Learning by Teaching

13. January 2014

Takayuki Umakoshi

The people in my family are not very familiar with science. I sometimes wish that I could discuss my work with them, but it is not easy to explain my research to people without a scientific background. This is just one of the many instances in which we as scientists need to communicate our work to people without extensive scientific knowledge. Communication skills are crucial to your success—for example, when applying for government funding for your research. Even if you get tremendous results, they won’t have an impact if you cannot explain them properly and make their significance understood.

Engaging children with science
My OSA/SPIE student chapter at Osaka University, Japan, recently held an outreach activity called “Super HIKARIJUKU.” During this annual event, we invite about 50 elementary school students to our campus and showed them how fascinating science can be through optics-related experiments. This year I served as a student chair, and the event was very successful. The kids had a great time and learned a lot about light. After helping to organize the event, I realized that discussing science with children taught me some important lessons about how to communicate scientific topics with non-scientific people.

Communicating successfully
In order to get our message across to the students, we had to do a lot of research. We asked parents and teachers what the children already knew, so we were aware of their level of scientific knowledge. We also found out about the latest popular cartoon characters, so that we could use fun images and concepts that children already recognize and enjoy to engage them even further. Practicing and testing our demonstrations was also very important—we showed the experiments to non-scientific people so that they could give us advice on the best way to make ourselves understood and to get kids excited about the subject matter. It took quite a bit of planning and effort, but we ended up with a really good set of experiments. Our thoughtful, hands-on demonstrations allowed us to explain complex concepts to children who might not have understood them otherwise.

Applying these skills
The communication skills that we learned by working with children are also applicable to adults outside of our very specific fields. I discovered that you need to be able to break down complicated ideas into simple, understandable pieces so that they can be useful to a wider audience. Think about what language will be most comprehensible and interesting to your listeners. Where possible, hands-on demonstrations are extremely helpful and can make seemingly abstract concepts much more engaging. If you are capable of making your research easier to understand, then it will be much easier to communicate its importance. Through my work with OSA, I realized that outreach activities like these are not only informational for our audiences, but also teach us how to communicate effectively. Teaching is learning.
 
Takayuki Umakoshi (umakoshi@ap.eng.osaka-u.ac.jp) is a Ph.D. student at Osaka University, Japan, and president of the Osaka University OSA/SPIE student chapter. For more information, please check out his website: https://sites.google.com/site/takayukiumakoshiwebsites/.

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Combatting Engineering Stereotypes

8. January 2014

Brian Monacelli

Quick! Think of a well-known engineer, real or fictional, from pop culture.

I bet that took longer than expected, right?

Perhaps Scotty from Star Trek came to mind. He is admired among his fictional peers because the fate of the crew often depended on his technical prowess, but this chief engineer seldom made the promotional posters for the series.

Maybe you thought of Dilbert, the fictional comic nerd-hero who is disgruntled and unpopular in his own world. Though humorous, his frustrations with his job are not always relevant to engineering. However, he does share with real engineers the reputation of being unsocial.

Even in our modern society that relies so heavily on technology, engineers and scientists have a fairly negative social reputation. Though there are a handful of notable, socially visible scientists held in high regard in popular culture—Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and Carl Sagan, to name a few—I’m hard-pressed to think of any publically familiar engineers (not counting technically savvy entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk or Bill Gates).

The Wikipedia page for “engineer” is telling—there is an entire section specifically about public perception of the profession:

“…engineering has in the popular culture of some English-speaking countries been seen as a dry, uninteresting field and the domain of nerds. One challenge to public awareness of the profession is that average people lack personal dealings with engineers, even though they benefit from their work every day.”

Engineering is challenging, but not uninteresting. Most of us rely on our engineered devices, so much so that they are often the first things we reach for in the morning or watch before we sleep. If engineering is dull, why are over 2.5 million people in the United States alone (per the 2010 U.S. Census) employed as engineers?

