Episode 65 – How to get started in scicomm

We know many of our listeners are keen to get more experience in science communication but don’t know where to begin. Have we got the episode for you!

This week we had a fantastic chat with Dr Donovan Garcia-Ceron about how he got started in science communication and the things he’s doing to build his scicomm profile.

As you’ll hear, Donovan is kind and curious. He works in research to protect crops from pests, with the aim of increasing food security and enabling healthier communities.

He has worked in the creation of eco-friendly insecticides, and investigated how fungi “sneeze” to cause stronger infections in plants. As a research officer, Donovan now develops next-generation fungicides that can “switch off” the genes that fungi use to cause diseases, without being harmful to the environment.

During his PhD, Donovan developed an interest in science communication. He won prizes for the 3-minute Thesis and Visualise Your Thesis competitions in several years, and has been invited to write for blogs and to participate in philanthropic events to pitch science projects. He is passionate about making scientific knowledge accessible and open to anyone, and is interested in connecting with other science communicators. In his spare time, Donovan does Brazilian drumming and builds furniture using reclaimed wood (IG: @slothfurniture).

You can follow Donovan and learn more about him and his work here:


Jen (00:00:20)
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne’s Science Communication Teaching Team.
I’m Associate Professor Jen Martin and my wonderful co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler, and we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.

Jen (00:00:45)
Hello everybody and welcome to another exciting episode of Let’s Talk SciComm. I’m super excited to be here as always.
I’m Jen and I am joined by my wonderful friend and colleague Michael. Hey, Michael.

Michael (00:01:02)
Hey Jen. I’m very excited for today’s episode. We have a, another wonderful guest today.

Jen (00:01:08)
We do and look Michael, I’m sure you’d agree with me that one of the best parts of our jobs is the fact that we receive tons of invitations to run science communication workshops, on all sorts of different topics and that’s kind of outside of our main teaching work.
And you know, through those workshops we get to meet so many super talented students, PhD students, early career researchers, early career scientists.
And you know, we get given this incredible platform to share our knowledge about effective science communication, to share our passion and help these amazing people develop their skills.
And I know you love it as much as I do, right? It’s a pretty big honour to get asked to come and run a workshop somewhere.

Michael (00:01:48)
Yeah. Yeah, it’s wonderful, yeah. Just getting to meet lots of different people and just a variety of different areas that people are working in, always kind of keeps you, keeps it fresh, doesn’t it?

Jen (00:01:59)
Oh, absolutely and you know, it’s not infrequent that someone who’s been in one of our workshops will get in touch with us afterwards and say, “Hey, can we have a chat more about my career ideas or about my communication plans?”
And as you know Michael, chatting with interesting people is pretty much my favourite thing in the world. So I’m always delighted when somebody gets in touch.
And so our guest today is one of the fantastic early career researchers that I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting in one of our workshops this year. So welcome Donovan.

Donovan (00:02:30)
Thank you Jen, and thank you Michael.
I’m very excited to be here and looking forward to starting our chat.

Michael (00:02:34)
I’m looking forward to getting into it Donovan.
You’ve got some interesting experiences that we can get into.

Jen (00:02:39)
So Donovan, you did your Bachelor of Science degree in Mexico and then a Masters of Biotechnology and Bioinformatics at La Trobe University here in Melbourne. Then you stayed at La Trobe to do a PhD in Biochemistry and now you’re a research officer there.
And I know that you’re interested in plant fungal interactions. And when we talked, you were telling me that you’re working towards the development of new generation fungicides which is pretty cool.
And when Donovan and I, when we were chatting after the workshop, Donovan was telling me about his real passion for science communication and all the things that he’s been doing to develop these communication skills.
And you know, we know that there’s so many brilliant young scientists out there wanting to get more involved with science communication. These are people that I have the joy of interacting with every day.
So Donovan, we really thought that today we could have a conversation with you about how one goes about getting started in science communication. How does that sound?

Donovan (00:03:42)
That sounds amazing and yeah thank you Jen, for that brief introduction.
I’m not sure if I’ve done enough. You know, the imposter syndrome always kicks in with things like this.

