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Kopp's Weekly - Science is Communication

Kopp's Weekly - Science is Communication

As scientists, it is in our blood to communicate.

Dear Students,

I still remember the thrill of the first paper I ever worked on that was published. In hindsight, it's kind of funny; I am listed on a paper written by 225 scientists (If you look I am author number 113 on the alphabetical list of authors).  Yet it was an awakening experience for me as an undergraduate. I felt closer to being a contributor rather than an observer of new knowledge. Certainly, the other more senior authors had built and operated the particle detector apparatus that allowed this data analysis to proceed, but the other dozen scientists and I who performed the detailed data reduction for this result each could speak with some pride of the roles we had played.

As scientists, it is in our blood to communicate. Scientists flock to conferences and small workshops to present their work. Ask any scientist what gets their blood rushing, and it is that opportunity to formulate that paper that synthesizes their last year of inquiry into a coherent finding. Scientists are the most passionate and strident in their conversations when they are crafting the language of their papers with co-authors or when they they take exception with how another scientist has represented his or her work. Our observations often require us to formulate new language or terminology to represent the underlying ideas. Famously, Newton (and Leibnitz) had to invent the language of calculus to properly describe the motion of objects.  Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman was recognized for his cartoons that became a calculational tool in quantum theory. That process of new language, diagrammatic representation, and refining descriptions is an attempt to reformulate models of nature in ways that are more simple and more elegant. The most bitter disappointment I hear from colleagues walking out of seminars or colloquia is when an audience member feels the speaker has not adequately tried to reduce the complicated results to a simple picture the novice audience could understand.

I won't fib -- I used to dread writing papers, and a frustrated professor for one of my lab courses in college once remarked of my lab reports, "If you are going to get anywhere in this world, you are going to need to learn to write!"  My professor's advice was spot-on:  the ability to communicate scientific procedures and findings will set you apart from the masses who claim to be writers but have no ability to organize complex information.

Good communicators will synthesize complicated results for their bosses so that informed decisions can be made. Good communicators will set out a plan for their teams that allow them to buy in and participate in complex tasks knowledgeable of everyone's important contributions. Good communicators will take complex findings and reduce them down to results that the scientific or technical community can benefit from. In short, good communication is the engine of doing science and to your future careers.

I mention all this because of the opportunities for you this spring:

    • The CNS Undergraduate Research Forum is April 13 is a massive poster presentation session for students around our college to present proposals for ideas they would like to research, or the status of ongoing research projects, or a summary of findings from now-completed research.  Many prizes are available, and the CNS Office of Honors, Research, and International Study will be conducting workshops on how to prepare an effective poster. For more information,  please contact Assistant Dean Sarah Simmons, (232-9029, s.l.simmons@mail.utexas.edu).


    • The University of Texas Undergraduate Research Journal is a work of multi-disciplinary research produced and edited by UT undergrads. The URJ is looking for interesting, and lucid pieces that present original ideas. Submissions can include: products of coursework, independent study, supervised research, senior theses, etc.  Submissions are due February 29, 2012 at 12 noon. There is a $250+ award for the best paper by an upper division student and a $100+ award for the best paper by a lower division student.  Any questions, please contact Bobby Jenkins, editor-in-chief, at editorinchief@texasurj.com.


    • The College has a limited number of travel grants for students attending conferences to present their work. Contact Assistant Dean Simmons for more information.


  • This Friday Feb 24 is the next "Hot Science Cool Talks" lecture.  Professor Michael Webber will discuss the challenges of energy production and consumption in the US and worldwide.  The Hot Science talks are among the best at UT for communicating the excitement and challenge of the sciences to the Austin community.

Of course there are many other venues for you to engage in the writing and communication process.  My only urging to you all is that you take up these opportunities to build one of the most important skills you will develop as a scientist:  the ability to organize, synthesize, and present technical information to a wide audience.

Best of luck for the coming week,
Sacha Kopp
Associate Dean
College of Natural Sciences

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Saturday, 29 January 2022

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