Broaden your Impact Remix

Broaden your Impact Remix

We’re delighted to be co-hosting an after-party with Art.Science.Gallery on Tuesday evening at the Canopy Austin, just a short bus ride from the Austin convention center. Meet the speakers and organizers of the Broaden your Impacts symposium and stick around for a public lecture and book signing by the author and the illustrator of Damselflies of Texas: A Field Guide at 8pm. Free and open to the public.

A big thanks to our supporters for making this great event possible!

Broaden your Impact Remix

For the Love of Science Communication, Part 2

Part 2: Broadening your Impact

Welcome to part 2 of 2 on Science Communication and Broader Impacts.
Want to read about science communication? See our first blog post, here

This post will be dedicated to de-mystifying the thing the NSF calls “Broader Impacts”.   The intention of requiring Broader Impacts (also known as BI) in National Science Foundation (NSF) grants is to spur public engagement in the sciences.  We’re asked to reach beyond our labs, universities, and academic circles to engage the public in our research.  However, the “how to” section for the BI often seems to be incomplete or obscure.  This leads to frustrated scientists that don’t know where to start in designing a BI.  It is my hope that this blog post will provide inspiration and direction to develop your own quality outreach, thereby broadening your impact as a scientist.

- Broader Impacts: because the NSF tells you to -

By implementing BI and engaging the public in what we do, we are showing the public why science is so cool, important, and integral to society.  While these goals might not intrinsically motivate all scientists to create quality BI, there are a couple reasons why we all should care.


If people don’t know why science is so awe-inspiring, or how it applies to them, what is their motivation for giving you their money?   Dedicating tax money towards basic science only began in the wake of World War II.  This is the time that America realized the tremendous impact that scientific advances could make, and thus began the National Science Foundation. As a consequence of this change in policy, a number of wartime inventions were then used to improve our lives, including the widespread use of radar for weather detection, synthetic rubber, and the  expansion of computational technology*.  In the subsequent decades, we have become detached from the reason behind funding basic science.   It has been criticized as a frivolous endeavor, wasting taxpayer money.  In fact, basic science has many direct benefits on society (bio-inspiration comes to mind as a great mix between engineering and basic biology) as well as numerous indirect benefits – but I don’t have to convince you of that.  When you break it down, it is simple:  if the public does not want to fund science, it will no longer be funded.  Give them a reason to be excited about science once again!   How do we accomplish this?  We have to communicate our excitement about the thing that we love, and Broader Impacts are a great way to do this.


As researchers, we are in the unique position to be experts in each of our unique sub-sub-sub-sub-fields.  In fact, you probably know a facet of science that nobody else but you knows.  Even when you publish your hard work, it is the unfortunate truth that the only people to read your article are probably colleagues working in your similar sub-sub-sub field.

While the intention of publishing is for distribution of our results to scientist in our field, this does not necessarily equate to dissemination of scientific findings beyond the academic community.

Most universities do a great job of providing science journals free of cost to students and faculty.  With the recent boom in publications, there are literally thousands of science journals available, and many universities simply cannot afford to pay for subscriptions to all of them.  In other words, there are many academics that may not have access to your results.  Teachers and educators have much more limited (if any) access to these resources and the general public has even less.  While publication of your results is a great first step towards dissemination of your findings, a large portion of journal publications don’t make it beyond the many walls of academia.  Therefore, if you don’t tell the public about your cool science discoveries, who will?

Well, possibly the media.  In the case of “sexy” or high-profile science, there is a method for distribution of results – science reporters do a great job of synthesizing results of our papers and pull out the most exciting parts for the enjoyment of the public. I would argue that: 1) this represents only a small portion of all of the great work being done, and usually only a subset of fields; and 2) journalists are, first and foremost, journalists! Their goal is not to portray science in all of its nitty-gritty glory (“Woman Picks up Pipette and Fills 96 Wells with a Small Amount of Clear Liquid!” is not such a catchy story…), but instead pick and choose the most sensational research, usually only within a subset of fields.  This is a great way to grab public attention, but the downfall of this method of communication is the loss of methods and background behind these discoveries.  Readers are often not given the tools to gauge if these discoveries really are backed by rigorous science.  If the public is not given the tools to discern what is “good” or “bad” science, how could they be expected to be critical thinkers of scientific issues?

How do we change this?  This is where our BI come in.  Take a few minutes a day for a few days to research opportunities at your university or your town to engage the public.  Chances are there are several teachers, educators, and science centers that would jump at the chance for quality science modules.  I’ve found enthusiasm and encouragement in almost every school district and educational center I’ve contacted.

- How to get started -

I have had the great opportunity to speak to a few program officers at the NSF, and while I can’t yet write an all-inclusive “how to” guide for BI, I can give you a few guidelines for the scope expected of you.