Wikipedia identifies the problem well: people don’t often have the opportunity to meet the person who designed their phone display or aligned their camera lenses. Layers of corporate customer service often prevent consumers from providing direct feedback to an engineering team, and technical topics are mired in nuanced jargon.

However, I find that it is both refreshing and efficient to have a technical discussion in which specialized topics are broken down into basic concepts that can be understood by an interested, but less experienced person. It’s key to find the right balance of precise technical terminology and universal language for your particular audience.

I suggest that public opinion of engineers can be improved if those of us making the technology spent a few hours during the day in a classroom or discussing technical projects with non-technical peers. Optical engineers in particular should be able to relate to most people, since almost everyone interacts with light every day, whether it’s something as simple as their rearview mirror or as complex as their head-mounted display of a 3-D video that was downloaded via an optical fiber link. If you can convey complex technical topics simply and directly to anyone you meet, then you stand a better chance of being crystal clear when you interact with your professional colleagues.

This new year, consider how you can alter the negative stereotype by reaching out to a young person, a family member or a peer to educate them about your passion for engineering. Understanding technology is awesome, so make it a story that’s told over and over again. Become a better storyteller, and maybe someone in your audience will consider engineering as a career.

Brian Monacelli is an optical engineer. He also teaches photonics at Irvine Valley College, Calif., U.S.A.

 

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Want to be A Professional Scientist? Join the Facebook Group

9. October 2013

Marc Kuchner

This post is adapted from content that first appeared on the Nature blog with the kind permission of the author.

 Planetary scientist Heidi Hammel was at the telescope when Facebook alerted her to an important new target: a comet had just crashed into Jupiter. She said, “I learned about one of the impacts on Jupiter via Facebook, and we were able to do immediate follow-up.” It is no secret that, scientists are increasingly using social media not just for outreach or for fun, but to do real, ground breaking, earth-shattering science.
 
There are many websites devoted to science news and amateur science—but where do scientists go online to interact with their colleagues professionally? I asked my colleagues on the Marketing for Scientists Facebook group (mostly astronomers) to share their social networking advice. I think their answers point to a fascinating shift in the social fabric of the scientific community.
 
Use Facebook as a forum for scientific debate.
If you have a lot of Facebook friends, you can have professional scientific discussions right on your wall. Angela Speck told me, “Since a significant fraction of my friends are scientists they do respond to science questions. And then the ensuing wall discussion is like a chat over lunch.” Keep in mind that it takes time and effort to build that long list of followers or friends, and then more effort to keep up with them and sort through their status updates, so that tactic won’t necessarily be effective for everyone.
 
Join Professional Facebook or LinkedIn Groups.
Instead of building large contact lists themselves, more and more scientists are working with colleagues through Facebook groups. For example, Adam Burgasser told me, “Our ‘Low Mass Stars and Brown Dwarfs’ group has been a great place to post papers, promote astro apps, announce conferences, ask about pesky references etc.” Joining such a group is like instantly acquiring hundreds or thousands of high-powered new friends and followers.
 
LinkedIn groups are also a fertile home for scientific research. As Mark Eisner said, “In my field of hydrogeology, or more generally environmental consulting, I belong to 50. So much I cannot keep up.” These groups are a great forum for scientific discussion and career networking in particular.

Facebook and LinkedIn groups have become new incubators for scientific progress, providing important virtual places for scientists to work and to mingle. The trouble is that there’s no good directory of these groups of professional scientists on social networks. The most reliable way to find the professional Facebook groups for scientists seems to be to “friend” lots of colleagues whose interests overlap with yours, and look at their Facebook pages to see what groups they belong to. Then you have to ask permission to join. Otherwise, you need to start your own group and hope one doesn’t exist already for the topic you chose.