Jen (00:03:53)
Oh look, the imposter syndrome is everywhere Donovan. We’ve just learned to not pay too much attention to it. So you’re in very good company here.
But look, before we talk about science communication specifically I do want to start by talking about you as a scientist to set the scene for what has then brought you into thinking more about communication.
So you told me that when you or before you started working on your first undergraduate research project which was working with worms and farmers, you told me that you were cleaning the lecturer’s rooms. So can you tell us a bit more about your early days in science and how you got started?

Donovan (00:04:29)
Absolutely. I think that’s a funny story for me. Personally it was my first day at university. I just moved out of my parent’s house and I was really keen and excited about doing this university degree. It was a vibrant campus.
And because I had a scholarship to pay for part of my tuition I was asked to report to what was going to be my “university service”.
And I find these very helpful and beautiful people that tell me “Umm well, you know. We have plenty of students that do their service over here. So just, why don’t you just take this cloth and start wiping down surfaces and later on we’ll let you know what else you can do”.
And of course, the work itself was not anything that I was against. But I just started university and I thought I could probably start learning quickly and dedicate this time that I have to something that is conducive to my degree.
So the very next day I spoke to one of my lecturers who had a research project and she actually had people paying off their scholarship by working with her in the laboratory. So I spoke to her, “Hey can I actually join you and get involved in the research projects that you have?”
And she said, “As long as you have the authorisation from the school’s office then you can get… you’re welcome to come.” So in, at that very moment I went back, I did all the paperwork. I got the approvals and I started cleaning on Monday and then by Wednesday I was back in the laboratory, starting on what I didn’t know at the time was going to be a nice and fruitful research career at this point.

Jen (00:06:10)
So it was a very short lived cleaning career.

Michael (00:06:13)
Yeah. Yeah, it’s interesting to kind of hear different experiences that people have had from you know, various different places. And Donovan, I’m curious to kind of ask you a bit more about what brought you to Australia.

Donovan (00:06:26)
Countries in Latin America invest less in science out of their GDP. That in turn complicates the research landscape for a lot of researchers back home.
So I knew that I wanted to expand my skills in science. I wanted to learn novel techniques. I wanted to learn cutting edge, new tools in science, at least in my field.
So when I was about to finish my degree, I started looking at finding scholarships to study overseas and joining a master’s program. And at the time Australia wasn’t really in my radar. Most people in Mexico go study in the US or Europe.
But I just said, “Well you know, Melbourne looks like a really cool city. Australia as a country is huge and full of different landscapes and it just sounded like a, like an adventure really.” So long story short, I did all the paperwork and I got accepted into Latrobe which had some agreements with Mexican universities that made it a little bit easier.
And before I knew it I was heading into the Bundoora campus at La Trobe University in Melbourne. I was walking through the halls of the Latrobe Institute for Molecular Science which has an amazing building. It’s like a honeycomb.
And early on I got involved in the Three Minute Thesis competition which is, I mean, I will probably elaborate a little bit more on that. But in 3 minutes you have to describe your doctoral degree which is an understatement to say that it’s challenging.
But for some reason I loved it and I wasn’t shaking too much when speaking in public. So I guess it was both a combination of a healthy research environment that was vibrant, that had PhD friends and students from a lot of different backgrounds.
And it was those types of competitions, the Three Minute Thesis and the Visualise Your Thesis contests that really got me into communicating science, turning the technical language into something that almost anyone will get interested about. That is how I came to get involved with science communication.

Jen (00:08:44)
And so Donovan, you’ve just said that you had the opportunity to be part of these competitions and we will ask you more about them shortly.
But was that the point that you recognised that science communication was something that you really enjoyed or had you already kind of worked that out?
I guess, you know, I’m just interested to know why science communication is important to you. Was it the fun or was it more about wanting to make your science accessible? You know, what was your, what was your route into science communication?

