Student Stories

Biology courses teach undergraduates how to talk about science

Science majors improve their communications skills with a new three-course series

Fourth-year Laura Swain knew she wanted to major in biology from the moment she stepped on campus at the University of Chicago. For a while, however, the aspiring pediatrician found that none of her courses placed much emphasis on written and oral communication.

“As a biology major, I’ve usually taken courses with a lot of content that you need to memorize,” said Swain. “But in the future…a large part of my job will be distilling complex medical information to patients and their families. That’s part of the reason why I’ve always also wanted to learn how to write about science for a lay audience.”

This past quarter, Swain and more than a dozen other students got the opportunity to do just that. At the start of this academic year, the Biological Sciences Divisions unveiled a series of three new courses to help science majors improve their communication skills for a non-scientific audience.

“I love the challenge that comes with explaining complex ideas in a distilled but not diluted way,” said Angelika Zissimopoulos, the University of Chicago’s Director for Initiatives in STEM Teaching and Learning at the Chicago Center for Teaching and a co-designer of the new course series. “However, many of us trained in the sciences don’t have formal training in this area, and we wanted students at UChicago to have the opportunity to receive this training as part of their degree, rather than as something extracurricular.”

The three courses can be taken sequentially over the course of an academic year, and each course focuses on a different medium. The first course teaches students how to write a blog and news article, the second how to create and deliver a TED Talk-style video, and the third how to construct an interactive physical exhibit. Students learn both the scientific theory behind storytelling for a lay audience and how to apply that knowledge in concrete ways.

“The whole experience has been absolutely energizing,” said Sara Serritella, the University of Chicago’s Director of Communications at the Institute of Translational Medicine and, along with Zissimopoulos, a co-designer and co-instructor of the courses. “We were both amazed by the huge transformation in the students’ skills and drafts between weeks 1 and 10. You could see the lightbulb moments in their eyes, and it translated directly into the work they were producing.”

Students who took the first course last quarter, moreover, shared their instructors’ enthusiasm.

“I’ve never had a Monday class that was so high energy,” said Alyson Thorne, a third-year biology major. “The professors were always so excited and happy to be there, and they gave me a lot of confidence in myself and my ability to communicate. I know I will be able to use what I learned with them when I write publications or present my research on other platforms.”

Zissimopoulos and Serritella’s teaching plans have integrated UChicago’s science community as well their network of science communicators everywhere from the National Institutes of Health to Science Magazine to The New York Times.

“We’ve been able to connect students with scientists doing cutting-edge research and give students real, hands-on practice with communicating that work to the public,” Zissimopoulos noted. “For instance, the editors at the Illinois Science Council are former UChicago graduate students, and the Institute for Translational Medicine supports UChicago faculty and researchers. We’ve benefited from being able to easily make these kinds of connections and give students a public platform where they can publish.”

Already, the value of those connections is beginning to show. The Illinois Science Council has published many of the articles that students wrote during the fall quarter. The Institute for Translational Medicine (ITM) is weaving the students’ news stories covering the science of ITM-UChicago researchers into its NIH-funded health research campaign launching later this year. Students said they’re also applying the skills they’ve learned to presentations, job interviews, and medical school applications.

“UChicago is one of only a handful of American universities that have courses specifically dedicated to teaching science undergraduates about communication,” said Serritella. “The skill sets that students build in these courses have tangible benefits. They’ll help students build successful careers, transform science and medicine, improve public policy, and change lives for the better.”