Perhaps one day, an organization like OSA or the American Association for the Advancement of Science will maintain a directory of Facebook and LinkedIn groups where active professional scientific collaborations are taking place. Such a tool would help young scientists meet established scientists, and help established scientists move into new fields where they don’t already have contacts.
 
In the meantime, the rise of this informal network of professional scientist groups makes it clearer than ever: in science, it matters who your friends are.

Marc J. Kuchner (marc@marketingforscientists.com) is an astrophysicist at NASA, a country songwriter, and the author of the book Marketing for Scientists: How To Shine In Tough Times. His website can be found at http://www.marketingforscientists.com/.

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Networking through Student Conferences

20. August 2013

Shota Ushiba

We are often told about the importance of networking for furthering our careers. However, it’s not always easy for students to build these relationships, particularly as they are first starting out in their fields. In order to facilitate the creation of useful connections, the Osaka University OSA/SPIE Student Chapter, where I serve as the president, hosted an international student conference. The Asia Student Photonics Conference 2013 took place from 24-26 July at the Photonics Centre in Osaka University, Japan.
 
Organizing Logistics
The conference was financially supported by OSA, SPIE and other organizations. We aimed to build networks among Asian students and young researchers in the fields of optics and photonics, and to learn why networking is important, how we can create networks and what we can do with the networks. We were thrilled that more than 70 students from China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, India and Japan attended this year. It was the largest student conference we have ever hosted.
 
Making Connections
We conducted a variety of activities, with invited lecture sessions as a focal point. There were five guest speakers: Satoshi Kawata, Osaka University; Michael Alley, Pennsylvania State University; Prabhat Verma, Osaka University; Rinto Nakahara, President of Nanophoton Corp.and Junichiro Kono, Rice University. The speakers covered relevant career topics, including how to expand your network as a young scientist, how to communicate effectively through writing and presentations, and developing management skills. The speakers gave us clear, pragmatic answers to the issues we faced.
 
We also had student oral and poster presentations, group work, a social excursion and numerous coffee breaks and banquets. There was plenty of time for attendees to talk freely, which enabled us to get to know each other well. We made connections and bridged the cultural gaps between countries. I believe that these new relationships will pave the way for future research collaborations.
 
Becoming a Leader
My personal experience as the conference organizer was particularly enlightening and fulfilling. I arranged everything along with my colleagues, including funds, invited lecturers and student attendees. Students rarely get the opportunity to take on this kind of responsibility; it was great experience and practice for later on in my career. Throughout the three days of activities, we were thanked hundreds of times by the attendees; it was one of the most gratifying experiences that I have ever had. Our conference even inspired some of the student attendees to organize the next student conference, which will make our network wider and stronger. This sense of gratitude and shared responsibility is a great way to build up your community.
 
My work as the organizer of a student conference helped me to develop many abilities that I don’t often get the chance to hone. Although I sometimes struggled from taking on too many duties and had small conflicts with my colleagues over details, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I strongly recommend that you take the initiative to organize a similar event if you have the opportunity. It will broaden your perspective along with your network.
 
Shota Ushiba (ushiba@ap.eng.osaka-u.ac.jp) is a Ph.D. student in the Kawata Lab at Osaka University, Japan, and president of the Osaka Univ. OSA/SPIE Student Chapter. Check out his website or find him on Facebook.

Academic careers, Career, Communication skills, Conferences, Graduate school, OSA Student Chapters, Ph.D. Perspectives , , , , , , , ,

Writing Up a (Scientific) Storm

30. July 2013

Arti Agrawal

As a Ph.D. student, I was exposed to only two kinds of science writing: textbooks and journal articles. When our work reached a sufficiently advanced stage, we wrote our own papers and submitted them to journals. I still remember the excitement of submitting my first paper—and the disappointment of my first rejection. My energy and attention, like those of other graduate students I knew, were focused on research. Writing about our work was a bit of a chore.

However, since that time my perception of writing in science has changed dramatically. Today, I see it as a creative process almost on par with research. Writing should be an enjoyable process of content creation that allows you to present your research in an effective manner and express your individual style.