Donovan (00:09:12)
I think we all in science have seen not so exciting presentation[s], cluttered slides on PowerPoint that have way too much text or a research article that although it might be really useful when you decipher what they meant [when] they wrote it, it may be a bit too heavy to untangle it as you go if it’s not written with flow and with a good structure. So that was one thing.
I knew that when I saw these types of communication that would benefit from making it more accessible to more people, I knew that I wanted my research to be clear and concise when, whenever someone run into it.
And the other thing and this is more of an anecdote that I take with me since a long time ago. I remember I was doing my confirmation presentation for my PhD back at La Trobe and there were a bunch of people. This was more of a seminar type of environment. So most people from the department got in the auditorium and listened in support of the PhD students.
I remember that the head of the department at the time, Professor Robyn Murphy at La Trobe was there and next to her was a child, which I presumed it was her, her son.
So I gave my presentation as usual. I like to use clear slides, nothing too convoluted, language that is simple and get anyone working in science outside of my field could understand.
And I just went on with my day. A few days later, I jump on a train as I’m going to the Bundoora campus and it was early in the morning and the school boys and girls jump onto the cart.
Everybody’s just excited and talking and there’s a lot of conversations going around with these kids. And I am minding my own business and I see that this kid stops and looks at me as in saying, I know you from somewhere.
And I look at him and I say, “I don’t really know you, but I see that you want to tell me something”. And I said, “Hi, how’re you doing?” And he said, “Do you work at La Trobe University?”
And I said, “I do”. And he says back to me, “Do you work with fungi and plants?” I said “Yes. How do you know that?” He’s like, “Oh, I was at La Trobe a few days ago. My mom is Robyn Murphy and I saw your presentation on how fungi infect plants and how you’re trying to study these compartments that leak the cell and that may be involved in plant infections.”
And I said, “Wow, that’s, that’s amazing. How do you remember all of this?” And he said, “Well, it was pretty cool. See you later, right?”
And at that time, I just got to think, Wow, if by any reason I made a school kid of I don’t know, 10, 12 years old, listen to what I said and remember after a while, I think I like the idea of making it accessible to anyone and hopefully impact someone and say, “Oh, maybe science is interesting and I want to get involved”.
So yeah, I think to summarise all of what I just regurgitated on you, it was a combination of speaking clearly and concisely and also impacting people that may find science interesting.

Jen (00:12:38)
That’s such a cool story. I mean to have a kid remember you, not only remember you, but have understood enough about your research that they felt like they wanted to talk with you about it. That’s a pretty remarkable achievement, I guess.

Donovan (00:12:51)
Absolutely, yeah.

Michael (00:12:51)
Hmm, ’cause that was from your, that that was from your confirmation presentation, right?

Donovan (00:12:53)
Yes, it was a few months into my PhD and that was, at that time I was, I felt like I wanted to transform the way I communicated my science.
And yes, it’s something that I keep with me and I think about often. And I’m very grateful that he decided to talk to me ’cause it really did change the impact that I thought about my communication abilities.

Michael (00:13:20)
Well, I mean, that’s very impressive because you know, if it was something like the Three Minute Thesis Competition, you know that there’s strict kind of guidance around really being non-technical and communicating very well in a short amount of time.
But for, you know, your confirmation presentation, there isn’t the kind of the same emphasis necessarily on explaining things in concise, easy to understand ways. The fact that you were able to do that I think is a real, real credit so early on in your PhD.
You mentioned then, you know, the Three Minute Thesis competition. I know you’ve also been involved in Visualise Your Thesis. For our listeners, can you tell us a little bit more about what that involves?

Donovan (00:14:00)
Absolutely. That’s also a funny story because these things like the Three Minute Thesis, the Visualise Your Thesis, normally come in university emails.
And for the Three Minute Thesis, when the students see the email come out and say, “Oh, please join us and participate”, everybody starts shaking because well, talking for three minutes, no visual aids whatsoever, it’s a bit daunting.
But when the Visualise Your Thesis came out, it was ‘record a video that is one minute long’. You do it on your own time. You edit on your own time. You don’t have to face a live audience. Send it through. And if it’s one of the best videos that we have, you win a cash prize.
So you know, when someone tells you via email that you’re going to get a cash prize, sometimes it feels a bit dodgy. We’ve learned to be cautious with things like this on the Iiternet.
But to my surprise, it was a competition founded by the University of Melbourne. And when I saw it, I thought, Okay, this is something that I really want to do. I’ve always been interested in photography and video animation. And I got involved.
And yeah, well, to summarise and to answer your question, it’s instead of speaking to a live audience, you shoot a video. It could be an animation made out of photos or anything. And you communicate what your PhD research project is about and you win a cash prize. So I think it’s a really good deal.

