A popular course in the Department of Life Sciences Communication is LSC 625: Risk Communication taught by LSC chair, Dominique Brossard. The course teaches students how to talk about risk and explains the complexities of risk in the context of the other knowledge they have gained through LSC classes.
“Many of the emerging topics in science and technology come with a great deal of risk, so it is critical for science communication professionals and researchers to understand how to talk about it,” notes Brossard. “Science communication isn’t just about communicating science, it is also about communicating risk, so it is important to teach students strategies for doing that.”
Many LSC students have taken the course over the years, including LSC master’s student Chris Wirz, LSC Ph.D. student Kate Rose, and recent LSC Ph.D. alum Molly Simis-Wilkinson. In fact, Kate and Molly also served as teaching assistants for the class. This week Chris, Kate, and Molly made the trip to San Diego for the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA) 2016 Annual Meeting where they presented their research – much of which builds on the principles taught in LSC 625.
LSC Ph.D. student Kate Rose presented her paper titled, “Gut reactions to GMO foods: Analyzing the interplay of attitudes, trust, and risk perceptions.” The paper examines the relationship attitudes play in risk perceptions of genetically modified food. Traditionally, trust has been studied in connection with risk perceptions, however, Kate’s research finds that even after taking trust into account, attitudes are important determinants of feelings about risk.
According to Kate, the concepts she learned in class help her have a better understanding of her current research. “LSC 625 taught me how to conceptualize risk applied to a variety of different topics. Much of my current research looks at what factors impact risk perceptions and understanding of emerging and controversial scientific topics,” Rose said.
Molly Simis-Wilkinson, LSC’s most recent Ph.D. graduate, presented “Risk, media, and licorice: Stakeholders’ perceptions of and involvement in media coverage of the 2014 West Virginia water crisis.” Her research uses a chemical spill in West Virginia’s Elk River as a case study to understand how different groups react and interpret risk.
“We often see that the approaches companies, regulatory agencies, and even governmental figures take to risk communication differ, so it is important to understand the different components of risk and have strategies in place for effectively communicating risk across stakeholders when needed,” Wilkinson said. Molly received a conference travel grant from the Holtz Center for Science & Technology Studies, as well as support from LSC’s Professional Development Fund to attend the conference.
LSC master’s student Chris Wirz presented a poster on his research titled, “Zika outbreak: A multilingual analysis of social media discourse surrounding the Zika virus and genetically engineered mosquitoes.” Chris’s work looks at the conversation around the Zika virus in three different languages – Spanish, Portuguese, and English.
“The Zika virus is a multinational issue, so it is imperative that we look at the dialogue around the issue in multiple languages. I am particularly interested in how different cultures talk about the problem, the potential solutions, and the risks involved on social media,” Wirz said. Chris took LSC 625 as an undergrad and presented his final class paper at SRA’s 2015 meeting. “I was really lucky to take risk communication. It helped me understand all the different aspects of risk. So much of communicating science is communicating potential risk – both when it comes to emerging innovations and new solutions.” Chris received two travel awards to attend the meeting, from SRA and LSC.
Risk communication has many potential uses – both in industry and research. Chris, Kate, and Molly are three examples of LSC students who are utilizing the concepts of risk communication to fuel their research.