Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Can you describe what you do at work in 90 seconds – with a camera in your face?

This summer, nine faculty members at the University of Iowa learned to do just that by participating in a one-and-a-half day media training workshop to facilitate better communication about their research to journalists and the public.

Conducted annually, the Communicating Ideas Workshop training takes the research mission of UI to the next level by considering how faculty research can frame public discussion and increase public understanding. The workshop included a panel discussion with media representatives from Iowa Public Radio, KCRG, and national consulting group Frank N. Magid Associates in addition to lectures and Q&A with university communication staff and School of Journalism and Mass Communication faculty.

View the videos at

 “It’s funny but as professors we’re not really trained to do most of our job,” said Communicating Ideas participant and UI Physics & Astronomy Professor Jasper Halekas, whose research on solar winds have included NASA-funded probes to Mars and the moon. “We learn through our whole careers how to do research, but there is this whole other part of our jobs when we become professors. We are running the equivalent of a start-up company and we have to deal with funding, managing employees and communication. The workshop was a huge opportunity to learn techniques for interacting with the media and connecting with the public.”

Faculty participants this year conduct research as wide-ranging as understanding pediatric pancreatitis, the roadblocks to African-American citizens in a rebuilding Detroit, and recovering the history of the lost performance tradition of elocution. One of the many challenges of being an academic researcher is learning how to boil down incredibly complex research concepts into easily digestible and succinct pieces of information that make sense to broad audiences.

“It’s not easy if you’re a researcher who has spent 20 years splicing genes to condense your life work down to a 60 second explanation,” said Charles Munro, lecturer at the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication and co-developer of the Communicating Ideas Workshop. “We teach faculty how media interactions are really about establishing a relationship with their interviewer so that together you tell the public your story.”

Before the workshop, UI journalism students videotaped interviews with each of the faculty participants. The videos were later used at the Communicating Ideas Workshop as a “before” example and to provide a launching point for feedback. Faculty were broken in to small groups for coaching and message-honing before having an opportunity to tape a new 90 second description of their research.

UI Department of Biomedical Engineering Professor and Director of Graduate Studies M.L. Suresh Raghavan participated in this year’s workshop and said he hopes all professional academics will learn to think both inside and outside the classroom when communicating about their area of expertise. Not only is it consistent with UI’s mission to create and advance new knowledge, but it ensures that the public has unbiased, factual information and an informed public can make well-informed investments in higher education.

“Workshops like these allow me to better leverage the occasional fifteen minutes of fame at my disposal to communicate what we do and how we do them effectively,” said Raghavan, whose research involves the development artificial arteries. “It made me feel fortunate to be part of a university that proactively seeks to enhance the softer skill sets of its faculty and staff.”

Other 2016 Communicating Ideas Workshop participants included: Assistant Professor Natoshia Askelson, College of Public Health; Associate Professor Marian Wilson Kimber, School of Music; Professor Amnon Kohen, Department of Chemistry; Assistant Professor Donna Santillan, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology; Professor Aliye Uc, Stead Family Department of Pediatrics; Associate Professor Sherry Watt, College of Education; and Assistant Professor Jessica Welburn, Department of Sociology.

The Communicating Ideas Workshop is a training tool developed by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development, which provides resources and support to researchers and scholars at the University of Iowa and to businesses across Iowa with the goal of forging new frontiers of discovery and innovation and promoting a culture of creativity that benefits the campus, the state, and the world. More at, and on Twitter: @DaretoDiscover