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Empowering academic fellows to share their impact

- Pascalia Munyewende

The Wits Carnegie Diversifying the Academy (CDTA) Programme recently hosted its inaugural Pioneering Science Communications Workshop.

In working towards bridging the gap between academia and effective science communication with the public, the CDTA programme, run by the Transformation & Employment Equity Office (TEEO), collaborated with specialist research communications agency, Jive Media Africa, to train 16 participating academics in how to enhance the positive impact of their work.

Pioneering Science Communications Workshop

The workshop brought together a diverse cohort of participants, including former and current fellows of the CDTA Programme who hail from various disciplines across Wits. The participants engaged in intensive sessions designed to enhance their ability to convey complex research findings to broader audiences. CDTA Programme manager Lethu Kapueja emphasised the importance of the workshop and why science communication matters in the academy:

“CDTA realised that this type of intervention needed to be offered at the right time for fellows; that is, as early as possible so that time is not lost. Offering a science communication workshop later in the fellows’ careers would also be detrimental because they may have consolidated their research network, neglecting involvement of the public and communities that they research.”  

Kapueja further noted that as the academic landscape evolves, so does the need for researchers to communicate their work beyond scholarly journals and conferences. Effective science communication is essential for several reasons:

  1. Public Engagement: Scientists play a crucial role in shaping public understanding and policy decisions. By mastering science communication techniques, they can engage with non-experts, policymakers, and the media effectively.
  2. Impactful Research: Research outcomes have the potential to transform lives, but only if they reach the right audiences. Clear, compelling communication ensures that groundbreaking discoveries do not remain confined to academic circles.
  3. Building Trust: Transparent communication fosters trust between scientists and the public. When people understand the value of research, they are more likely to support scientific endeavours.

The Science Communication Workshop experience

Led by seasoned science communicators from Jive Media Africa – Robert Inglis, Karabo Ledwaba and Petro Coetzee – the workshop covered a range of topics:

  • Storytelling Techniques: Participants delved into the art of storytelling, including elements of a good story such as, intrigue, excitement, drama, seeing yourself in the story, and leaving readers wanting more. Making scientific work exciting and passionate by including emotional words contrasts with the way academics have been trained to write. Participants also learnt how to craft narratives that resonate with diverse audiences. They explored the power of anecdotes, metaphors, and relatable examples.
  • Visual Communication: In an age dominated by visuals, CDTA fellows discovered strategies for creating impactful visual content. From infographics to short videos, they explored ways to convey complex ideas visually.
  • Engaging with Media: The workshop emphasized the importance of engaging with funders, policy makers, wider global audiences apart from the academic community, journalists and media outlets. Participants practiced interview skills, learnt to distil their research into soundbites, and navigated the world of press releases.
  • Online Platforms: With the rise of digital communication, CDTA fellows explored effective ways to use social media, blogs, and podcasts to disseminate their work. They discovered how to build an online presence that extends beyond academia.

Voices from the workshop

Fellows shared their expectations about the workshop in the morning: being able to write their scientific work in a simple way, convert journal articles into pieces of writing that can be read and understood by non-scientific audiences, how to tackle sensitive and controversial topics such as genetic modification and curating stories in an appealing way to audiences without losing its scientific elements. The fellows were happy to explore different ways of communicating in a way that impacts policy and public engagement with communities to feedback results and give back. This process makes academic work more accessible and impacts lives.

Dr Kofi Aning Jnr, current CDTA Fellow and postdoctoral researcher in the Wits School of Business Sciences, shared his enthusiasm:

“Coming into this workshop, I had great anticipation to acquire skills on publishing scientific work to a non-scientific audience. My expectations included learning techniques that could help me condense my research work, and share it in meaningful and easily consumable ways. I acknowledge that as academics, we tend to limit the scope of our publications to a scientific audience, thus limiting external reach and scope. Participating in this workshop has enlightened me to think beyond the scholarly world, and embrace writing techniques that are succinct, conversational, and that can help other stakeholders understand, appreciate and implement findings from my research. Overall, I was greatly pleased and I must commend the Wits Transformation & Employment Equity Office and CDTA for organising this wonderful initiative.

Current and former grantees shared the same sentiment that the Science Communication workshop had transformed their approach about communicating academic research. They all looked forward to engaging with policymakers, their colleagues, research communities and the general public.

The success of the Wits TEEO’s Pioneering CDTA Science Communication Workshop underscores the University’s commitment to fostering well-rounded fellows who not only excel in their fields but also communicate their knowledge effectively. Kapueja was thrilled about the success of the workshop and shared that:

“I am really glad that the output from the writing workshop is going to profile our researchers publicly and give them an opportunity to find collaborators as we have provided them the platform to publish their research stories online. For the Transformation and Employment Equity Office, it was important that CDTA brings together all the fellows as an opportunity to network and know what each other is doing so and then work together. We have other exciting interventions that the fellows should look forward to during the year.” 

The Wits TEEO and CDTA’s Head of Academic Support and Coaching, Professor Antonia Wadley, who connected with the fellows at the workshop was inspired by their dedication and commitment to advancing scientific knowledge through the art of science communication. She was very excited about the future and pointed out:

“The CDTA programme aims to give fellows support beyond just giving them funding. This workshop was part of that support. Learning science communication skills is not only essential for academics to get their work out there but is an important part of fellows mastering different types of communication skills as they enhance their academic leadership.”

This workshop was great for another reason too. From the perspective of the Transformation and Employment Equity Office, science communication is important as we think about decolonising the relationship between researchers and their research participants and publics. We want to move towards a more inclusive space where communities can be part of articulating and solving the issues they face. For this inclusive space to happen, we researchers need to be able to communicate in a way that is accessible and inviting.