A UC Davis Graduate Student Blog

Tag: science communication

Storytelling for Scientists

Written By: Sydney Wyatt

Edited By: Emily Cartwright

“Everyone can relate to stories.” – Chris Anderson, TED Talks

Storytelling is essential in scientific communication: we are always told to “tell a story with the data” in papers, posters and presentations. There are many methods for storytelling (see this resource), but I’ll focus on my two favorite methods—the throughline and “And, But, Therefore” (“ABT”). As an example, I’ll use a very simplified hero’s journey and workshop my research using the two methods: 

The hero’s journey: The protagonist lived in a peaceful and happy world but a problem arose, therefore she set out on a journey to find a solution.

My research: I study the role of fibroblast growth factor signaling in ovary and testis development in zebrafish. 

Method 1: The throughline

When I think of forming a story, be it a blog post or a scientific poster, I tend to use the idea of a throughline, or narrative arc. It can also be considered the “point” of the story and narrowed down into one sentence; you can find examples here for Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Lord of the Rings. A throughline for my research might be: fibroblast growth factor signaling is implicated in ovarian cancer cell proliferation, thus it may have a proliferative role in normal development. The throughline connects all the elements in a story—the protagonist to the problem to the journey to the solution—just as the elements of a poster or paper connect all the data. 

We’re trained to write in a throughline manner: introduction, methods, data/results and conclusion. However, we as scientists don’t usually communicate verbally with a throughline. Instead we tend to throw data at an audience, like lab-mates in a lab meeting, and expect the audience to “get it.” There needs to be context for the audience to care about the problem and thus understand the journey. Why would an audience care about fibroblast growth factor signaling? I need to explain that it’s increasingly detected in ovarian cancer for them to care about my project exploring its normal role in development. 

A throughline can have other elements that contribute to it, like branches on a tree as explained by Chris Anderson, author of TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. One such element is the anecdote, which is useful in a presentation to relate to the audience. For instance, I might have had a close family member with ovarian cancer and I could share some of their story; the audience can relate to me on this topic and will care more about my research in zebrafish. I don’t need to share the anecdote, but it adds flavor to the presentation. You might do this naturally in a casual lab meeting by inserting commentary on how well the methods are going. I highly recommend reading the book for more details.

Method 2: “ABT”

Narrative is extremely important in storytelling, as explained in the throughline method above. Randy Olson, author of Don’t Be Such a Scientist, developed the And, But, Therefore (ABT) method for developing a narrative. It goes like this:

And: The protagonist lived in a peaceful AND happy world. Applied to my work: fibroblast growth factor signaling has a function in many developmental contexts AND has been well studied in contexts such as limb development. This serves as the introduction to the work being communicated. What’s known about the field? Why will the audience care about the work?

But: The protagonist lived in a peaceful and happy world BUT a problem arose. Fibroblast growth factors signaling is important in development BUT we don’t know what role it is playing in ovary and testis development. The “but” introduces the problem the research addresses. It also leads into the research question (is this signaling pathway promoting proliferation or differentiation?) and the hypothesis (it promotes proliferation).

Therefore: The protagonist lived in a peaceful and happy world but a problem arose, THEREFORE she set out on a journey to find a solution. Fibroblast growth factor signaling is important in development, but we don’t know its role in ovary and testis development; THEREFORE we conducted research to investigate our hypothesized role. There’s a lot to pack into the “therefore” segment of a paper or talk. It includes your results, methods, discussion and conclusion. For a more in-depth review of this book check out this article. I also highly recommend the book itself, which includes an application of this method to a poster presentation.

This article’s throughline and ABT are very similar: storytelling is an important component of successful communication, but it’s challenging in a scientific context, therefore I’ll share some common methods of story development. 

There is no single correct way to develop a story, and these are just my two favorite methods. I invite you to explore the resources below to discover your favorite storytelling elements, but be wary of trying to fit in too many elements at once. Practice using different elements in different settings. A throughline might be most appropriate for a paper, but the “ABT” method may be better for a poster presentation or elevator talk. As always, practice and get feedback from your peers! 


Want to practice with UCD BioScope? Pitch us an article at ucdbioscope@gmail.com.

Additional resources:

  • Science Says’ storytelling and pitch workshops
  • The Open Notebook (TON) has a wealth of information on many aspects of science writing.
  • The National Association of Science Writers (NASW) has many resources on pitching and publishing science stories as well as professional development programs.
  • The Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW) frequently collaborates with NASW to put together the annual Science Writers conference.

