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June 26, 2017   Columns Articles | Inside UGA | Symposium focuses on helping public interpret new research…

Symposium focuses on helping public interpret new research findings

Allyson Mann

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By Allyson Mann | June 26, 2017
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Science affects our daily lives, and scientists have a responsibility to communicate about it with others, according to James Leebens-Mack.

"Now more than ever, scientists must help the public understand how to interpret our research findings to inform their decisions on issues ranging from personal health and nutrition to the health of the planet for future generations," said the professor of plant biology at UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

Leebens-Mack was one of 50 faculty, students and staff who got a master class in storytelling May 10 when Academy Award-nominated director Scott Hamilton Kennedy offered a workshop at the UGA Plant Center's 2017 Spring Symposium.

Kennedy encouraged the attendees, whose interests included nutrition, wildlife in urban landscapes, food safety and sustainability, to tailor their messages to the audience. When communicating about science to nonscientists, it's important to make a concept relevant to people's lives, he said.

"How could it affect them, their children, animals, the planet?" he said. "What could they actually relate to?"

Kennedy has experience navigating and communicating complicated issues. He is writer-director of Food Evolution, a documentary examining the controversial debate surrounding genetically modified organisms and food. Narrated by astrophysicist and well-known science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, Food Evolution premiered June 23 in theaters.

Another workshop participant, Todd Applegate, sought information to help faculty members improve communication skills, including dispelling public misconceptions about the poultry industry.

"It's incredibly important for the scientist to communicate effectively—not only within the discipline but also across disciplines with other scientists, with those in the trade and with the public of all ages," said the professor and department head of poultry science at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Kennedy defines a documentary as "your adaptation of reality or truth."

"You're always adapting," he said. "You're taking forestry, you're taking climate change, you're taking peaches, you're taking whatever situation, and you're filtering it through your life experience. A good documentarian is filtering it through [his or her] life experience and coming back with a nuanced, complex, honest version."

He also advised attendees to learn from what they love.

"When you want to make a film, go watch the movies that inspired you. Go watch the web series that inspired you. Go watch Funny or Die," he said. "The Funny or Die piece that made you howl could help make you a better science communicator."

The 2017 Plant Center Spring Symposium was co-sponsored by DuPont Pioneer as part of the DuPont Plant Sciences Symposia Series.

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