Not only can writing be personally fulfilling, it’s also professionally important. Doing good science is fantastic, but if that work does not reach other people, then much of our purpose remains unachieved. Having well-written papers can help get you published—which can be critical to progressing in your career. Increasingly, employers are also looking for examples of less technical writing skills. Writing does not have to be a hardship—you just have to start thinking about the task in a new way.

Consider writing a blog. The potential outlets for your work are more varied than ever before. For example, a blog (such as OSA’s blog, this career blog, or my own blog) is a great way to communicate more informally about topics in science. This format gives you a lot of freedom in choosing the subject matter, technical level and content type of your posts. You can express opinions on other people’s work, policy and current issues in science.

Take advantage of new opportunities in traditional publications. Science magazines such as OPN allow for more creative writing than peer-review journals do. They include letters to the editor, reviews, opinions and interviews. Even with journals, the ability to upload supplementary data, videos and other multimedia means we can be quite innovative in how we engage others with our work. Papers no longer need to be collections of static graphs and text.

Utilize social media. By using social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, we can target information to specific people or to large groups. On Twitter, we can draw attention to a piece of work by using just 140 characters. Online availability of content means we can open a window and speak to the whole world—an exciting development! What you write today can be read all over the world in a way that wasn’t possible just a decade ago.

These days, I miss writing if I don’t do it every so often—something I never would have imagined. In fact, I like it so much that I co-wrote an entire book! The more you write, the easier it gets, so take advantage of every opportunity and seek out new ways to practice your skills.

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

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To Find the Right Job, Learn How to Ask the Right Questions

22. July 2013

Lisa Balbes

This post was adapted from content on the Career blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with the kind permission of ACS and the author.

While I was in graduate school and for a few years afterwards, I excelled at finding good apartments as I moved from place to place. Eventually, I returned to my hometown and became ready to buy a house. When my father asked me what I was looking for, I started to list all the qualities I had sought in an apartment. He pointed out that many of those things didn’t matter when one is looking for a house, and vice versa. While both apartments and houses are places to live, there are significant differences between them.

I was recently reminded of this incident when a graduate student came to me for help in finding a job after graduation. I asked her what she was looking for in a new position, and she proceeded to talk about the techniques that she had used in school—instruments with which she was familiar and classes that she had taken. While those are all important parts of your education, they are not what you want to focus on when looking for a new job.

When determining your requirements for your next job, think more broadly. Identify not just what you did, but what you accomplished and why it was important. Most candidates make the mistake of being too specific in their description of their previous job. They use their resume to list what they’ve done, often in excruciating detail. The odds of another company hiring you to do exactly what you did previously is fairly small –and you probably want to try something at least a little bit different anyway.

Ask yourself not “Exactly what have I done?” but “How can I generalize my skills to cover more territory?” This makes your skills applicable to a much broader range of employers. Since so many resumes are electronically searched for certain keywords, it’s even more important to make sure your resume includes the general terms employers are using, not the narrower ones that describe precisely what you did before.

At the same time, be specific when it comes to “softer” skills such as communications, teamwork and leadership. While most of the resumes I see are too specific when it comes to technical abilities, they are often overly general with these softer proficiencies. Virtually every resume claims that the applicant has “excellent communication skills” (probably because someone told them that was important), but few include tangible examples.

In this case, ask yourself not “What skills do I have?” but “What particular accomplishment do I have that demonstrates my proficiency?” For example, did you write more than 25 standards for manufacturing procedures, resulting in an 18 percent decrease in production errors? Or did you testify before Congress about the importance of your research, resulting in a 150 percent increase in funding for your field over the next three years? Both demonstrate communication skills, but in very different ways. Are you better at oral or written communication? Are you more comfortable debating technical issues with other scientists, or explaining theories to non-scientists?