Don’t Be Such a Scientist by Randy Olson

Internet Accountability

Written by: Devan Murphy

Edited by: Jennifer Baily

Due to the pandemic, most of us are spending more time in front of our screens. Honestly, I spend a lot more time on social media than I used to, and it has affected my mental health. No, it isn’t the dreaded FOMO (fear of missing out). It’s the posts from some of my friends and family that have shattered my perception of the people I thought I knew. As I scroll, I see an accumulation of conspiracy theories about COVID, unwillingness to help protect others by wearing a mask in public, and little empathy or consideration for the essential workers and medical professionals putting their life on the line while we sit at home. Although the internet is a valuable tool with a wealth of information and a method for connecting people, it can also be used for the complete opposite—disseminating falsehoods and driving a wedge between communities.

This weighs heavy on my mind and heart as people who helped raise me and shape who I am today share and legitimize misinformed views on the pandemic. But the information they insist on propagating results in behavior that goes against the very values I learned growing up. To see them posting harmful opinions and incorrect information feels like an attack on my profession. As a student in the Veterinary Student Training Program, I reside at an interface between the medical and basic science fields. To me, this situation is similar to clients who come into the clinic, ignore your professional opinion, and insist on telling you how to do your job because Dr. Google diagnosed their pet’s ailments for you. In the light of COVID, research scientists are now getting a taste of this frustration dealing with a population that is either ignorant or belligerently dismissive of facts (although climate change scientists have known this pain for a while now).

I do understand how the public could be confused. There is SO MUCH information out there, but this is what we deal with in science all the time. And as graduate students, I think we are exceptionally good at updating our point of view when we receive new data. I remember a conversation with a family member about grocery bags. He was annoyed about paper bags being brought back into fashion. It went something like this:

I don’t understand. We used to use paper bags, then they told us not to cut down trees, so we all switched to plastic. Now, everything is “Plastic is bad, plastic is ruining this environment.” So, which is it? We are supposed to go back to killing trees?

I tried to explain that as we get new information, we need to reimagine our behaviors. It is natural for scientists to understand that nothing is simple. There are always things we don’t know; we live on the frontier of the known and undiscovered. As we find new information and uncover confounding variables, we build them into our understanding or understand when to reject them. I wish it was easy as a superhero movie, where the bad guy is easily identifiable. But that’s not the real world. It is messy and problems are multifactorial, and clear straightforward solutions rarely exist. But here is the irony, in this situation, a common enemy does exist! Coronavirus. So, with a clear threat in sight, why are some people insistent on defying health experts instead unifying to defeat the pandemic?

Initially, who knew what to do? Wear a mask, don’t wear a mask? And unfortunately, with government leaders not always being the most reliable sources, downplaying the severity of the problem and being slow to take action, it can be very confusing for someone watching the news to know what actions to take. However, now it is clear this virus is very contagious, deadly, and masks help prevent transmission. Therefore, perpetuating misinformation and bashing public health guidelines is a safety concern.

So, as graduate students, a community versed in critical thinking and evaluating primary literature, is it part of our job to combat misinformation online? Is it our place? And what internal conflict does this pose to call out our family members or friends? Interestingly, I wanted a career in science because I thought it was the unbiased pursuit of facts, untainted by the subjectivity of the humanities. Why deal with people when numbers don’t lie. But numbers can lie. In the worst case, they are purposely manipulated(1), but even in the best of circumstances, statistics without context mean nothing. And without placing these numbers in the proper context, it is easy to misdirect the audience. As recent events have made perfectly clear, science is not devoid of these conflicts. Our science is funded by taxpayers to help the public, therefore, getting involved to make science interpretable and usable to the public is implied in that paycheck.

Leaders and officials seem to be catching up on the relevance of internet accountability. The United Nations started an initiative to provide reliable information about COVID(2) and some social media sites like Twitter began fact checking posts(3). But to do this, you need to critique the information. Scientists do this all the time with peer review, disclosing conflicts of interest, and discussing the limitations of their work. However, it takes time to go through and fight/debunk all of the misinformation. In contrast, it takes NO effort to make stuff up to support a false narrative. I’m lucky enough to still have my job, and I honestly don’t have the time to refute all the misinformation I come across. To some extent, it must be the responsibility of the individual to self-educate. Again, there is a wealth of information online.

