Communicating science with peers from different disciplines

Scientists and other researchers must be able to communicate with a wide range of audiences. As teams become more and more cross-disciplinary, researchers must learn to communicate with their peers in different disciplines without any loss in precision of data or loss of rigour in their arguments.

In many ways, the skill of effective cross-disciplinary communication is more difficult to acquire than that of public communication because speaking to the public involves simplification and this is not always appropriate when the goal is high-level collaboration.

With the 2016 Imaging CoE Summit coming up in a couple of weeks we enlisted Dr Judy Ford to run workshops at each of the nodes. Judy is a Lecturer in Research Education at the University of South Australia. Her role involves helping PhD students develop the more generic skills necessary to be a competent researcher. She has always enjoyed thinking about the bigger picture and communicating to very broad and diverse crowds, and she has recently been working with students preparing for the Three Minute Thesis competition.

Judy believes that in addition to the communication skills common to all disciplines, researchers in a multidisciplinary team need to learn to recognise and translate the jargon, background assumptions and methodologies commonly used in their specific discipline.

“The hardest part is ensuring the end communication is at a level that it can be critiqued by others with different knowledge and research backgrounds,” explains Judy. “What I plan to do with the students is show them some talks – the good, the bad and the ugly – and, as a group discuss what things do and don’t work.”

Students will then write a presentation to give to the group on the second day.

“At each session, students will present their work and receive scores and feedback from the audience. I will ask the participants to use the scoring system that was used in our recently published paper – Ohnishi & Ford, 2015. And I will encourage the audience to give as much feedback as possible. This will be beneficial and inform both the presenters and the audience,” Judy continues.

The workshop at the University of Melbourne (UoM) was the first to be held and, because there are physicists and immunologists at the UoM node, it was particularly successful. The level of understanding between the two groups was reasonable, but the talks on the second day highlighted where communications could break down.

“Both groups of students did a superb job of presenting their research to their peers from their own groups and from outside their groups,” Judy says. “Even I could follow the physics talks to a certain point.”

The workshops at Monash and the University of New South Wales were also a hit. Even though the groups’ research areas were similar, there were differences in the communication style. We also had some of the physicists from La Trobe join with the group at Monash for the presentations.

Judy will be joining us for the 2016 Imaging CoE Summit to help train and improve the presentation skills of all Imaging CoE staff. “The workshop I will run at the end of the Summit will focus on looking back over the things that worked and didn’t work,” explains Judy. “I am really hoping that the students will feel confident enough to highlight when a speaker from another field wasn’t clear in their explanation.”

One of the most important points Judy made to the groups was the need to remind themselves why they are in their field and why they are passionate about it.

“Even if people don’t have time to talk to their audience about their passion and what got them where they are, if they remind themselves of this before they stand up in front of the audience they will come across more passionate and engaging,” Judy concludes.