4 January 2021

Communicating with diverse audiences through Skype-A-Scientist

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Ashley Peppriell

Glowing transgenic fruit flies. Credit: Ashley Peppriell

I recently spoke about my science to a class of students with varying degrees of cognitive and intellectual disability. The class is organized through SaskAbilities, which partnered with Skype-A-scientist to find me. The experience was eye-opening; I learned that my preconceived notion of “general audience” actually excluded a lot of people. I think that it is important for scientists to communicate with diverse audiences such as Sask; students get a window into how the world works and scientists get a new audience to speak with.

Science communication can be described as the practice of communicating scientific ideas to a general audience — in a “plainspoken” manner, if you fancy. From prior experiences, I felt comfortable with my communication skills, so I signed up for Skype a Scientist, and was matched in about a month.

My match with SaskAbilities gave me the opportunity to speak with an audience of adults with varying degrees of disability. I had exactly zero experience with speaking to diverse audiences, so this was a big leap. I was intimidated by the challenge and worried my toxicology work would not be understood by my audience. I decided to focus the subject of the talk on the tool I use to do my research: the fruit fly.

I use the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, to observe how the poisonous metal in our environment, methylmercury, is dangerous to growing muscles. I taught my audience about the charismatic animal, and received mixed responses.

While some of the audience didn’t seem to pay me any attention, others were engaged, but showed it in a distracting way. For instance, one student with echolalia who would repeatedly type, “fruit fly” in the chat box. Still, a few asked questions I had never been asked before, such as “Do fruit flies glow like fireflies?” The answer is actually yes – in a lab setting. I have special (transgenic) fruit flies that do indeed glow so that I can observe their growing muscles inside the pupa case as they grow (see image to the right).

The teacher shared that it is so important for scientists to speak to her class because it gives them a way to experience the world, which I agree everyone deserves. As scientists, we want to make the world a better place. I think that a world that is more accessible would be a better place, and so I am calling for more scientists to step up their game communicating to diverse audiences. It’s challenging, but I feel that the PhD process makes us experts in overcoming all sorts of challenges!

-Ashley E Peppriell is a toxicologist, fruit fly researcher, and marathon runner. Follow her blog, PhDistance, which is also on Twitter and Instagram.