While I strive to stress the importance of accountability online, I acknowledge that this may not be an entirely safe conversation as people feel attacked when you dispute their worldview. So much of science has been tied to politics, which becomes emotional quickly. Being rejected or cut off by loved ones may not be an option. But if possible, in the way that personally works best for you (1-on-1 conversations, public sharing of valid resources, etc.), I think we have some responsibility as a science community to stop the spread of misinformation. That doesn’t mean everyone will listen, but letting this information spread unchallenged, like the virus, is dangerous.

(For more information, about spotting misinformation and fighting it, check out Fleming’s article (4) )


  1.   Florida and Georgia facing scrutiny for their Covid-19 data reporting – CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/20/us/florida-georgia-covid-19-test-data/index.html.
  2.   Online training as a weapon to fight the new coronavirus. https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/07-02-2020-online-training-as-a-weapon-to-fight-the-new-coronavirus.
  3.   Twitter fact-checks tweets linking 5G and coronavirus – Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/twitter-factchecks-tweets-5g-coronavirus-2020-6.
  4.   Fleming, N. Coronavirus misinformation, and how scientists can help to fight it. Nature 583, 155–156 (2020).


Far From Home

Written by: Ellen Osborn

Edited by: Ross Wohlgemuth

Many of us leave home in order to attend college. It is a modern-American rite of passage when we throw what physical items we care about into a suitcase and leave the place and people that, up until that point, were our whole world. And yet, the physical separation that is a defining part of the university experience is rapidly overshadowed by the emotional separation formed as we build social networks and expose ourselves to new perspectives. The learning and expanding that occurs at university can reinforce values learned at home, strengthening core convictions about how life works and what matters most. It can also deconstruct, maybe even shatter, parts of you. After a few years, the physical distance separating you from home can still be overcome by modern day travel, but the psychological distance that develops can feel increasingly unbridgeable. In my case, my childhood home is not too far from where I attend university, but the separation I feel from the community that raised me is devastating.

I was a difficult kid. I got into fights in school, did not make or keep friends easily and was aggressively tomboyish. I vividly remember laying on my bedroom floor as a nine-year-old, thinking that I hated everyone around me and did not understand why I was alive. My mom, the exceptional person that she is, decided to homeschool me during those rough years. We joined a small, Christian fundamentalist homeschool group, and through the years, I grew into a completely different person. The people in my new community shaped me; due to their efforts, I began caring for others, making friends and appreciating the value of my life. Because of this personal transformation, I feel a deep sense of love and gratitude toward my home community. I understand their actions were well-intentioned, and the lessons they explicitly and implicitly taught me came from a place of love and concern. In addition to the lessons of love and kindness, they taught me that homosexuality, abortion, evolution and even liberalism were evils in this world. They taught me that a woman’s ultimate purpose in life is to stay pure, marry and have many children. They taught me that California public universities would rob me of my faith and scientists could not be trusted. I believed most of what I was taught and arrived at community college with my guard firmly up. 

Despite the anti-science views entrenched in my home community, I was drawn to science. After only a few classes, science no longer seemed to be the amoral machine of secularization whose design was to deceive. Rather, I saw science to be a study of the complex beauty of the world around us. Continuing my education as a transfer student in a biology major, I learned more about nature’s detailed complexity and what I learned was not always compatible with my first worldview. LGBTQ+ people are not immoral; women are research powerhouses in academia; evolution is supported by evidence. 

Parts of my worldview needed to be reconstructed in order to accommodate my newly acquired relationships and knowledge. The longer I lived in my new community of friends, classmates and mentors, the more lessons from my upbringing were replaced by lessons from my adult life. This exchange did not occur because I was swept up in the groupthink of an institution; instead, I was developing love and empathy for the people who shared with me their values and beliefs and challenged the narrowness of my worldview. I still loved my home community, but our vantage points were no longer the same. In addition to the physical distance separating us, there was a growing psychological distance created by every lesson I no longer believed. 