First, tie your outreach to your research.  This one’s a biggie – it’s great if you want to help out at your local library during reading time, but if your research is not on the impacts of oral story-telling on childhood development, how will that engage the public in your research?  If you’re a molecular biologist, you could instead develop a unit to engage middle school students in the wonders of the cell. Integrate the arts into your research by showing students real images of DNA (or other real-life images of your study molecule) compared to art inspired by the inner workings of the cell.  Tell them why your molecule is so cool and have them form a hypothesis about what would happen to the organism if it no longer existed.  If you’re artistically inclined, you could create a model “cell town” where students design a fictional town based on what they know about the inner workings of the cell.  And guess what – inquiry- and engineering-based learning about DNA and organelles is even a Next Generation Science Standard (NGSS) for middle school!  Do your research and find a way to tie your research into your outreach while still making educators happy.

Second, you’re allowed – even encouraged – to team up with pre-existing organizations.  How do they know you’ll actually be able to design curricula for a school district?  If you are a part of an organization that already has ties to several schools, you’re much more likely (in NSF’s eyes) to accomplish such a feat.   If there’s no obvious organization with which to team up, my best advice for creating and implementing curricula is to collaborate with an excited teacher, educator or education grad student to create a rigorous science module that also hits a few NGSS standards (or the equivalent in your district).  Cross-disciplinary collaborations are a great way to create quality outreach, especially if you team up with someone with complementary skills.  If you’re writing an article, you can collaborate with a journalism expert who knows what language will best engage your target audience, and science educators will help you assess the impact of your outreach – this is a great way to quantify your results and will give you data to modify future outreach.

Third, the BI proposed for a multi-million dollar project will be much different from a small grant.  You are expected to scale your BI in proportion to the grant, both in time and money spent on it.  As a graduate student, you’re not expected to create your own not-for-profit organization specializing in science education, but you are expected to make your outreach your own.  Volunteering for pre-designed outreach activities simply won’t cut it.  The point is to communicate your research to the public (or at least the main points of it), so ask yourself – is your plan going to leave participants with an impression of the cool research that is going on in your field?  If not, you might want to re-think your BI.  The point of the BI is to bring your expertise to the public.  Any non-scientist can volunteer.  What you bring to the table is your unique research expertise.  Consider how you can translate that to an impactful BI.  

Finally, do what you love.  It will be much easier to develop an activity if you’re actually invested in its outcome.  Remember, when you share your research through Broader Impacts, you are influencing and shaping the minds of your colleagues, fellow humans, and very often children, who will become the scientists of future generations.  If you don’t want to work with children, then build your outreach to work with adults.  The best BI utilize the skills and expertise of the PI while pushing beyond their individual abilities by working with collaborators that complement their skills.

Here are a few examples of scientists that do a great job engaging the public in the thing that they love.  By no means is this an inclusive list, so feel free to comment with your own examples!

Pollen camp
plants iview
Myrmecos blog
Myrmex – a comic ant-thology
Science News Magazine – a promising magazine focusing on science outreach

Want more ideas? Check out all of our speakers!


For the Love of Science Communication

Part 1: The Art of Communicating Science

“The great scientist who works for himself in a hidden laboratory does not exist.” – E.O. Wilson, Letters to a Young Scientist

You’re a scientist. You have spent years (or decades) of your life refining your vocabulary, memorizing acronyms, reading scientific papers, and honing your inquisitive nature. Why, then, would you disregard all of this precise terminology – shortcuts to succinctly describe complex phenomena – and talk about your life’s work in a simplistic manner? And even if you wanted to simplify your research, how do you balance presentation of a logical, coherent story while retaining the nuances and years of cumulative knowledge hidden behind each term? I don’t begin to call myself an expert, but I have spent the past two years mulling over these very questions. Science communication (aka SciComm) is a compulsory component to any NSF grant application, weaving science and outreach together into something called Broader Impacts (also known as BI). I began my graduate career weary of the thing called “Broader Impacts” and, with the help of a few passionate individuals, have come to love science communication.

Over the next two blog posts, I will try to convince you of the importance of communicating science beyond the walls of academia. I’m hopeful that this blog series will instill confidence and excitement about sharing your love of science with the public, and maybe give you some ideas for BI of your own!


As a disclaimer, while I do have a personal bias towards curriculum development (since that’s my background), I’ve tried to include “outs” for those of you not inclined towards kids or K-12 education.


“The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and writes and works like a book-keeper.” – E.O. Wilson

“Good science is a creative activity” – Jeff Shaumeyer

How do you describe complex terminology in plain vocabulary? Sometimes this requires a good thesaurus, but most of the time this requires creativity, and usually it requires art. The number of times I have cursed my plebian hands for their inability to draw a decent figure* (or, let’s be honest, even a straight line) are numerous. Those of you who are artistically inclined are at an advantage in this regard – you can draw, paint, sketch, or otherwise design your own figures to convey the meaning behind your veiled terms. Once someone can see that oh-so-important hidden spur or invisible molecule, they can more easily follow your story and understand your excitement about esoteric concepts. Often this process will give you new insights about your own field by forcing you to think about your research in a different way. Flex your artistic fingers and reveal to the public the thing that you love!

