From public outreach to peer review, UW–Madison scientists find value in social media

By Kelly April Tyrrell, UW-Madison University Communications

Social media has erased many of the boundaries between leaders and the people they represent, between experts and the lay public, between scientists and nonscientists. It has enabled people to communicate directly and interact in unprecedented ways.

At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a survey of 372 scientists engaged in biological or physical science research shows that scientists are increasingly using social media to communicate with nonscientific audiences.

Nearly 75 percent of the scientists surveyed at UW–Madison between April and June 2016 believe that nonscientists add valuable perspective to discussions about scientific research, which came as a surprise to Dominique Brossard, professor and a leader of the group that administered the survey, the Science, Media and the Public research group (SCIMEP) in the UW–Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication. A report from the survey is published on the SCIMEP website.

“Scientists think lay audiences have something important to say,” says Brossard. “It really reflects the reality of complex science today, where often there are ethical dimensions to consider.”

Dominique Brossard

Dominique Brossard

At the same time, the SCIMEP team found scientists at UW–Madison are also using social media more often to communicate with their peers.

“The norms are changing,” says Brossard. “UW–Madison is representing this quite well.”

Indeed, a non-UW–Madison study published in October in the journal PLOS One shows that scientists from a variety of disciplines around the world report that while they have not widely adopted social media, they believe there are numerous advantages to using it in their work.
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LSC research methods course teaches students fundamental skills for success

You might not expect a single course to help prepare students for careers in advertising, journalism, market research, digital marketing, and public relations among others. But LSC 250: Research Methods in the Communication Industry does just that. The course teaches students the skills needed to synthesize and analyze data – an important skill in a broad range of fields.

LSC 250 focuses on developing research method skills including understanding research reports and data, identifying markets, segmenting audiences, measuring attitudes and developing effective campaign strategies and messages.

According to LSC chair Dominique Brossard, “The skills students learn in LSC 250 are fundamental for future academic research, but it is important to remember students will use those same skills when they graduate and move on to work in the industry.  Identifying and articulating trends in data is critical.”

Assistant Professor Neil Stenhouse teaches students data visualization skills

LSC’s Neil Stenhouse teaches students how to effectively communicate quantitative findings.

Through the course, students learn to design and conduct surveys, experiments and other forms of inquiry, interpret data, and write reports clearly demonstrating data significance.  Additionally, students work in groups to create an experimental or observational study with their peers.

“This course is really helping me. I am planning on getting a certificate in business so this course is giving me a lot of the background knowledge needed for a career in a variety of business fields,” notes LSC major Elizabeth Woidat. “The concepts in this course can apply to a lot of different majors.  It is also good to have this background knowledge when participating in research on campus.”
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SciMep research group teaches real-world research skills

Each Friday during the semester a group gathers in Hiram Smith Hall to discuss ongoing research projects, many lead by graduate students, surrounding public opinion on controversial science issues. The group is the Science, Media & the Public (SciMep) research group which explores issues relating to the social, legal, and ethical implications of scientific issues and emerging technologies.

The group is housed in Life Sciences Communication and the principle investigators include LSC chair Dominique Brossard, LSC professors Dietram Scheufele, and Neil Stenhouse, and chair of the Department of Communication Arts and LSC faculty affiliate Michael Xenos.  In addition, graduate students from different departments, including LSC, the Department of Communication Arts and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, participate.

LSC master’s student Chris Wirz presents research findings to the group.

The group’s focus is unique.  According to LSC chair Dominque Brossard, “SciMep is one of the only research groups looking into these types of issues.  We are in an era of rapid technological change and media convergence, so it is important to look at the intersection of science, media and public opinion.  Many of scientific issues we talk about are complex and they don’t happen in a vacuum.  The public is an integral part of the conversation, whether they know it or not.”
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LSC undergrads apply their communication skills at summer internships near and far

Many LSC undergraduate students engage in a wide variety of internships each summer and this year was no exception. Students throughout the department honed their science communication skills in professional settings, interning across the country – from Wisconsin to California and in between. In this story we highlight a small selection of students who demonstrated their knowledge and excellence in diverse fields.

Jordan Gaal in Washington DC with AHEC staff

Jordan Gaal in Washington DC with AHEC staff

One of the fields a degree in LSC prepares students for is health communications. For instance, junior Jordan Gaal was a Statewide Communications Assistant with Wisconsin Area Health Education Centers this summer. Through his internship, Jordan traveled to Washington DC to speak about the importance of health education with our national legislators.

“Classes such as Communication Industry Research Methods with Neil Stenhouse taught me how to effectively communicate science research through reports and presentations. Science, Media and Society taught by Dietram Scheufele helped me understand the strong role media plays in science communication, which led me to recognize the connection between media and healthcare in Wisconsin,” noted Jordan.  Check out Jordan’s full internship story in this feature by Scenic Rivers AHEC. Continue reading

LSC Contributes to Comprehensive Genetically Engineered Crops Study

LSC chair and professor Dominique Brossard served as a committee member of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s latest study on the impacts of genetically engineered crops.  The 20 expert committee investigated the potential economic, agronomic, health, safety, and other impacts of genetically engineered crops and food. The committee’s report, ‘Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects’ was released in mid-May of 2016, and provides an independent, objective examination of a range of issues related to GE crops based on scientific evidence.

Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and ProspectsThe committee members, which also included Biochemistry professor Richard Amasino, made sure to listen to and incorporate a large range of voices and points of view within the report. They examined over 1,000 research and other publications related to the topic; held information-gathering meetings via three in-person meetings and 15 webinars (for a total of 80 presentations); and read more than 700 comments submitted by members of the public.

Brossard points out that the committee took an innovative approach to help increase the openness and transparency of their work, including having a committee website that shared information about the study and the efforts along the way, and making the results easily accessible and widely shared.

The report is available for free download via the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine GE Crops website. According to William Kearney with the Academies’ Office of News & Public Information, the report was the fastest Academies report to reach 10,000 downloads. It has been downloaded more than 16,000 times in 110 countries and covered in more than 200 media outlets to date.

Some of that coverage highlighted Brossards’ contribution, including a MIT Technology Review article and a Washington Post story featuring LSC’s Brossard, among many others.

Brossard and Amasino traveled to Washington D.C. to participate in the congressional and public briefings associated with the release of the report. Brossard is continuing to speak with the media on the report and has talks scheduled into the fall to discuss the results.

For more information or to keep up to date with the discussion, be sure to check out the Twitter conversation at #GECropStudy.

LSC capstone creates campaigns to promote recycling in dorms

Here at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, many hopeful graduates must fulfill a capstone requirement. From engineering to education, capstone courses are a culmination and application of everything students have learned during their college careers. For Department of Life Sciences Communication (LSC) undergraduates, one of their capstones offers the chance to develop a marketing communication campaign for a real-world nonprofit client working in a science, health, or environmental area.


The client for this year’s LSC 515 class was Residents for Environmental Sustainability (RES), a new organization started through the Office of Sustainability aimed at increasing student awareness and involvement in sustainability.

LSC 515: Public Information Campaigns and Programs focuses on marketing strategies: how to research a problem and target audience, decide which communication methods to use, and evaluate the effectiveness of an implemented strategy. Not only does the course allow students to apply the strategic communication knowledge they’ve gained over their academic careers, but it also comes with the chance to see their final product actually put to use by a client. This semester, LSC’s newest faculty member, assistant professor Neil Stenhouse, is teaching the course. Continue reading

LSC at the top of national rankings for research

The Department of Life Sciences Communication sits at the top of the most recent rankings released by Academic Analytics comparing national communication and media studies programs. LSC ranks among the top 10 departments for articles per faculty member, citations per faculty member, and number of awards per faculty member, as well as in the top 20 for percentage of faculty with a book publication — all despite being one of the smaller departments nationally.

research“Although we are not a big department, these data continue to show we are one of the elite national research programs, complementing our teaching and outreach functions,” said LSC chair Dominique Brossard. “It is great to see rankings like this and know our hard work and expertise are paying off.” Continue reading

Two faculty serve on new NAS committees on science communication and literacy

The Department of Life Sciences Communication is continuing its strong involvement in the National Academy of Sciences as chair Dominique Brossard and professor Dietram Scheufele have each been asked by the National Research Council to serve on new committees. Brossard is on a committee exploring “Science Literacy and Public Perception of Science,” while Scheufele is vice-chairing “The Science of Science Communication: A Research Agenda” with former AAAS CEO Alan Leshner.

Dominique Brossard-2146

Dominique Brossard, LSC Chair

“Science Literacy and Public Perception of Science” will analyze data about science and health literacy and also how, or if, they are linked to public support of scientific issues. It will formulate a final report on the state of science literacy research and also identify research holes where more work needs to be done. Continue reading

Effective Communication Helps Keep Wisconsin Lakes Some of the Best in the Midwest

Each year, Wisconsin’s lakes and streams are visited by nearly 1.3 million anglers, making the state one of the top ten for angler activity. Collectively, these anglers spend over 21 million days fishing each season. While that’s 21 million potential days to hit the lake, teach a child to fish, or reconnect with old friends, it’s also 21 million days during which aquatic hitchhikers may be catching a free ride to new waters on the over 600,000 registered watercraft in Wisconsin.

Professional anglers can use numerous techniques, such as high-pressure spraying, to remove aquatic invasive species from their boats. Photo by Jeremy Jones.

Professional anglers can use numerous techniques, such as high-pressure spraying, to remove aquatic invasive species from their boats. Photo by Jeremy Jones.

Aquatic invasive species (AIS), like zebra mussels and Eurasian milfoil, are non-native species that, when introduced into novel habitats, are able to outcompete and edge out native species, often causing tremendous ecological damage in the process. One of the most common ways aquatic invasives jump from lake to lake is by “hitchhiking” on boats and other watercraft, or by hanging out in live wells and bait buckets. Continue reading

New faculty profile: Neil Stenhouse explores impact of science comm on political behavior

Neil Stenhouse joined the faculty in the Department of Life Sciences Communication as an assistant professor this August.

Briefly describe your career path—up to this point.
IMG_0235I got my BS in Psychology at the University of Otago in New Zealand, where I’m from. Following that I spent two years teaching English in Japan, where I became interested in getting a graduate degree in political science. I started that degree at the University of Auckland when I returned to New Zealand. In the midst of that degree I became interested in the politics of climate change, and found out about the Center for Climate Change Communication (4C) at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Their work seemed an ideal match between my main area of interest and the kind of quantitative social science research I’d done up until that point. So I applied to start a Communication PhD at George Mason, and did research for 4C all the way through my degree. Continue reading