The 2016 election revealed the immediate consequences of the psychological separation from my home. People I loved and respected were unreservedly saying things I once agreed with but now considered to be wrong. Vitriol and outright insults were leveled by both of my old and new communities. I could feel my conscience pushing me to be a bridge between the divide, but I felt like an imposter in both places. I had, in a way, abandoned my home community both physically and psychologically, and yet I still felt loyal to those people and understood their anger. Ultimately, my feelings of self-doubt and anxiety associated with sticking even a toe into the maelstrom of outrage relegated me to the position of a conflicted observer. Finishing college in a post-2016 world and becoming a graduate student in a STEM field, my observer status persisted. 

The events of this year have forced me to reevaluate my role in this divide. Rampant misinformation and prejudice are reinforced by closed social networks. Opponents, including scientists and peers I respect, degrade and publicly reprove these groups, the effect of which is to further feed the machine of mistrust and distaste. As an observer, it seems as if I am already conceding defeat: anything I say will be immediately drowned out by the outrage. 

But I do not want to be characterized by defeat. What if I can connect, listen and engage with just one person on the other side, and lessen the outrage they feel? What would happen if we gently correct misinformation when we see it and offer evidence that breaks the cycle of confirmation bias? Could we slowly build bridges that narrow the psychological separation between divided communities? I am just beginning to grasp the enormity of America’s culture war between science and fundamentalism, so these questions could be a result of my naiveté. When I doubt my ability to bridge the gap, I think of Barack Obama, who overcame the institutions framed against him to become the first Black president of the United States, and his quote: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” 

It is painful to parse out the consequences of psychological separations from the people we love, and even more so to take the next steps to try to bridge that separation. Fortunately, it is not just one person’s job to build that bridge; I’ve had many encouraging conversations with other graduate students that are reaching out to their home communities in small but meaningful ways. Even if that is all we can do now, it is a start. 


To be continued.

Science communication for the middle ground

Written By: Will Louie

Edited By: Nina Sibonae Cueva

It is flu season, so I hope you have all gotten your flu shots! Vaccinations are arguably one of the most game-changing medical achievements of human civilization. Developed countries enjoy the eradication and suppression of some of the deadliest viral and bacterial diseases. However, since the publication of the original study fraudulently linking the Mumps, Measles, Rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism, the anti-vax movement is on the rise in the United States. And while scientists focus on the black-and-white of whether to vaccinate when debunking this claim, vaccine-hesitant people are still left in the middle. This group does not flat out reject vaccines, but are either fearful about the side effects, considering alternative vaccination schedules, or just distrustful of medicine in general. It is critical that we as scientists empathize and address the sources of hesitancy, a phenomenon that describes reluctance but not complete opposition to vaccination.


Many infectious diseases that terrorized our ancestors are but a memory thanks to mass vaccination. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the incidence of many infectious diseases have dropped by over 90% since the implementation of quality-controlled vaccines. Globally eradicating smallpox in 1980 was only possible through mass vaccination. Famously, Jonas Salk’s first successful polio vaccine in 1955 was immensely successful in pioneering mass vaccination, as millions of American families volunteered their children in Salk’s government-funded vaccine trials. Parents truly felt they contributed to a greater good, and the rapid transition from fears of losing their children to the disease within a single afternoon to near eradication of polio incidence highlighted an immense payoff in trust of a government program. Following worldwide administration, polio has been nearly eradicated, with sporadic transmission confined to inaccessible regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Despite these success stories, vaccine hesitancy has persisted, and understanding the perspective of those who are vaccine hesitant is imperative to improving our communication with the public.


Fears about autism


The most resilient debunked argument against vaccinating children is the fear that vaccines cause autism. Although the study was retracted, the damage was already done: this argument lingers among social media groups and anti-vax blogs. More worrisome is not that people still believe this unsupported causal relationship, but that anti-vaxxers prioritize preventing autism over preventing potentially deadly diseases. The fear is unfounded and counters collective efforts to destigmatize physical and mental disabilities. While the universal consensus among scientists is that no causation between vaccines and autism exists, it is uncertain whether this rebuttal alone is sufficient. Many vaccine-hesitant parents are still unsure whether this autism link is truly debunked, thanks to the mass amounts of information and disinformation circulating on the internet. We should also delineate the differences in health outcomes between autism spectrum and deadly infectious diseases. Even if this were true, the benefits outweigh the risks, and marginalizing those who are actually on the spectrum is not helpful. As scientists, we must improve our communication to clearly share the benefits and real risks of vaccination without alienating an already marginalized population. Shifting our focus from sole denial of MMR-autism causation to an emphasis that the benefits of MMR protection are worth the risks of side effects, addresses parental concerns for their children’s health in a non-judgemental manner.


