Science Communication in the Museum: Q&A with Dr. Angela Colbert

Angela Colbert Headshot thumbnail

March 10th, 2017

Dr. Angela Colbert develops and manages the science communication efforts at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science (Frost Science), which will open in a new location in downtown Miami’s Museum Park in early 2017. She works with scientists, staff, interns, and volunteers to ensure that they express the most accurate and up-to-date scientific information to the public. Dr. Colbert also works with visiting speakers to hone their message to specific audiences, and runs the Science Communication Program, which trains scientists how to share their research with diverse audiences, tell the story of their discoveries, and develop hands-on activities based on their research.

[CAISE] As a scientist now working in a science museum, how do you define science communication?

[AC] For me, science communication is how science is presented and explained to others, whether they are scientists, young children, or life-long learners. The role of science communication, in my opinion, is to take complex science topics and ideas and make them more digestible and relatable. It is a kind of translation and can be an art in many circumstances to find the right words that are both scientifically accurate and understandable.


Which aspects of science have you found most challenging to communicate?

There are a few challenges that I have come across with science communication. There are those complex ideas that are hard to explain in a way that makes sense to someone not in that field of science. There are topics that can sometimes hit a nerve, for a variety of reasons, with whomever you are speaking to about it. And there are topics or concepts that just have a lot of misconceptions related to them. Each of these challenges require different solutions and strategies to overcome. Some great examples of topics that hit all three challenges are climate change, evolution, and vaccines. Those kinds of topics would tend to be the hardest to learn how to communicate initially and we, as a community, are still learning what works and doesn’t. In addition, yes, communicating the uncertainty and basic nature of science being a process, and why that is a good thing, are very tough for non-scientists (and even new scientists) to grasp.


You hold a Ph.D in meteorology and physical oceanography. How did you make the transition to science communication?

I knew early on in graduate school that a future doing research wasn’t for me. My research required too much time in front of a computer and not enough time interacting with people, which I love to do. It was complete happenstance that I ended up coming to the museum. I studied hurricanes, and the museum was looking for a content expert to help them with a new exhibit on hurricanes. Through that initial connection with the museum, my passion for science communication grew and I continued to work with them after the exhibit opened on other projects, while finishing my degree. I was lucky to have an understanding advisor who would also pass along other communication opportunities as he came across them so I was able to receive some training in science communication for policy and law as well as the informal educational setting. My passion about it (and a great boss) is what has helped me to progress to where I am today in my institution.


Why should scientists get involved with science communication?

Now more than ever before there is a need for scientists to share all the amazing work they are doing with the public, and most importantly, why their work matters. All science can be relatable, as it is weaved into every aspect of our lives, whether we realize it or not. Making that connection between research that a scientist does to a person who has never heard about it before will bring a whole new meaning to their research. It is up to scientists having a public voice to help ensure a positive future of science literacy for generations to come, but they don’t have to do it alone or without training and guidance.


Can you give some examples of how communicating has given “new meaning” to a scientist’s research? And/or what do you think about the idea that only scientists who are naturally good communicators should communicate?

Basically the phrase “new meaning” refers to how interacting with others about their research could lead to new methods or new questions for further research. For example, I had one scientist that I worked with who did research on deriving mathematical formulas for predicting how birds in the Everglades choose their food. He developed a game to simulate the choices the birds had, search for a new food source and potentially win big, or mooch off of a food source that another bird already found. Through the development of the game, he was able to link bird’s behaviors to those of humans which added a layer to his research. Another example is a scientist who worked with the Iguana population on an island off the coast of Venezuela. Through interacting with the public, and her conversations with them, she was able to learn new ways to also communicate the importance of her research to the human inhabitants of that same island to help restore the iguana population.

I think that all scientists have the potential to become great science communicators if they want; it just takes practice. You don’t learn how to ride a bike on your first try, so you can’t be expected to be a spectacular communicator at the start. I does come easier for some than others, but with enough practice (and some training can also help), most can do a great job. It’s really more the passion and enthusiasm behind their science that makes someone interesting to talk to, the rest is just skills, methods, and techniques that make it a bit easier.