Once you learn how to categorize, generalize and apply your specific technical accomplishments to other areas—and to identify concrete examples of softer skills—you will be in a good position to prove that you can do whatever you say you can. In other words, you’ll have the right answers when others start asking the questions.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

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How to Find the Right Postdoc Position

16. July 2013
Ming Li
 
Many recent Ph.D. students would like to land a faculty position at a university or research institute soon after graduating. However, there are only a few of these opportunities available every year. For each opening, there will likely be many qualified applicants from all over the world, with very strong CVs and publication records. In this climate, it is extremely challenging to break into academia immediately following grad school, and so a postdoctoral position has become an important springboard to a tenure-track academic job.
 
For the past four years, I was a postdoctoral research fellow in two Canadian photonics research groups: the Microwave Photonics Research Laboratory at the University of Ottawa, under the supervision of Jianping Yao, and the Ultrafast Optical Processing group at the Institute National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS), under the supervision of José Azaña. My time as a postdoc has been a great experience that others could benefit from as well, and so here I provide my personal perspective and advice about how to find and take advantage of a postdoctoral position.
 
Find the right match for your research interests. A postdoctoral research contract is usually for about two years. Due to this short timeline, professors are looking to hire researchers who can be immediately involved in the research activities of the group and make meaningful contributions, particularly in the form of journal publications or conference presentations. The capability of the postdoc to bring new ideas into ongoing projects is critical to hiring professors when they are assessing candidates.
 
Use your network. A nice recommendation letter from someone who is familiar with the professor with whom you’d like to work can play a key role in successfully applying for a postdoctoral position. Professors often approach friends and colleagues to recommend a candidate who has the necessary background and capabilities. Try to take advantage of your existing connections, and work to broaden your network in addition to strengthening your CV.
 
Hone your communication skills. In Canadian labs, a postdoc serves as the liaison between students and the professor. In addition to working on his or her own research, a postdoc also assists the professor in guiding students, scheduling experiments, arranging group meetings, etc. Therefore, interpersonal skills are crucial, in and out of the lab. I learned these abilities from my two supervisors and practiced them throughout my time in Canada. Now, I use these important skills when working with my own students in China.
 
Seek out useful collaborations. On a related topic, it is important to take advantage of opportunities to form helpful relationships between different research labs. A postdoc must be able to negotiate and communicate with the people in other groups in order to complete projects in the most effective way. These collaborative experiences not only helped me to finish some of my most interesting research, but also to build a large professional network—which can be even more important in the long-term.
 
Although it can be difficult to get the tenure-track position that you’re hoping for immediately after finishing your Ph.D., don’t be discouraged. There are many valuable skills that you can learn as a postdoctoral researcher, and this experience will put you on the right track to accomplish the rest of your career goals.
 
Dr. Ming Li (ml@semi.ac.cn) is a full professor at the Institute of Semiconductors at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. 

Academic careers, Career, Communication skills, Graduate school, Job Search, Ph.D. Perspectives, Postdocs , , , , , , ,

What They Don’t Teach You in Graduate School

3. January 2013

Arti Agrawal   

I learned a lot in graduate school: science, research, patience, and technical writing skills, among many other things. So when I took my first position as a lecturer, I thought that my grad school training and subsequent experience as a post-doc had prepared me for professional life as an academic.

Boy, was I wrong!  Many skills that I need in my current job were not taught in school, and sometimes I am blindsided when professional life rudely makes demands on me that weren’t part of my carefully scripted student career. Below are some abilities that I have learned in the workplace.

Persuading and negotiating with people: I must often deal with people in positions of authority to obtain necessities like lab space or funds for equipment, conferences, training courses, or publishing in open access journals. There are limited resources, and the people holding the purse strings are besieged with demands from many others like us, so it’s important to know how to get what you need. Start by prioritizing your wish list into must-have, nice-to-have, and don’t-need-right-now items so that you can focus your energy and efforts accordingly.

