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Communicating Science

Yale-NUS is a liberal arts college that is a collaboration of two universities; Yale University and the National University of Singapore (NUS). A common perception is that a liberal arts college would have little to no science focus. Imagine our surprise to find out that Scientific Communication plays a very important part in the studies of all the students in the school! Rachel Lim was given an amazing opportunity to interview Professor Christopher Asplund, a neuroscientist and an educator in Yale-NUS, someone who believes that the skill of scientific communication shouldn’t be constrained to just at science.

APBN: Tell us more about what you do.

Professor Asplund: I am a cognitive neuroscientist, which means that I study how our mental life arises from the 1.5 kg gelatinous lump found in each of our heads — the brain. Much of my work explores the limitations in our perception, thought, and action. These limitations become all too apparent when we try to focus for a long time or to do two things at once. Not only do such examples provide cautionary tales (don't text while driving!), they also teach us about how our brain works.

In addition to being a scientist, I am an educator. I find it both important and personally rewarding to help students engage with psychology, neuroscience, and related disciplines. At Yale-NUS College, where I am an assistant professor, the students explore these fields in classes as well as by conducting research first-hand.

APBN: How would you personally define Scientific Communication? What are the factors that motivated you to begin teaching it?

Professor Asplund: There are many different senses of the term, and they are all important. First, scientists must communicate their research methods and findings to each other. Doing so well is not always easy, but it is a crucial skill as science becomes increasingly collaborative across disciplines and locations. Second, both experts and non-experts share scientific findings with people making decisions about policy or everyday affairs. The questions are important (for example, Which alternative energies should we promote? How should I care for my sick mother?), so getting the science right is critical. Third, we often communicate the process of scientific discovery. Focusing on the method of inquiry leads to a greater understanding of motivations and results, more appreciation of the complex beauty of our world, and many interesting stories to boot.

APBN: You teach in a liberal arts college. How does Scientific Communication play a part in the education of your students?

Professor Asplund: Scientific communication plays an important role in the students' educational experience at Yale-NUS in all three senses I mentioned earlier. But let me first emphasize that the liberal arts includes a wide array of studies, including not only the humanities and arts, but also both the social and natural sciences. Each of our students samples broadly (liberally) from across these subjects. In fact, each student takes at least three semesters of science courses and another course on quantitative reasoning.

All of our students participate in the sciences because we believe that having familiarity and facility with scientific concepts will help them in life, regardless of their career choice. During this semester, the students have written up their scientific observations about the motion of microscopic particles (Brownian motion) and the evolutionary adaptations displayed by wildlife in Singapore. They have also analyzed and written their own press releases on astronomical discoveries. By learning to communicate to different audiences and for different purposes, the students gain a richer understanding of science and its role in society. Regardless of whether a student becomes a scientist, we expect that they can communicate both the content and the excitement of discovery.

In addition to the classwork described above, in which they learn about the process of science and writing well, Yale-NUS students will have the opportunity to promote scientific communication through co-curricular activities. A shining example was provided before the College even opened its doors with the CogSci Connects conference, about which Tara Venkatesan will elaborate further.

APBN: In your opinion, why is Scientific Communication important? What are some of the barriers to generating interest in it?

Professor Asplund: Good scientific communication helps us to understand how the world works, and to better appreciate its wonder. That's equally true for scientists and non-scientists alike. Furthermore, many decisions in our personal lives and those at a societal level can be and should be informed by scientific knowledge. Many important questions should be addressed with scientific evidence, whether they are about the environment, health, or technology.

I think that the barriers to good scientific communication are the same as those that make people hesitant to engage with science in general. Foremost, science is often pitched as a series of facts, figures, and formulas. But it is really a process of questioning the world and then discovering how it works. While this process is intrinsically interesting (certainly to me), perhaps even more captivating are the implications of scientific discoveries — what do they mean for how we see ourselves, our world, and our future? Putting findings into the proper context is difficult, but when done well, it can be immensely rewarding for both the writer and the reader. Some people doing precisely that include Ed Yong, Virginia Hughes, and Carl Zimmer.

Another issue is that we have some cognitive tendencies that don't mesh all that well with scientific thinking. For example, science asks us to think in scales of time (from microseconds to millions of years) and space (from the microscopic to the galactic) that are outside our experience and are difficult to imagine. We also tend to emphasize anecdotes (for example, medicine X worked for a friend once) over aggregated evidence, but science largely deals primarily with the latter. The best science communicators train us to think more clearly about concepts, scales, and evidence, so that we can be better communicators ourselves.

Professor Asplund was one of the speakers in CogSci Connects 2013, a conference led and organised by students of Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) and the National University of Singapore (NUS). With his help we were able to get in contact with the Founder-Convener of CogSci Connects, Tara Venkatesan. A brilliant example of scientific communication in action, CogSci Connects brought together students to learn, understand and appreciate the intricacies of cognitive science. Here, Tara shares her experiences with APBN.

APBN: Please share your experiences in taking part in the conference

Tara Venkatesan: I can share my experiences with this conference, CogSci Connects 2013, from two different perspectives: as the Founder-Convener and as a participating student.

As the Founder-Convener my experiences here were multi-dimensional. When I was looking for ways to integrate my twin passions for music and science, I came across the field of cognitive science through popular books and Hollywood movies. So in my quest to learn more, I first interned the summer of 2011 at MIT with Prof. Laura Schulz to elucidate the enigma that is toddler learning. While there, I was fascinated to learn about pigeons who recognize pitch and amputee patients who still feel their limbs. I was motivated to share these exciting topics with my fellow students in Singapore, where I am currently a high school student in ACSI in the last year of the International Baccalaureate Program.