Tell us about the Science Communication Fellows Program. What do science museums bring to science communication training?

The Science Communication Program at Frost Science began in 2013 with a training of the trainers at the Pacific Science Center in the Portal to the Public Program, an NSF and IMLS- funded initiative and network. The first group of Science Communication Fellows joined us for our inaugural training that fall. Since 2013 we have trained over 85 scientists both locally and internationally using a collaborative teaching model that allows for broader perspectives and increased expertise. Science museums are a unique resource in science communication as they are viewed as highly trustworthy by the public.. Additionally, science museums have a built-in audience that ranges from young kids to excited grandparents and beyond, providing a captive audience with whom scientists can share their passion. Add to that a wealth of cumulative knowledge about communicating science to the public, and science museums are at the top of the list for providing training to scientists and a venue where they can practice their new skills.


Have you experienced any tensions that needed to be addressed between the cultures of the science center/museum and those of the lab?

I don’t know if I would describe it as tensions as much as a difference in the value of science communication. I think a majority of scientists in this day and age can see the importance of science communication and the value that it can bring to their research. However, there are still scientists that I encounter who do not wish to learn how to share their science with the world. The younger scientific community specifically is bringing about a change in perspective where science communication is seen as critical to their research. In terms of differences between a lab and with a science center/museum, for scientists it is simply a matter for exposure. The first time being on the floor of any science center/museum can be a bit overwhelming, even for the most extroverted individual. In time you learn that it’s okay if someone gets distracted and walks away when you are in the middle of your presentation and to not take that personally. We try to expose scientists to this early on so it’s not as much of a shock, but overall, they always seem to end up having some great (in-depth) conversations with a variety of museum visitors.


What other programs and projects are you involved in at Frost Science?

Like many of my colleagues at my institution and at others, I wear many hats. Currently, we are building a new museum in Downtown Miami so I manage the development, training, and implementation (once we open) of the museum’s programs, including field trips, camps, live shows, and demos. I also oversee the implementation and development, respectively, of the museum’s Volunteer and Internship Programs. Given my background I am also on the Safety Committee and am overseeing the installation and use of two new weather stations. Additionally, I also work on the content for exhibit pieces still under development.


The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently released a consensus report, Communicating Science Effectively, in which an expert committee states that the ‘deficit model’ of science communication is wrong. The report explains that “[t]he research on science communication… shows that audiences may already understand what scientists know but, for diverse reasons, do not agree or act consistently with that science.” What are your thoughts on this statement? What challenges does this present to science communicators? How might science communicators address these challenges?

It’s an interesting statement. It is true that many people have a much broader access to science than they did even 10 years ago with social media playing a big role. However, I think that it can also lead to more misconceptions or misunderstandings regarding the science. Take for example the statement, “This is the hottest year on record.” I can understand that; it means that this year was hotter than previous years. But understanding that one statement does not necessarily mean that I understand what record they are referring to, the time scale of that record, or the entire climate system and what having another hottest year on record means for the future climate of our planet. The climate is a complex system and one that scientists devote their life’s work to understanding. So yes, audiences come in with a base of knowledge, that has always been the case, and that base varies from person to person, but that does not mean that the base is necessarily up to speed with the latest science, or that they have the same understanding as someone who has devoted their life to studying that topic. What we teach is to never assume a person’s prior knowledge, but rather to use prompting questions to help guide your understanding of a person’s base knowledge on any topic and if misconceptions pop up, how to address them respectfully. The goal is for both parties to have fun, engage with a hands-on activity t and learn something new.


Who are some of your favorite science communicators?

I think I share some favorites with a lot of others, such as Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Alan Alda, and Cara Santa Maria. But I also really enjoy some science communicators from my world of meteorology, such as Dr. Jeff Masters and Dr. Marshall Shepherd. Someone who I think has really changed the game on social media is Dr. David Shiffman (@whysharksmatter). And then my favorite TED talk to date is from Amy Cuddy.