Fears about government ethics and transparency


We all have a favorite conspiracy theory; I love the claim that “pigeons are not birds but actually government surveillance drones implemented to spy on urban civilian life” (citation not needed). Likewise, there is no shortage of conspiracy theories regarding vaccines. Moreover, there is a striking overlap between people who believe in conspiracy theories and those who are skeptical of vaccines. However, one cannot help being sympathetic to groups who are distrustful of government. After all, the U.S. government’s track record for medical ethics and transparency has been less than stellar. From the Tuskegee syphilis experiments targeting African American males on the domestic front to the CIA’s fake vaccination program in Pakistan as a cover for hunting Osama bin Laden on the international front, it is no surprise that many people are skeptical of government-mandated vaccine compliance. While there is still a giant chasm between outlandish chemtrail conspiracies and a real concern over government regulation or deregulation of vaccine administration, we need better ways to communicate the differences. Those who are vaccine-hesitant often struggle to separate distrust in the business practices of our corporate overlords from distrust in the science itself. Public health professionals and medical researchers need to bolster efforts at communicating the risks, benefits, and evidence for vaccines in a transparent and assuring manner. Most importantly, however, is the need to repair trust between the government and the people, a problem that transcends the anti-vax movement.


Fears about Big Pharma


Similar to the distrust in government is the distrust in companies that profit from vaccine development and distribution. It is easy to paint the pharmaceutical industry as the villain, because it is true in many cases. Examples of corporate greed taking priority over civilian health are all too numerous: former Turing CEO Mark Shkreli’s 5000% markup on the drug Daraprim (arguably a catalyst for discovery of the even more sinister predatory price gouging by Valeant Pharmaceuticals); Purdue Pharma’s role in fueling the opioid crisis; and Bayer knowingly selling HIV-tainted products to developing countries. As a self-proclaimed jaded millennial, I am not surprised that there are people, paranoid or misinformed, who see vaccines as just another case of Big Pharma capitalizing on a medical necessity to maximize profits. But Big Pharma generally doesn’t profit from vaccines. The cost of an annual flu shot ranges from $0 to $50 depending on your medical provider, while other vaccines like the intravenous polio vaccine are being given to children in developing countries for free, because even they understand the long term benefits of mass vaccination. The scientific community must separate fact from fiction when it comes to Big Pharma’s games, and effectively communicate that getting vaccinated doesn’t really affect their bottom line.


How do we come in?


It is important to note that anti-vaxxers are a vocal minority group. It is unlikely that any amount of evidence or communication will convince those deep in the anti-vax camp, but we can help those who are undecided. The vast majority of Americans do support vaccines and vaccination rates in the U.S. are still high, but they can be improved. Recent years have seen a rise in measles cases, traceable to anti-vax communities. While measles vaccination rates in the U.S. have remained at approximately 91% from 2013 to 2017, the required vaccination rates to confer herd immunity to measles has been estimated to be >95%. Importantly, most parents just want what is best for their kids. However, when they decide not to vaccinate their children, they are not just making a decision for their children, they are making a decision for their community. Immunocompromised individuals as well as children too young to get the particular vaccine rely entirely on herd immunity,. Thus vaccination rates for highly contagious measles need to be higher to provide effective herd immunity. As scientists, we can understand these statistics and translate them to the vaccine-hesitant group for the benefit of all.

Facts, evidence, and rationalism are the bread and butter of scientists, but this does not always translate well to the layperson. As seen in segments of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, comedy is a great way to relay information about vaccines. This is accompanied by the realization that emotional anecdotes about children who suffer from vaccine-preventable diseases connect to parents much more effectively than do facts and figures. As much as I hate to admit it, my beautiful PCR gels and stunning figures of antibody titers are less impactful than a commercial for polio vaccination showing children confined to the Iron Lung (picture below) after being afflicted with polio. As scientists, it is difficult to leave the bench behind and participate in activism and communication. It is a constant struggle to communicate science to the public in an amicable and informative manner. Rather than dismiss all concerns about vaccines, we should constantly improve our communication to be rational but relatable, confident but approachable, stern but empathetic. Fighting vaccine hesitancy is an uphill but winnable fight that will pay off with improved means of scientific communication.

Smithsonian Magazine, 1952

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