Jen (00:15:29)
Donovan, just thinking about both Three Minute thesis and Visualise Your Thesis. You know, as you said, they’re really hard. You know so much about your research topic. You got to condense it down to either three minutes or one minute. You’ve got to work out how to make it accessible, all of those things.
But for you and for many other students, there’s the added challenge of having to do that in English. How did you find transitioning into science communication in English? Was that?… I mean, I imagine you already had some English, but I’m sure you’re a lot more fluent now than you were when you arrived.

Donovan (00:16:02)
That is true. The language is always present. At this point in my life, in my career, I am fortunate that I don’t see it as a challenge or a hurdle in the way that I want to speak to people.
The native speakers may be able to tell better, but it is true. The language is quite different. And I often speak with Spanish speaking colleagues and friends that we as foreigners in Australia, it’s almost like we have a different personality when we speak in English and when we speak in our native languages.
So in terms of adjusting the way I speak English in an academic environment, I think it’s just a matter of practising, really.
And I always like telling stories when I talk about science or pretty much anything in my life. I feel stories are engaging and make you relate more than simple facts and statements.
I was fortunate also that I spent a long time studying English back home. So by the time I reached Australia, haha… You can probably tell by my accent, I have an American accent because that’s the English that I was taught back home.
And of course, the slang, the Australian slang is real and it’s difficult sometimes to get used to it. But I remember at La Trobe, we had some induction on getting used to the Australian English accent. So it was a huge help. And having English speaking colleagues also immersed me in the English that we speak here in Australia.
But yeah, there was definitely a learning curve on that. And it was challenging at first to speak with clarity. But always create a script, always show it to native speakers. And yeah, if you do it from, from the heart, if I sound too poetic, sorry, just do something that resonates with you. Don’t try to fake it and get help when you need it. But yeah, just have fun, I guess.

Michael (00:18:10)
And I definitely noticed the transition from Irish English to Australian English when I came over, you know, a bit of a learning curve, but not as much as going from Spanish to Australian English. So yeah, credit to you for making that transition.
So Donovan, really curious to hear more about your kind of plans for incorporating science communication into your future career. How do you see that as being a part of continuing to build your profile, I guess, as a scientist and science communicator?

Donovan (00:18:43)
Ooh wow. We’re getting into the nitty gritty, Michael.
And that is one of the reasons why I approached Jen after a seminar at La Trobe Uni a few months ago. She was telling us how she was studying her PhD in ecology and she was doing these… publishing papers, going to conferences. And all of a sudden she realised how is this going to impact our world?
How are we going to use all of this knowledge, all of this privilege that we have as researchers to benefit our environment and our communities? And it was almost like an infomercial, I told Jen at the time.
Do you suffer from not knowing how your papers are going to be read by the world? And I was like, Yes, and yes, and yes. I resonated so much with the way she thought about that.
And from doing the PhD, you are encouraged to get involved in all of these competitions. Now that I’m doing a postdoc, it’s more about, I know you should think more about the papers that you’re going to write and the students that you’re going to supervise and these things so… I want to continue this avenue of science communication that I think is as important if not more than writing research articles.
So one of the ways that I want this to continue in the future is reaching out to people like you guys. And I think the work that you do at Melbourne Uni with the science communication team is amazing.
And yeah, writing articles for publications like The Conversation and whenever there’s a callout for people wanting to know about research project within universities, to speak up [on] the radio. And anything like that, it comes my way, I’ll probably try to get involved. And I was going to say, “if time allows”. But the truth is, as researchers, or at least that’s the way I see it, we need to make time, allocate certain time of our days to make sure that we actually do this.
The aim overall is to get more people interested in science, wanting to come and do research. And also not keeping our results in our privilege to ourselves. To actually go out and say, “This is what I do. These are the tools that were given to me in a very privileged position by doing research.” And hopefully, if I tell you about it, you get interested and science overall will get a, an even better reputation nationally.