Developing good work relationships: You will interact with colleagues, students, peers, superiors, suppliers, vendors and administrative staff, and it can be difficult to maintain these relationships successfully. As a typical geek, I had no idea how to manage working relationships, especially with people who were very different from me. Sometimes taking personality tests like the Meyers-Briggs can help you to better understand yourself and others. You can also get a head start on cultivating working relationships by taking on volunteer leadership opportunities such as organizing an IONS conference  or leading a student chapter—or simply networking within a professional society.

Managing my lab: When I began hiring people, I suddenly needed to understand legal requirements for equality and diversity, health and safety, and risk assessment. I also had to determine how to evaluate my staff. You can find much information online about hiring laws in your area, and my recent OPN article on “Learning to Teach” includes some ideas on how to think through student assessment.

Balancing more than one demanding job: As a post-doc, I would work on several research projects at once and even throw in a bit of teaching on the side—which felt overwhelming enough. But now added to the mix were administrative work, department meetings, lab management, securing funding, reviewing papers and supervising post-docs. Learning how to organize and prioritize is critical.

Saying no without offending: I find it hard to say no to people, and, as a result, I often take on more than I can handle. Although it can sometimes be difficult, it’s important to learn how to deal with such situations and say no without causing hurt or offense. Just be friendly but assertive about what you can and cannot realistically do. You must be able to set healthy boundaries in order to succeed in any relationship, whether personal or professional.

Indeed, these skills are not confined to any single profession–we need them in every sphere of life. Although they may not be part of any formal curriculum, you can learn them through experience and practice. Good luck!

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

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Challenging Myths and Traditions in Scientific Communication

5. April 2012

By Jean-luc Doumont

Jean-luc Doumont, a regular contributor to OPN’s career column and blog, has generously allowed us to adapt this content from his new booklet on effective communication, Traditions, templates and group leaders. You can download this free 16-pp. resource directly from Jean-luc’s website.

I have been running sessions on effective scientific communications for 20 years, and they are largely about challenging traditions. Ideally, traditions converge to best practices. But doing things “the usual way” without questioning whether it is the most effective method is hardly a guarantee of success. Critical thinking is as useful for communication as it is for research.

Here, I take a look at some ineffective traditions and myths in conference talks and scientific writing.

Opening a talk with the speaker’s name and presentation title. At the start, attendees want to decide whether it is worth staying. The speaker must thus first of all create interest and establish credibility. A self-centered opening is unlikely to achieve either, and the name and title of the talk are usually on screen.

Going over the preview of the talk at the very start. Attendees are not ready to assimilate such a preview until they know what the talk is all about. They first need to know the research need, how the speaker went about it, and his or her main message. The preview should outline the body (just before it), not the whole talk.

Thanking attendees for their attention. Thanking attendees suggests they paid attention as a favor. If you wish to show respect, make the talk interesting for them. Get their attention, motivate them and adapt to them. Make them want to thank you.

Writing a highly specialized abstract for a paper. Usually, the abstract is read by everyone, including the least expert readers, whereas the paper itself is read by more expert readers, who want details. While short, abstracts should not be overly technical. They should focus on the motivation and outcome.

Putting up with bad talks because conferences are supposedly more about networking. Networking can admittedly be a significant benefit of conferences. Still, talks should incite networking, not hinder it by reflecting poorly on the speakers or obscuring their topics. As for other things in life, if talks are worth doing, they are worth doing well.

Using “scientific language.” A tenacious yet often subconscious myth suggests that scientific prose requires a specific, unique writing style: “scientific language.” Group leaders are even known to criticize papers that “do not sound scientific enough,” as if credibility depended on obfuscation. If colleagues are grateful when you explain your research straightforwardly to them, why would you need to write differently, except to polish an imperfect use of the language?

