Science communication: From the lab into the world

6 February 2018
At VIB, we strongly recognize the need to involve as many people as possible in science. To immerse them into our fascinating world, talking about our research simply and clearly is the best – if not the only – way. That’s why we organize events like Biotech Day and Science on The Road. On that note, three of our scientists who go the extra mile to get their messages across to a more general public were recently rewarded for their efforts.

Evgenia Salta: “if you have a creative idea, just go for it.”
Evgenia Salta (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research) received one of this year’s awards from the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts, which honors scientists who put their hearts and souls into science communication. Her zebrafish neuroscience workshop shows children how model organisms are used for brain research.

Why is communicating to the public important?
Evgenia: “The general public will be the end recipients of our research outcomes: new ways to study and treat neurodegenerative disorders. It only makes sense to involve those end users in the scientific process as well. In the zebrafish workshop, we interact with little scientists-tobe, whose hunger for knowledge is endless. The
interplay benefits us scientists as well: hearing them talk about grandparents with Alzheimer’s disease adds a societal perspective to our sometimes nearsighted lab lives.”

Do you have any tips for your fellow scientists?
Evgenia: “Don’t underestimate children. Kids are extremely smart and many times their natural curiosity and lack of preconceptions make them better learners and scientific thinkers than us. Besides, they’re a good benchmark for clear communication: if children cannot understand our language, we need to change it.”

Bram Van den Bergh: “grab people’s attention rather than Giving them the full message.”
Bram Van den Bergh (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Microbiology) was awarded the silver medal in this year’s PhD Cup, a Flemish science slam between recently promoted PhDs. His research focuses on the evolution of bacteria and antibiotic tolerance.

Why do you tell people about your studies?
Bram: “I am, of course, fascinated by the subject of my research, and I – perhaps naively – believe that everyone would be. But more than that, increasing the interest of future generations in our work is essential to stimulating the knowledge economy. And, as much of our research is tax-funded, I feel we are obliged to give something back to the people who make our jobs possible.”

What has the PhD Cup taught you?
Bram: “I was surprised by the number of reactions I got from various angles of society: people of all ages and industries were interested to discuss my work. Those interactions were not only very motivating, they also impacted my own views and helped me adjust my focus. Even further, I realized that although scientific publications may each contain many interesting details, the general public is best informed by communicating one impactful message at a time.”

Doris Vandeputte: “clear communication amplifies societal support.”
Doris Vandeputte (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Microbiology) was awarded the bronze medal in the PhD Cup with her research on intestinal bacteria and how their composition varies in healthy people.

How do you connect with the public?
Doris: “Although much of our research is of great societal importance, sufficient media attention is crucial to spark general curiosity. To get that attention, we have to communicate clearly and through different channels. That’s why I regularly contribute to updates for the website and newsletter of the Flemish Gut Flora Project and talk about my scientific progress on my personal Twitter account.”

What did you learn from your participation in the PhD Cup?
Doris: “I thought the way I presented my research was already quite straightforward, but I soon realized I had to try even harder. If people stare at you and nod but do not ask questions, they probably did not get it completely. Now, I try to get away from jargon, simplify my message even more, and I actually succeed in conveying the importance of my research. That’s what it’s all about: getting people to understand why we do what we do.”

Evgenia Salta

Bram Van den Bergh

Doris Vandeputte