Michael (00:21:16)
That’s great.

Jen (00:21:18)
I’m really delighted to hear that what I said resonated with you, Donovan.
You made me feel like I must have been very persuasive that day. My passion must have come through. But I feel like…

Michael (00:21:26)
You’re always very persuasive, Jen.

Donovan (00:21:28)

Jen (00:21:29)
Well, that’s why we’re doing this podcast right, Michael?

Michael (00:21:31)

Jen (00:21:32)
But Donovan, you know, I would say that you, you know, you’ve really put yourself out there and you’ve really sought out opportunities to develop your skills.
And you know, not everyone does come up afterwards and say, “Hey, can I have a chat with you?” And you did, which I just think is wonderful.
And I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on what have you learned about effective science communication?
I mean, you’ve said quite a few things. You’ve said, you’ve talked about storytelling. You’ve talked about clarity. You’ve talked about accessible language, slides that aren’t too cluttered.
You know, if you were going to run a workshop on communicating science effectively, what do you think you’d be talking about?

Donovan (00:22:12)
What comes to mind first is a workshop that I got with I believe, a great science communicator, Dr. Shane Huntington. I loved how he used to switch between… this was back when COVID restrictions were still among us and we had these flash lockdowns here in Melbourne.
He used to give these workshops through Zoom, which if you are a researcher and you enjoy presenting to live audiences, that’s a very deep circle of hell.
But anyway, he had to because that’s what we had at the time. When doing it through Zoom, he would flick between his slides that were really clear and concise. And all of a sudden he will stop sharing his screen. So we could just have a look at him speaking to us. And he will try to move his hands around. So you know, it’s just finding the right focus that works at the time.
Because if you leave a screen on for too long, people are just naturally going to get distracted. There’s nothing wrong with that. And he was telling us audio is more important than visuals. “If my slides cut out for a moment, then you can probably work out what’s happening. But if my audio starts breaking up, then you lose your focus and you lose the stream of communication very quickly.”
And I guess that’s, there are some teachings that stuck with me, that make me want to emulate those things, like the ones, the things that I’ve learned from Shane Huntington, from you Jen and from other great presenters that I’ve seen.
And I think that is just respect your audience, know your audience, know that they want to learn something and they’re donating their time to listen to you. So in every interaction that I can, I like to be as concise and as clear as I can.
And I just hope I can keep learning these little tips and tricks to keep producing engaging research content and communicating more effectively.

Michael (00:24:30)
Yeah, that’s great advice, I think yeah, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Being kind of concise.
And it’s really interesting that you say you know, switching between having slides and no slides.
I think that sometimes that some of the best talks I’ve seen actually have no slides at all, so…

Donovan (00:24:44)

Jen (00:24:45)
I’ll definitely pass that on to Shane, Donovan. You know, Shane and I are very good mates who’ve been doing radio together for a couple of decades. And I think we’ve had him on the podcast at least twice, Michael. Maybe more, I can’t remember.

Michael (00:24:56)
Yeah, we have. We have had him on twice.
And in the spirit of Shane switching from his slides to no slides, we are going to now switch to the final part of our podcast, Donovan. It’s come time for the rapid fire questions.
So quick questions, lighthearted, nice and concise.

Michael (00:25:25)
And the first question that I would like to ask is: If you had to pick an alternative career to what you’re doing now, what would it be?

Donovan (00:25:32)
Ooh wow. This is something that I learned through the pandemic, but I will be a woodworker.

Michael (00:25:37)
Good answer, very useful.

Jen (00:25:39)
Ooh, I like it, I like it. Yeah, that seems like a very good thing to spend your time doing.
If we go back now to the work you’re doing at the moment, how would you describe that work in only three words?

Donovan (00:25:53)
Oh my goodness, 3 words.
Oh Jen, you’ve put me on the spot here.

Jen (00:26:02)
Well, it’s all about communication, right?
We like to challenge our guests.

Donovan (00:26:07)
I don’t know if I have 3 minutes to think about this but I think it all comes down to healthier resilient communities.

Jen (00:26:18)
Ooh, I like it.