The idea was to organize a student-led conference in cognitive science in Asia showing them that CogSci is cool – where students learn how they may be able to integrate their interest in seemingly disparate fields from economics to entrepreneurship, music to medicine. When I talked to the researchers whom I had met over the summer, almost all of them assured me that if we organized a student led conference they would come to give an invited talk.

We first organized a team from among High School students and NUS undergraduate and graduate students - an energetic motivated bunch. We then convinced a faculty advisory team — headed by the eminent professor Dale Purves from Duke-NUS — that our mission was worthwhile and we were off! Managing and resolving on-going challenges in putting together such a large, multidimensional conference (with lectures, demos, poster competitions and even a concert), marketing the concept to multiple sponsors, and raising money and resources stretched us to our limits but also expanded our skill base.

As student participant:

Learning about the research of the various people that we had invited and listening to their lectures was one of the most enjoyable aspects of this conference. This was further heightened by interesting demos such as how one can sense auditory signals, poster presentations by students vying for attention in order to win the competition, and a panel discussion on the wealth of career opportunities that exist for students.

APBN: In what way has this been different from the way you are usually taught in school?

Tara Venkatesan: At the conference, we were learning from the people who create the science, whose work is written about in class text books and whose main focus in life is to stretch their boundaries. I felt highly inspired, understood clearly why certain methodologies were used in a particular study, and I felt highly connected to the speaker.

I learnt a great deal in terms of cognitive science and its applications to music, perception, early child education and computer-brain interface, the focal areas for the talks. Learning the same amount would require several courses in a class setting.

The students learned not just the science but also the sociology of undertaking a career in cognitive science, and what is needed to survive and succeed. The demonstrations gave us a glimpse of possible applications of this field such as the haptic chair which will enable deaf people to enjoy music through the vibrations felt by the body.

While cognitive science as a subject has grabbed my attention for the past 2-3 years, I like to learn by approaching the topic in a variety of ways: reading, hands-on through research internships, talking to experts, and meeting a cross-section of people in the field which is enabled by conferences like these.

One of the significant features was the wide distribution of participants from high schoolers to graduate students and professionals. As some of the professionals remarked even they learnt a great deal in areas with which their research did not overlap. The number of questions raised by students was also quite impressive in contrast to what I see in our classrooms.

The conference explored the connection between moods and music with a concert. The event was billed “Emotions at Play” and was a continuation of the session on Music and the Brain. Putting this concert together with my singing partner and participating in several solo pieces and a duet was an enriching experience.

APBN: What are some benefits you feel that you have obtained from this experience?

Tara Venkatesan: The power of an idea came home to me when numerous requests and suggestions kept coming in from students across Asia. They clearly wished for the dialogue begun during the conference to continue and expand. (In Singapore, close to 1100 people had signed up online for the conference till we had to shut down the online registration!) In response, realizing that this was not just a local but a global need, we started the venture CogSci Connects Inc. (registered in Maryland, USA) of which I am the Founder-President. It is an education portal to create excitement and teach cognitive science to students in underserved high school communities around the globe. An interactive multimedia online platform driven by students for students, the portal contains rich and original content - video interviews of experts, book and movie reviews, blogs, expert chat sessions and much more all driven by students. It aims to bring in students, scientific experts and even musicians together to collaborate on new ideas in specific research areas such as music cognition. We have focused initially on corporate partnerships, drawing upon the know-how of employee volunteers and financial support from corporates for developing a sustainable, scalable model.

The most important benefit for me and many other participants has been creating and becoming part of a student and professional network. To give a personal example, Professors from JHU, Harvard, Duke-NUS, Duke and Yale-NUS have all joined the Technical advisory Board of CogSci Connects, Inc.

APBN: Would you recommend your fellow students to take part in such conferences? Why?

Tara Venkatesan: Of course! Particularly in a student-led conference, the speakers address the audience at a level where they can be understood by anyone who is scientifically minded but does not necessarily have prior knowledge in the field.

By listening carefully to a 30 minute talk one can pick up information that would have taken far longer to glean from a review article.

The demos were not only entertaining but also educational.

In the panel discussion, several key questions were answered by leading players in the field of cognitive science, such as what kind of preparation is expected and what types of jobs can one pursue with a given degree. Why would anyone miss these opportunities to learn?

About the Interviewees

Christopher Asplund is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Social Sciences (Psychology) at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. He uses behavioral measures and neuroimaging to explore cognition--how we attend, remember, and decide--and its biological basis. Originally from a small town in Ohio, USA, Chris graduated from Princeton University in 2003 and then earned his Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from Vanderbilt University, working with Dr. René Marois. In 2010, he moved to Singapore, where at Duke-NUS he examined sleep deprivation's effects on brain function with Dr. Michael Chee and co-directed an undergraduate course on research and medicine. His work has appeared in several top journals, including Nature Neuroscience, Neuron, and Psychological Science. He is currently assisting with the design and delivery of Scientific Inquiry and Quantitative Reasoning at Yale-NUS, while also starting up the Yale-NUS Attention & Cognition Laboratory.

Tara is a senior at ACS (Independent) in Singapore. Captivated by the field of cognitive science, she founded and convened the first student-led conference in Asia on cognitive science (www.cogsciconnects.com). To involve the global student community in this exciting field, Tara has since launched CogSci Connects, Inc., a non-profit Corporation.

Tara is a soprano and has performed globally for heads of state, the Commonwealth Games 2010 (New Delhi), Singapore Live! 2010, and with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra and opera productions. She was a recording artist for Walt Disney (Hindi soundtrack for the movie ‘Bolt’) and a Young Artiste at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. At age 12, Tara created Music--4 Kids By Kids, through which she staged concerts across India, raising over US$70K for children's charities. She is a recipient of the NESA award and the Karmaveer Chakra, a recognition bestowed by the Confederation of NGOs and the UN.

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