It Started in a Dusty Basement, Next to a 300-Pound Fish Fossil

By Carol Schadelbauer, November 14, 2016

Training researchers to be enthusiastic and jargon-free public speakers, media interviewees and commentary authors is a life-long passion of mine, and it stems from my college days.

While studying paleontology, the science of fossil animals and plants, I began to understand the mindset of my scientist professors. They were focused, deeply observant, patient and thoughtful. They spoke in their own scientific language, which was difficult for people outside of our field to understand. One of my professors dedicated much of his life to uncovering fossil environments and spent plenty of time studying the trilobite (like a pill bug), digging through rocky outcrops in Cincinnati where those little buggers lived under the ocean during the Ordovician Age millions of years ago. He was diligently working to reconstruct historic life undersea to provide insights about ocean life today.

After an internship at the Cleveland Natural History Museum, where I categorized fossils in the dusty basement sitting next to a 300-pound ancient fish fossil, I realized I didn’t have the researcher mindset. I was, however, fascinated by science, and I wanted to help scientists talk about their work so that others could understand and be inspired like I was.

So I told my advisor, who claimed I was his prize paleontology student and TA, that I wanted to do science and health communications. He nearly had a heart attack! Why would I give up scientific research to focus on communications?

But fast-forward several years, and that’s still what I’m doing today.

Though my scientific research days are long gone, at Burness I’ve been involved in a longitudinal experiment of sorts on the impact of training researchers to advocate and communicate. It began a decade ago with a partnership between Burness and The Mayday Fund, a nimble and effective family foundation whose mission is to alleviate suffering from pain. The Chronicle of Philanthropy just published our findings on this ten-year effort.

True to science model form, here’s how our “experiment” (non-scientific though it may be) played out:

Hypothesis: We believe that better care is possible for people in pain, and undertreatment of pain is unacceptable. We proposed that outfitting scientists and clinicians — the experts — with the skills to become effective public communicators could raise awareness about the need for better pain management and create change in the care and treatment of people in serious pain.

Methodology: We selected six pain experts per year to be Mayday Fellows. We created a four-day curriculum that took these pain management clinicians and researchers out of their comfort zones and put them through intensive communications training. We also provided months of coaching and kept the fellows connected through a listserv, webinars and gatherings at their professional meetings so they could continue to learn, share ideas and partner on op-eds or letters to Congress. The Mayday Fund supported ten years of this work, which is nearly unheard of among foundations.

Results: Our published commentary describes the results:

“Based on some of the fellows’ work, university curriculum committees are embedding classes on pain management in medical and nursing schools, getting increased funding for pain research and changing policies in their states. One fellow gave a TED talk on why chronic pain is a disease; another became a regular contributor to the consumer-directed blog Get Better Health; yet another created a viral YouTube video on how parents can help their kids through painful vaccinations. Many contributed to the National Pain Strategy (NPS) issued in March by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.”

And by the way, the NPS is the government’s blueprint for improving pain care in America. Many of our fellows — plus other clinicians, researchers and pain patients — have worked hard to make the NPS a reality by raising their voices over many, many years.

Conclusion: Maybe this concept isn’t a bad idea. Maybe we should institute communications curricula in graduate school for researchers, and continue with training and coaching throughout researchers’ careers so they can use their work to improve lives.

Maybe what is desperately needed in our world is the voice of reason, evidence-based reason, at a time when reason is particularly hard to come by. I hope we’re able to spread this model to support more researchers and scientists.

And guess what? I’ve stayed in touch with my paleontology advisor. Believe it or not, he has said to me that what I’m doing — building skills and encouraging scientists to speak out — is as critical to scientific progress as finding a new species of trilobite.

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