Insisting on the passive voice (or the active one). Should research be reported in the passive voice? Certainly not when it makes for heavier sentences or omits an agent that matters, as in it is believed. Who believes this? The authors? The community at large? Readers will want to know. Should you write every sentence in the active voice? Of course not. The passive has legitimate uses as well, in particular to place the topic in subject position. Absolutes are convenient, but they are seldom tenable.

Do not let traditions stand in your way: Research is not about fostering mediocrity. Question habits. Identify ends before discussing means. In my experience, the scientific community accepts what is different if it is manifestly more effective.

Jean-luc Doumont (jl@principiae.be) holds a Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford University. He now devotes his time and energy to training researchers and others in effective communication. He is a traveling lecturer for OSA.

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How Scientists Can Build Better Websites

29. March 2012

Marc J. Kuchner

Have you ever wondered what your colleagues think of your website? I have. I know from experience that our colleagues judge us partly by our presence on the Web. Hiring committees often search online to learn more about job candidates, and review panels use our sites to help decide whether to fund us. 

An experiment
I did an experiment to learn more about what our colleagues look for in a website. I organize a Facebook group called “Marketing for Scientists,” where scientists, engineers, and other interested professionals discuss issues related to science communication, science advocacy and careers. I suggested that we take turns critiquing each other's websites. Altogether, 26 colleagues volunteered.

I asked each volunteer to review three URLs. I instructed them to play with each site for 30 seconds or a minute and then write a few sentences about what they liked and didn’t like. I asked them to address the following questions:

• What impression does the site give about the person who made it? 
• Does the site make you want to find a way to work with him/her?
• How could the site be improved?

The volunteers were a mix of faculty and postdocs, with a few science communication professionals thrown in. Soon my inbox was flooded with critiques that offered a wealth of advice and some real surprises. Here are the major lessons I learned. 

Include the basics. First, I heard a cry for more basic information. Andras Paszternak, a chemist at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the founder of The International NanoScience Community social network, said in a review, “place a direct contact address (email) on main page.”  In today's world of social networking, it's easy to forget about good old email.

Add video and graphics with captions. Next, there was a demand for images and video. “I would supplement your homepage with more graphical things,” said Robert Vanderbei, chair of the department of operations research and financial engineering at Princeton University. “Please use some color and/or pictures,” said Stella Kafka from the Carnegie Institute of Washington, department of terrestrial magnetism.

Although many of us recognize the importance of images, we often forget to add captions.  These photos are important to us, but they are unidentifiable to the people who visit our sites. “Nice photo.  Is it decoration? Art? Should it have a caption? Are we supposed to guess what it is?” asked Nancy Morrison, professor emerita of Astronomy at the University of Toledo.  I heard that sentiment several times.

Be passionate. One element that multiple reviewers mentioned caught me by surprise. If I could summarize it in a word, it would be passion.

“Maybe the homepage could include your personal motivation,” suggested Phil Yock, professor in the department of physics at the University of Aukland.  “I really like to know what scientists are passionate about, so I’d love to see a short write-up of what fascinates you the most about the universe,” said Emilie Lorditch, the news director and manager at the American Institute of Physics.

Share materials. The reviewers also expressed a desire for generosity. “I was impressed that you offer PowerPoint slides, poster presentations and data from your papers—It's generous and collaborative and makes me want to follow your example,” commented Yale astronomy professor Debra Fischer about one site. Sharing was not a value that was emphasized when I was in graduate school, but science has evolved since then. In today’s collaborative environment, it is a sought-after trait.

Next time I’m up late tweaking my website, I’ll know just what to post: full contact information with email address up top; video and pictures with descriptive captions; a passionate description of my research; and generous freebies that my colleagues can download.

Marc J. Kuchner (marc@marketingforscientists.com) is an astrophysicist at NASA, a country songwriter, and the author of the book Marketing for Scientists: How To Shine In Tough Times. His website can be found at http://www.marketingforscientists.com/

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