PhD Minor in Life Sciences Communication helps STEM scientists communicate in a changing world

About 15 years ago, Alan Leshner, then CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) ruffled some feathers among STEM scientists when he called for a broad societal dialogue, not just about the promises but also about the pitfalls of emerging science.

Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison.

Communicating publicly about emerging science, ranging from new genome editing technologies to artificial intelligence, is not always easy. “Not only does science need to talk to the public, but we need to listen,” says Dietram Scheufele, Life Sciences Communication professor and director of academic programs, “there needs to be this back and forth.”

At about the same time that Alan Leshner issued his rallying cry, the Department of Life Sciences Communication at UW-Madison created its Ph.D. minor in science communication. The ability to add a formal Ph.D. minor in science communication to graduate work in genetics, civil engineering, or neuroscience is one of the key perks of doing a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Unlike most other schools, graduate students at UW–Madison can add transcriptable minors to their degrees and valuable expertise and experience to their resumes.

The minor in science communication is a good fit for doctoral students who want to pursue a career in policy or science advocacy. However, since its creation, it has also attracted many students who want to stay in STEM fields as academics and feel that communicating meaningfully about their work with various audiences is an invaluable skill for their careers. Those students were one of the key reasons for the minor. Doctoral students in the physical and biological sciences, engineering, and also other social science and humanities departments wanted to take classes that would help them build expertise in science communication, both in terms of the evidence base and the practice of effective science communication.

“All the pieces fell into place really, really nicely,” says Scheufele, who created the science communication Ph.D. minor in his previous role as the director of graduate studies, “student demand, a re-thinking within the academic community, and a department like ours that’s long been a leader in the practice and social science of science communication. Plus, everyone we talked to at UW was really enthusiastic about it.”

Man pointing at presentation
Professor and Director of Academic Programs Dietram Scheufele gives a science communication talk to an LSC class.

Almost 15 years later, the Ph.D. minor is extremely successful – which is exciting to see for Scheufele and the rest of the LSC faculty!

Julie Davis is a current Ph.D. student in Astronomy who decided to add the science communication Ph.D. minor. After she graduates, she plans to harness the experiences and education gained from her minor to pursue a career in science policy. “I think the value in this minor was being able to examine science and the ways the public engages with it from a different perspective than my previous experience as a ‘bench scientist,’” says Davis. “It is important for us to understand how the public engages with our work.”

Another graduate student, Sean Kraus, has added the science communication Ph.D. minor to his degree in Cancer Biology. Like Davis, Kraus understands how important it is for the public to understand science. “As a scientist who believes science communication is an integral part of my job, obtaining this minor gives me the tools necessary to communicate to a broad range of audiences and ensure that my research is understood by the people whose lives it is aimed at trying to improve.”

Davis and Kraus are both looking forward to the opportunities in policy and advocacy that the minor will provide, while an LSC graduate is already reaping the benefits. Julia Nepper graduated in 2017 with a Ph.D. in Biophysics and a Ph.D. minor in Life Sciences Communication. Following graduation, Nepper got a job as a science writer for a biotechnology corporation, which she credits to the minor.

Scientific advances are occurring at a rapid pace, which means that being able to effectively communicate their work and what it means for society has become a core competency for STEM scientists. “It’s just the new reality in science,” Scheufele explains. With the help of a Ph.D. minor in Life Sciences Communication, Davis, Kraus, and Nepper are all working towards a brighter future for science.

Story by Jori Skalitzky, LSC B.S. ’22 and LSC’s 2020-21 Lenore Landry Scholar