will help you when you're talking to your partner or your coworkers. I have a colleague who continually “no, but...”s me. He went through training and now he's starting to get it a little bit more. He sees that the conversations are more effective when we are acknowledging one another and where the other person is coming from.
Do you think science communication training changes the way scientists think about the work they do?
I hope that it does. I think that this kind of training will affect the public's understanding of the work that we're doing. You know, scientists all do this for a reason. There's something that has sparked a passion in all of us. It's tapping into that passion to explain why what we do is so fascinating or so important that has been the biggest challenge for many of us.