Chatting with Christine O’Connell about science communication

Dr. Christine O’Connell is the Associate Director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and a faculty member in the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University. As a scientist with an extensive interdisciplinary background in policy, outreach and communication, she brings a unique perspective to the Alda Center. She received her Ph.D. in Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, and her B.S. in Natural Resources from Cornell University.

Christine teaches and develops curriculum for graduate and undergraduate courses in science communication and speaks at national and international workshops for the Alda Center. She was part of the original group of graduate student scientists trained by Alan Alda in improvisation back in 2009, and manages The Flame Challenge, an international contest that asks scientists to communicate complex science in ways that would interest and enlighten an 11-year-old.

We sat down with Christine to find out more about her involvement with science communication.

ASC: How did you find yourself in science communication?

Christine: I went to school for science in the 1990’s and got frustrated that my research just ended up on library shelves or in the hands of other scientists. I decided to switch careers and go into environmental advocacy and policy, where I thought I could make more of a difference. After years of doing that, I got frustrated that there wasn’t enough science in important policy decisions and decided to go back to graduate school and get my PhD in the sciences to try and bridge the gap between science, society and policy. That’s when I was asked to be part of the initial pilot group of scientists being trained by Alan Alda in improv techniques to help us be better communicators. I was hooked and have worked with the Alda Center in science communication ever since. This is where I see myself making the biggest difference.

ASC: Why is communicating science important to you?

Christine: Clear and vivid  communication of science is so important for an informed society and for sound policy decisions. Many scientists are scared of the word “advocacy,” but, in today’s day and age, where science itself has become politicized, we must be advocates for science and the scientific process. Otherwise someone else will fill the void with bad science or muddled intentions, and bad decisions will be made. We need to have an informed and inspired public to help build the next generation of science leaders and to make sure we are making sound decisions about our world. Also, not only does effective science communication help with funding important research, educating the next generation, guiding public policy and increasing the public’s understanding of science – it also just makes for stronger science. This is something we hear over and over again after scientists go through our training – it makes them better scientists.  Communication is what makes scientific process work.

ASC: What challenges have you faced in talking about science?

Christine: Jargon. There is discipline specific jargon, where even as a scientist, I find it hard to understand my colleges half the time; and then there is academic jargon. Its important to remember to speak in clear and vivid everyday language. Another challenge is always focusing on my audience and remembering that communication doesn’t actually happen unless they get what I am saying, otherwise I’m just talking. You need to always be listening, even when you are talking. Its hard to keep this level of focus and energy all of the time, but it is so important.


Christine will deliver a keynote presentation at the ASC Conference on March 11 in Brisbane. Find out more on the conference schedule.