Where to Learn and Practice Effective Communication – A conversation with Dr. Marian Waterman at UC Irvine

When you have been a medical school professor for 25 years, you do your share of speaking.  For Marian Waterman, people tell her that scientific communication seems to come naturally.  She has honed her skills teaching at UC Irvine and through ample opportunities to communicate to campus leadership, advisory boards, and lay audiences as director of the UCI Cancer Research Institute, deputy director of UCI’s NCI-designated Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and an active volunteer with the American Cancer Society. 

Marian learned to effectively communicate in a grass-roots way. “I had no formal training and I developed skills through a reiterative process of practice and critique. I care a lot about scientific communication. I take note of quality and talent when I attend seminars and scientific meetings. I note who the best speakers are and I pay attention to what makes them effective – what connects with the audience. Historically, grad school curricula have provided very few formal opportunities to train budding scientists, an unfortunate lack of training that leaves individuals to develop skills on their own.”

She stressed the importance of learning science communication skills early in your academic career.  “People are at peak creativity during their 20s-30s. That’s when you want scientists out there pitching their ideas and building momentum for their research.” She told me about an NIH effort to award grants to younger scientists, before they are past the high point of their creativity.

Dr. Marian Waterman with two female students at her cancer research lab at University of California Irvine

Dr. Marian Waterman with students working to develop smarter targeting agents at her UC Irvine cancer research lab.

On Campus Opportunities to Learn to Communicate
At UCI there are a number of activities for students at all levels to get a bit of training in communication and presentation skills.  There’s a summer program for high school students embedded in research labs where they attend a lunch workshop on presentation skills and have to give a three-minute talk at the end of the program. Graduate students are put in charge of the training – a perfect opportunity for them to further hone their own presentation and teaching skills.  Multiple, similar experiential learning opportunities exist for grad students and post docs.  For example, UCI has enlisted the drama department to teach students techniques for effective physical delivery for public speaking during one-day workshops led by Bri McWhorter.  “We also have an Applied Innovation center at our campus that hosts multiple types of elevator pitch competitions where students learn and practice communicating their science*.”  

Communicating as a Volunteer
Marian gets ample practice, too. For American Cancer Society she has been very involved in chairing grant review panels and has served on the national council for Extramural Grants for five years.  “I can use examples from these experiences to talk to lay audiences about the importance of cancer research. I often speak to potential donors and I assume they don’t know much about basic cancer research or how ACS support of basic research impacts the cause of cancer.  I’ve learned that donors are looking for stories about how research has had important impact. So, I tell stories about scientific discovery and how patients were saved by new treatments that came directly from laboratory research.

Advice for Becoming a Better Communicator
“I observe lots of student reticence in taking opportunities that force them on a stage. For some reason, this is particularly true for women.” She advises students to “Actively search out opportunities to give a talk.  Get lots of practice and you will improve – most definitely.”  Marian suggests that you volunteer to give a talk to another lab at their lab meeting. Or say yes when asked to give a 10-minute talk to candidates interviewing for admission to your grad program. “Seek out opportunities on campus.  They are typically more voluntary in nature, so you need to be assertive and get yourself out there.“

Pay Attention to Good and Bad Speakers
The opportunity to learn is everywhere. Marian advises that you “Be present and aware of poor and good quality communication in whatever setting you are in.”  “Some presentations are terrible.  While it’s tempting to check out and hit your iPhone when you are sitting in a seminar like this, I suggest students use this time wisely. Evaluate why the talk is terrible.  Is it because of bad slides or a distracting habit? Is there a better way to tell the story? Ask yourself how you would do it better”

Elevator Pitch Competitions:

1) GPS: Graduate Professional Success for PhD students and Postdocs in the Biomedical Sciences Biomed (NIH grant to UC Irvine)
2) Grad Slam (UC-wide competition, UCI picks one winner who competes against all other campuses)
3) NSF GRFP Science Blitz Competition (https://www.nsfgrfp.org/)