Advanced classes help students explore risk communication and internships

What do the country’s largest forestry research and development laboratory, a company working to improve infection prevention, and another that uses breath-analyzing technology to advance point-of-care diagnostics all have in common? They each utilized the skills of seniors in two of the most advanced undergraduate classes in the Department of Life Sciences Communication this semester.

Students in LSC 640: Case Studies in the Communication of Science and Technology, one of the department’s capstone courses, each secure an internship that allows them to bring together the many theories and skills they’ve learned during their undergraduate experience. Many seniors also take another high-level class called LSC 625: Risk Communication, where they learn the complexities of how to talk about risk in the context of other knowledge they’ve gained in LSC.

LSC celebrated its December 2015 graduates with a small reception. Many of the students who graduated took LSC 640 and LSC 625 during their last semester. These advanced classes help students bring together everything they’ve learned in their previous semesters.

“[LSC 640] is a hands-on component that complements their course work over their LSC careers,” said Tom Still, the LSC senior lecturer who teaches the class. “The goal is to provide an internship experience that gives students a glimpse at how their skills can apply to the real world.”

Still is the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and uses his vast network to match students with numerous companies and organizations. Jennifer Abplanalp’s internship took her to the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL). There she’s getting the chance to explore historical patent archives and write about the laboratory’s rich past.

She said many people don’t know what the FPL does and it’s interesting to learn about old patents, such as those on the potential for turning wood shavings into livestock feed. Abplanalp also mentioned that it was very exciting to find some old handwritten editorial notes by Aldo Leopold himself, a pioneer of forest and wildlife ecology.

“Something else I think about is how I write and talk about risk,” she said, speaking of LSC 625 taught by LSC chair Dominique Brossard. “Now I know that all of my future writing isn’t just communicating science, it’s also communicating risk, and we learned some great strategies for doing that.”

Along with interning at well-established Madison entities, some students joined Madison’s growing community of strong startups and young companies. Ylli Berisha helped develop a marketing and sales plan for Imbed Biosciences, a company making products like microfilms with nanosilver to prevent infections and promote healing.

Berisha worked to figure out a way to market the products to doctors, surgeons, nurses, patients, hospitals and other users. In Brossard’s class, he was able to draw upon his internship experience to give a presentation about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology, discussing the importance of trust in communication.

“Tom’s class has a lot of cutting-edge presenters and Dominique’s class is very interesting,” he explained. “One thing I’ve learned is how communicating risk can be difficult. Especially when communicating science business-to-business or business-to-consumer you have to be specific yet understandable.”

Discussions in risk communication also helped Rachel Puskala in her internship at Isomark. The company works with a non-invasive breath monitoring technology that can detect infections very quickly without lengthy tests.

Puskala performed market research for Isomark, finding potential competitors and seeing what other researchers are doing. She put her LSC education to work by reading over competitors’ websites and also dense academic papers, pulling out their main messages to share with her superiors.

In LSC 625, Brossard teaches students about how doctors communicate risks to patients and Puskala uses that when talking about Isomark. Puskala highlights the balance between “yes, we are telling a patient they are sick and at risk but also possibly at a lower risk because the infection was caught very early thanks to this technology.”

These two classes are the most advanced for undergraduates in LSC, bringing together all of the concepts they’ve learned through the years. LSC 640 is designed for students to apply what they’ve learned and LSC 625 educates students on advanced and nuanced subject matter that draws on their previous knowledge.

“Our new undergraduate curriculum is able to give students experiences like these classes,” said Brossard, an internationally renowned researcher in risk and science communication. “Knowledge and experiences like these help them succeed after graduation and we’re pleased to be able to give them these opportunities.”