Michael (00:26:19)
Hey, very, very interesting. OK, bit of a curveball question next.
Donovan, you’re hosting a dinner party. You can invite some of your friends. But also you can invite along one scientist, living or from history, who would, who would you invite and why?

Donovan (00:26:34)
Oh wow. I think it will be Mary Curie. I’d like to know more about how it was like to be a, a female scientist such [a] long time ago. It’s challenging now and I wonder how could it be back in the past?

Jen (00:26:50)
Can you invite me to please Donovan?
Cause I’d really like to, I’d really like to have that conversation as well.

Michael (00:26:53)
And me.

Donovan (00:26:56)

Jen (00:26:59)
Next question, Donovan. Talk to us about what you’ve learned so far about how to achieve some work life balance.

Donovan (00:27:07)
Wow, OK. I’ve been really fortunate to work with a team that really values people’s time outside of the lab.
And I think it’s just a matter of making up a rough plan of how your research is going to look like and not sticking to it religiously.
Things change, circumstances change and it’s, it’s OK to, to reestablish aims and goals. And if things don’t work out, then you find an avenue where you say OK well this didn’t work out, but we have this and it’s also interesting and we are passionate about it.

Michael (00:27:48)
Yeah, great advice. You know, having the flexibility to adapt to plans changing I think is, is great advice.
So last piece of advice that I’d like to share, you to share with us Jonathan. If you had to pick one single top tip for getting started in Scicomm for those listeners who are interested in doing a little bit more SciComm, what would your very top tip be?

Donovan (00:28:11)
Engage. Engage with the invitation that comes through email for a Three Minute Thesis or Visualise Your Thesis.
If someone comes and gives a talk to the university, engage and go, go see it, go listen to it.
I remember about your chat at La Trobe a few months ago, Jen. I am in a separate building on campus and it was a rainy day, and I was far from where you were giving your talk. For a minute I thought ahh, maybe I can join by Zoom. But then I remember that I hate presentations through Zoom. So I just said, “Oh, maybe I’ll just skip this one this time”. But I said, “No, I really want to have a look at this.”
So I took a 20 minute walk. I sat down and I listened to you and I resonated so much. And now I’m hearing your podcast.
So I think it’s just engage with whatever feels right and ask questions and ask for help.

Michael (00:29:10)
Great, great advice.

Jen (00:29:12)
My first response to that is I’m so pleased that you made the effort to go walking in the rain and come because otherwise we wouldn’t have chatted and got to know each other. But also I just think that’s such good advice.
And I think in the context of people who are really busy and constantly overloaded and working in a culture of there’s, you always need to do more. You know, you’re never doing enough. You always need to do more.
It’s so easy in advance to sign up for things and think, Oh, that would be fun. You know, future me is going to have enough time to do that. And then the day comes and your to-do list is enormous. And you think, No, actually, I can’t justify the time for that.
But you’ve just argued that actually making the time for kind of, some of these extra things, that’s where the joy comes from. That’s where the opportunities that can really completely change our whole careers comes from. I think it’s absolutely superb advice.

Michael (00:30:00)
Yeah, really good advice, ’cause you don’t necessarily know exactly where those opportunities are going to lead. But if you, you know, if you, if you follow those leads, they can be very fruitful.
So thank you Donovan. Much appreciated and thank you so much for coming on the podcast and sharing your experience with us.

Donovan (00:30:20)
Thank you so much. I think it’s limited experience at this point. But I’m really grateful that I got to meet you on the podcast and yeah, hopefully we’ll collaborate again soon. So thank you so much for hosting me.

Jen (00:30:32)
Well, we can’t wait to have you back in some future period, whether that be months or years and hear about all the amazing science you’ve done, but also all the amazing science communication that you’ve done. So please stay in touch.

Michael (00:31:03)
Thanks for listening and thanks also to our wonderful production team, Stephanie Wong and Steven Tang for making these episodes happen behind the scenes. And thanks also to you, our listeners, for your support.
If you are enjoying these episodes, you can help spread the word by telling a friend about Let’s Talk SciComm or even sharing one of our episodes. But that’s all for this week. We’ll be back in your feed next Tuesday. See you then.