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Scientists try out journalism

Translating scientific research for lay audiences


Derek Benham is learning how to translate complex science into lay language. Photo by Nicholas Benner

Biochemistry junior Derek Benham is using UVRR to determine the secondary structure of light-harvesting complex.

If you don’t have a clue what that means, not to worry. Lay audiences often struggle to understand science, and conversely, scientists receive little training on how to communicate with the general public. The Hughes Research Fellowship program at Mizzou aims to change that through interdisciplinary training.

The fellowship program, funded by a $1.5 million Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant, selects 14 MU science undergraduates to help conduct research and to produce science news. Fellows receive a stipend to dedicate their summer to full-time research and to spend their next two semesters working 10 hours a week in a campus research lab and two to five hours in an online media lab.

The grant also funds four undergraduate journalism students to work alongside the science majors.

Eight science students participated in the spring 2011 pilot program at MU. During weekly meetings, they learned scientific research and journalism principles from Jack Schultz, director of the Bond Life Sciences Center, and Jon Stemmle, associate director of the Health Communication Research Center. In the media lab, journalism students and undergraduate researchers produced articles, photos, audio, video and graphics that were posted to a Web portal,

Benham, a junior biochemistry major from Webb City, Mo., applied for the program in hopes of becoming an accessible researcher. (In simple terms, he studies how plants harvest light for food and fuel.)

“I’ve seen graduate students struggle with getting their research across, and I’ve sat through a lot of presenters talking over my head,” Benham says. “I’ve often thought to myself, ‘There has to be a better way to do this.’ ”

Kayla Knuf, junior biochemistry major from Highland, Ill., was also interested in the fellowship for practical reasons. She plans to apply to medical school and works at two local hospitals where she regularly sees patients confused over doctors’ words.

“As a doctor, you have expertise that others don’t, and if you can’t communicate knowledge with others, it’s kind of pointless.”

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