As an aside, by now you’ve probably noticed a trend in my quotes – I’ve pulled all of my favorite gems from a recent interview with E.O. Wilson by Scientific American’s Jeff Shaumeyer and Joanne Manaster. E.O. Wilson is one of my heroes for a reason.

* See example below…


We have been trained as scientists to communicate in a precise way with approved language catering to a known audience. This is comfortable, familiar, and completely useless when communicating to a non-academic audience. Sitting down to write a piece about my research for a general audience was one of the most difficult, vexing struggles of my graduate career. Who am I talking to? How much experience with science do they have? What level of language, grammar, and terminology is appropriate? It’s enough to make your head spin.

Catering to broad or undefined audiences is consistently the most challenging aspect of public outreach. To make things even more complicated, even when the audience narrows to K-12 students, in a classroom of 30+ individuals each student will have an amalgamation of prior misconceptions, educational background, and learning styles, despite the fact that each student is being taught the same standardized curriculum.

blog post 1 picture

The good news? I have quickly learned that having to take all of these confounding variables into account when planning a lesson is very similar to designing a well-executed experiment – this is the same process that I know and love from my many years of science. Some lessons are a flop for unanticipated reasons, but negative results still produce useful data that can be used to modify and enhance the lesson.

The same can be said for drafting prose about your research. No first draft will be perfect (including this one), and it’s not expected to be. Write down the most important points of your study, then pull out the parts that make you excited to be a scientist. If the reader can feel your enthusiasm, you’re golden! Just as in science or engineering, you must test and troubleshoot your first product. Think of your first draft as a pilot study and your qualitative results as the reactions you get to your piece. Once you’re one standard deviation above your first set of draft reactions, you’re ready to let the world in on your exciting scientific breakthroughs.

As for all of the terms we love to use in the sciences? First, see point 1 above, and then see the quote below by the amazing E.O. Wilson on engaging students in science:

    “It’s not about making sure they’ve got all of the specific terms right, that’s not important, the important thing is that you’re going from top down in some important subject that the teacher is focused on, and is thrilled by, and you’re seeing what it’s like to explore the unknown”
    – E.O. Wilson

With all of the complex terminology used in each of our fields, engaging in science as a novice can mean learning an entirely new language. Introductory language courses don’t begin with complex terms and sentence structure. You must scaffold terms and grammar over years of classes. Similarly, we can’t inundate new science learners with a slew of complex terminology or they will get bogged down in what they don’t know rather than the new, exciting concept you’re trying to communicate. Keep this in mind when engaging young scientists in new material – even us old scientists will appreciate clean language and clear explanations focused on the core concept rather than detailed terminology.

Stay tuned next Friday for Part 2:
Broadening your Impact

Teaching Tuesdays – Research-based tips for teaching ecology

Teaching Tuesdays.

How do we as science educators tackle the dichotomy of the experiences we’ve had as students in a classroom and what we’re told about effective teaching practices? One researcher, Amy Parachnowitsch, distributed a survey to researchers teaching ecology to get some answers. Her “Teaching Tuesdays” blog series is a synthesis and analysis of these results. What could be better for us scientists than data to help us determine how to effectively teach the science we love? I’m looking forward to this series :)

A science comic that marches to the beat of a thousand ant tarsi

Myrmex- A comics Ant-thology

Explore the world of ants through the lens of myrmecologists – scientists that study ants – in this fun comic compilation.  Artists, scientists, and Sci-Art experts got together (see “The Myrmex Team” on the bottom of the website for author blurbs) to create an expertly drawn and researched comic featuring ants.  It includes real pictures taken by Alex Wild and current research in a fun fact sheet at the end of each story, making this a great resource for classrooms and ant enthusiasts alike.  What a great way to combine art and science!  Visit their site to download the full comic and stay tuned for future updates and classroom lessons tied to each of the comics. 


Guest Post – Visual Communication of Thoughts about our Molecular Worlds: a Matter of Scale and Metaphor

My unusual introduction to cell biology came whilst browsing large medical texts, including ‘Gray’s Anatomy’, in the library whilst at art school. The bright, colourful and complex microscopy images intrigued me and became the focus of my paintings for the next couple of years. However, as time went on it increasingly bothered me that I could neither understand the structures I was looking at, nor interpret the detailed figure legends alongside.

Set 1: Cell Paintings

Cell Paintings (left to right):
‘Black Angry Cells’ (2000) Wax crayon and ink on paper, 42 x 30 cm.
‘Pink Cell Drawing’ (1999) Ink, acrylic, oil pastel and felt-tip pen on paper, 60 x 84 cm.
‘Small Brown Cell Drawing’ (2000) Felt-tip pen and ink on paper, 42 x 30 cm.

Set 2

Cell Paintings (left to right):
‘Orange Cell Drawing’ (2000) Mixed media on paper, 84 x 60 cm.
‘Bone Structure’ (2000) Emulsion and enamel paint on paper, 84 x 60 cm.
‘Purple Cell Drawing’ (1999) Ink and emulsion paint on paper, 84 x 60 cm. Continue reading