Introduction – NREL
Each morning as an intern at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, I parked my car next to rows of electric chargers, walked past the field of solar panels, and caught the autonomously driven electric shuttle up to a smart building with hydrogen fuel cell vehicle prototypes parked out back. It felt like entering a futuristic eco-world far outside the reach of everyday life.
These surroundings emphasized the urgency for effective science communication to ensure research extends to the real world. What good did it do us “NRELians” to have all this flashy green technology, if we couldn’t get the public on board with it too? Once my internship ended, I headed back to the University of Minnesota hoping to dive into this newfound interest in public science communication.
First SciComm Steps
I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I joined the University’s Science Communication Lab (SCL) as a writing intern just a month later. I spent the next semester writing about PFAS research at the University and developing a proposal for an anaerobic digestion exhibit at the State Fair. When the COVID-19 pandemic moved everything online, I was able to continue writing and switched the anaerobic digestion project to an animated video. I also contributed to our Debrief: Conversations Around COVID webinar series. Spring transitioned to summer, and I became a science writing intern for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency through SCL. I continued writing about PFAS with them, as well as climate change and environmental justice.
Explaining SciComm to Others
I took on my biggest SciComm project at the start of the fall semester by writing a review of the Build-a-Cell research community for a peer-reviewed journal. The skills I developed over the last nine months applied more directly to public science communication, so I was challenged to apply the concepts to an academic audience. Finishing this article also marked my graduation from the University of Minnesota in December. I continued on in SCL as the Science Communication Training Coordinator, where I planned and facilitated workshops for undergraduate students.
The projects I worked on in SCL spanned broad areas of science communication, from writing and public engagement to scientist training. Despite the broad applications, my projects always felt intertwined in the various ways they influenced and overlapped with one another. The tools I taught in workshops were ones I had picked up over the course of my writing internship. Topics like PFAS and anaerobic digestion showed up in different projects and communication mediums. The overlap between projects allowed me to develop an interdisciplinary web of science communication expertise and experience.
The web of science communication projects seeped into my personal life as well. While writing for the MPCA over the summer, I also started a personal science blog that told science stories related to flowers and the environment. The following fall, I applied to graduate school. I could clearly see how much my writing and storytelling had improved in the last year by comparing my personal statement with prior internships applications and cover letters. All my writing practice culminated in a publication in MinnPost, a Minnesota-based online publication, about the Line 3 Pipeline in Northern Minnesota. I was excited to see my work reach a broader audience, with three Minnesota mayors even writing a response article.
I will wrap up with the Science Communication Lab in May 2021 and soon after head to the University of Colorado Boulder to study Mechanical Engineering. Part of my research will involve engaging rural middle and high school students in air quality science to study how we can engage more students in STEM. The sci comm experience I gained in SCL was an important factor in getting chosen for this project, and I am enthusiastic to find future collaborations between this PhD work and the Science Communication Lab.