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Ph.D. candidate wants to improve science communication so no one ever again writes that sniffing farts prevents cancer
Ashli Wright

Ph.D. candidate wants to improve science communication so no one ever again writes that sniffing farts prevents cancer

March 27, 2024 at 12:20pm

Ph.D. candidate Ashli Wright knows science has a problem – and she doesn’t mean the actual problem that someone studies and tries to solve using the scientific method.  

Rather, she recognizes that potentially revolutionizing, even life-impacting science often does not resonate with the public. Worse, it sometimes is ignored or even distorted. 

Just read here the crazy example she shares to prove her point: an article in which a writer states that doctors believe that inhaling deeply when someone passes wind will protect against cancer. (The claim is preposterous.)

Among the challenges to serving up science for the masses, Wright cites media that prioritize click bait over sound reporting of scientists’ work or journalists who simply get it wrong.

She also takes to task researchers who share their findings in high-level publications meant for their similarly educated peers but don’t consider how to communicate with the lay audience. “Do we really need all these big words?” she asks of seemingly impenetrable scientific abstracts that keep all but the most specialized experts from directly reading about the latest advances. (Wright is a proponent of glossaries in journal articles to help with that.) 

The pandemic brought many of these issues into focus, Wright says. “We were all overwhelmed during COVID about what we should or shouldn’t be doing, and we were relying heavily on scientific research.” In the frenzy of that uncertain time, contradictory and ill-reported information seeped into channels from traditional TV and radio to the internet and social media. Making matters worse, the resulting misinformation frequently met up with outright disinformation to create even more confusion.

Wright’s doctoral dissertation – she won first place for its presentation at FIU’s recent 3-Minute Thesis competition and made it to the finals of another such contest in South Carolina – homes in on what too often goes wrong even as she offers constructive ways forward. 

Among her suggestions: Give students in high school the chance to read journal articles to further their understanding of how science translates from investigations in the lab or the field into shared knowledge. Educating youngsters in this way will teach them how science applies to them and set them up to consume and understand such news.

As a former biology teacher at Maritime and Science Technology Academy, known for short as MAST, in Key Biscayne, Wright saw firsthand the benefits – and difficulties – of such an approach when she offered her students the original paper in which Nobel Prize laureates James Watson and Francis Crick revealed their discovery of the molecular structure of DNA. She also shared the Ph.D. dissertation of the English theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. 

“They were intimidated,” Wright says of her students. “We took entire class periods to get through it.” 

In the end, the exercise was worth it - “They loved it, eventually” - she says. She provided a glossary of terms for the students and then covered the reading in class, with youngsters collaborating in small groups to make sense of it.  

Such learning drives home the living, evolving nature of science, Wright explains. She draws a contrast with teaching solely from a standardized textbook, which can give the impression that science is somehow fixed in time. 

Wright encourages devising curricula for high school and undergraduate science courses around current topics that students likely already know something about, such as climate change. She created such a curriculum around FIU’s long-term Florida Everglades restoration by selecting five journal articles published in recent years by the scientists directly involved in the project.  

And Wright has other ideas. “I’m working on a manuscript that is a call to action about how we can change the way we communicate,” she says. “I know some journals are trying to include glossaries in the articles, graphical abstracts, video abstracts. I'm saying, here’s what we can do as researchers, here’s what we can do at the publication level and possibly here’s what we can do in the classroom.” 

Ultimately, she says, “I think the people with the most influence are the scientists themselves. The publications, the journals are going to do what they do to fill subscriptions. Consumers are going to do what they do to get bite-sized information quickly. It’s on the scientists to communicate in a way that will resonate with everyone, which is hard.”