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Effective Communication: How Do Johns Hopkins Scientists Learn to Speak?

Does anyone remember being asked if they were left-brained or right-brained? That’s how I recall my friends and I attempting to find our academic niche. We had two choices: We were either good at solving equations or writing essays.

That may have seemed true when we were young, but as professionals we now know that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and communication skills are essential partners. As Ph.D. candidates, we must survive an oral candidacy exam, publish papers, defended our thesis and continue discussing our work in whatever forms our future career requires. All these milestones necessitate developed communication skills.

microphoneBut while some people have a natural ability, most require practice to develop these skills. So, how do doctoral programs help us avoid becoming noncommunicative scientists?

Here at Johns Hopkins, the short answer is repetition. There is no single way this training is carried out, but I would argue the general philosophy is the same: Learn by trying it again and again.

As a fourth-year student in the Program in Molecular Biophysics and working in a lab in the Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences, I have firsthand experience with the scientific communication training in both programs.

For over 15 years, the pharmacology department has offered a weekly seminar series called “Research in Progress,” in which trainees present their current research and are provided constructive feedback. According to, Philip Cole, the director of the program, two objectives of this forum are for trainees to “get experience giving oral presentations and answering questions in a public forum, and to gain confidence in their communication skills.”

This requirement is extended to all trainees working for pharmacology faculty, regardless of their program of origin, which presents an interesting consequence for me: Once a year, I give a talk on biophysical research to a pharmacology community. Because this audience has a different level of knowledge about my research, the seminar I give during “Research in Progress” is not the same talk I give to my own department. Though difficult at first, this endeavor has taught me to extract and present the most relevant components of my research based on my audience.

Conversely, the Department of Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry takes a different approach. Second-year students give a seminar on a topic unrelated to their thesis project, forcing them to digest and distill research so it can be understood by any audience. I chose to discuss a protein implicated in Parkinson’s disease, and so, as you can imagine, the audience was filled with neuroscientists!

Additional training involves voluntary participation in the monthly “Student Evening Series,” in which two students present their work to the other biophysics graduate students. Jeremy Anderson, a fourth-year biophysics student, described the feedback from these sessions as beneficial, given that it “pulls from the diverse background of those involved.”

Regardless of the flavor of training we receive, our time at Johns Hopkins prepares us to speak effectively about our work. Jeremy’s experience in biophysics enabled him to deliver a successful talk at the Biophysical Society Meeting recently held in Baltimore, while my own expertise in biophysics and pharmacology allowed me to navigate the challenges of a poster presentation at the same conference.

So, the next time we think to complain about preparing for a required talk, we should stop to remember the undeniable benefits it adds to our communications skill set.