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10th Annual Life Sciences & Society Symposium “decodes science”

The eight speakers chosen had a knack for communicating scientific concepts in an accessible way.

March 21, 2014

“Decoding Science” was the topic for the 10th Annual Life Sciences & Society Symposium, and that is what program director Jack Schultz said he hopes the week’s speakers did.

The symposium, which is traditionally held over the course of a weekend, spanned five days this year. From March 10-15, MU hosted seminars given by eight individuals prominent in the science community.

“We thought the theme is broad enough to last for a week,” said Karla Carter, executive assistant to the director. “The speakers themselves were chosen because they had a specific message, and we put all the messages together.”

Schultz, who is also director of the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center, said making science digestible in the public sphere is increasingly relevant in today’s society.

“Taxpayers pay for the science that we do, and it’s only reasonable to let them know what we’re doing and why,” he said. “As the economy has changed, there’s a lot more interest in what we’re doing and why — because it does cost money — and scientists are having to much more carefully and completely justify their work in terms that everyone can understand, so that people can make decisions about whether they’re spending their money wisely.”

Three of the symposium’s speakers were science entertainer Bill Nye, New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki and author Rebecca Skloot.

Schultz said the three were among those chosen by the planning committee because they were well-known for communicating scientific concepts in an accessible way, such as in Skloot’s New York Times-bestselling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

On March 10, Skloot spoke to a crowded Jesse Auditorium about the pertinence of Henrietta Lacks’ story and the urgency for scientists to become better communicators.

“We asked (Skloot) to include in her remarks comments about how she accomplished being clear and understandable in her work,” Schultz said. “And she modified the talk she usually gives to include that.”

For the eleven years she followed the innovations Henrietta Lacks’ cells had made, Skloot made sure to not just detail the scientists’ use of the woman’s cells to make innovations in biotechnology, but to also ensure the language and style she used made the information accessible. “Scientists should practice talking about science in a bar, (or) at parties,” Skloot said during her presentation. “When the eyes glaze over, try again!” Freshman Rose Schmidt said she had never heard of Skloot before the presentation, but found meaning in Skloot’s words. “I never thought about science and journalism being connected in the way Skloot described,” Schmidt said. “People always assume you're either a science person or you're a writer, but never both. Skloot is a living testament that when those two subjects combine, conversations are started.” The other speakers — Chris Mooney, Dominique Brossard, Liz Neeley, Barbara Kline Pope and Randy Olson — spoke on topics ranging from the scientific relevance of social media and movie depictions to the factors influencing a person’s willingness to believe a story.

The latter topic displays how pertinent science communication can be to the well-being of a community, Schultz said.

“You can see consequences of not (explaining science) right,” he said. “For example, Missourians have voted three times to not raise the cigarette tax, despite the fact that science tells you pretty clearly that smoking is bad for you. We’re having outbreaks of preventable diseases because increasing numbers of people are declining to get vaccinated, and science is pretty clear about what’s the best thing to do. So there are a number of those kinds of misunderstandings that really require us to do a better job of explaining it.”

The symposium’s decoding of science also includes components that extend beyond the week.

Scientists such as Olson also led workshops outside of their presentations, the style of which may include off-campus events.

“We’re also partnering with the Columbia Public Libraries,” Carter said. “We don’t want this to just be campus-based.”

Starting March 11, “science cafes” will be held on a Monday of every month. Held in restaurants or bars, these open public discussions will be led by scientists in the community on a variety of different topics.

There will also be a science movie series at Ragtag Cinema starting soon.

“I’m hoping that this is the beginning of something that will keep running here,” Schultz said. “The way we see it, is if we can harness some of the strengths and learn some of the skills our journalism school teaches, we could develop a campus full of scientists who could really get their point across.”

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