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Scientists Translate Science into English with New MU Program

$1.5 million from Howard Hughes Medical Institute will allow scientists and journalists to hone communication skills

May 26th, 2010

Story Contact: Christian Basi, 573-882-4430, BasiC@missouri.edu

COLUMBIA, Mo. ­­­– A biologist, a journalist and a computer scientist walk into a research lab. The biologist discusses the role of elicitor molecules, the computer scientist wants to use data mining and algorithms, the journalist wants to raise awareness through Twitter and YouTube – and no one understands the other. To address the difficulties of communicating science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has awarded the University of Missouri a $1.5 million, four-year grant to create an interdisciplinary program that will teach scientists how to communicate with the public.

“The normal education of scientists has not included training on how to communicate with the public, yet this is a very important aspect of research,” said Jack Schultz, director of the Bond Life Sciences Center at MU and the program director. “With this program, we are going to try to change that.”

Program facilitators will select a group of MU sophomores, juniors and seniors to be HHMI undergraduate research fellows. These students will receive financial support to participate in laboratory research. The fellows will meet weekly with journalism graduate student mentors in the Health Communication Research Center (HCRC) to discuss media articles covering topics related to the research projects and to understand how the lay media report scientific information.

“Scientists have relied on journalists to tell the public about their research. With a reduction in science journalists in the past few years, scientists need to be able to discuss their research to the broader masses themselves,” Schultz said.

The program also will expose journalism students to science research by observing HHMI fellows in the lab and learning about the culture of science. The fellows and the journalism students will collaborate to create and contribute to the Online Media Lab, a new science media portal that will carry traditional print stories and new media, such as videos, podcasts and blogs. The students also will use social media tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr. The National Newspaper Association will make the students’ stories available to more than 2,400 U.S. newspapers, and a media tracking service will determine which stories are picked up by the press or viewed online.

“By placing science students in a media lab and journalism students in a science lab, the students will gain a new perspective and have a better idea of how they each approach communication and do their jobs,” said Jon Stemmle, associate director of HCRC in the School of Journalism. “The program will allow the undergraduate researchers to discuss their projects with the public using whatever form of communication works best, be it a traditional print story or an audio slideshow.”

In addition to communicating with the public, science researchers must also be able to use new tools generated from advances in technology. During a two-week summer institute, undergraduates will learn the tools to incorporate bioinformatics into their research.

“Often researchers may not understand bioinformatics, but utilizing bioinformatics can help researchers design better experiments,” said Chi-Ren Shyu, the Shumaker Endowed Associate Professor in the College of Engineering and director of the MU Informatics Institute. “Bioinformatics help researchers make better predictions on whether an experimental trial will work and can eliminate trials that are unlikely to work. This can save researchers a considerable amount of time and money.”

Finally, undergraduates will share what they have learned with schools across the region through classroom presentations.  The program also will bring high school teachers and 4-H’ers to campus for immersive experiences that highlight the importance of computational biology in our society.

The program is a collaborative effort among the School of Journalism, the HCRC, the Bond Life Science Center, MU Informatics Institute, the Office of Undergraduate Research, the Office of Science Outreach, the Graduate School, Reynolds Journalism Institute, 4-H Youth Development, Missouri Partnership for Educational Renewal and the Office of Research. MU is one of 50 universities to receive the HHMI grants.

“HHMI is committed to funding education that excites students’ interest in the sciences,” said Robert Tjian, HHMI president. “We hope that these programs will shape the way students look at the world—whether those students ultimately choose to pursue a career in science or not.”

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