Q&A with NPR’s David Kestenbaum highlights effective science communication

On January 21, the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago presented a science communication event featuring National Public Radio (NPR) reporter David Kestenbaum. Kestenbaum encouraged attendees to rethink their assumptions about how to talk to the public about science.

The virtual event was moderated by PhD student Ben Ketter and hosted by PhD student Paul Jerger, with faculty support from Hannes Bernien, Alex High, and Tian Zhong, assistant professors of molecular engineering. Ketter co-organized the event with Laura Rico-Beck, educational training and outreach coordinator at Pritzker Molecular Engineering.

Kestenbaum, the event’s guest speaker, is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues, and the global economy. His stories can be heard on shows like This American Life and Planet Money.

The fireside chat, titled “In Conversation with David Kestenbaum: When Top Quarks and Journalism Collide,” covered Kestenbaum’s career path from particle physics research to radio journalism, the role of storytelling in science, and why and how to engage the public on complex global issues. Eighty people attended the online event.

Inspiration to launch the event

Science communications training is a cornerstone of the PME doctoral program, and Rico-Beck said it helps students learn how to engage a wide variety of audiences with their research work.

After attending Rico-Beck’s presentation on science outreach and communications during orientation week, Ketter approached her with the idea for an event with Kestenbaum, and they decided to work together to make it happen. Rico-Beck thinks this speaks to the wide-ranging opportunities for PME students to take initiative and shape what happens at the school.

They brainstormed the basic structure of the event, brought on three faculty members to advise the effort, and recruited Jerger, a former PME Science Communications Program participant and Science Communications Fellow, to host the Q&A.

Ketter was inspired by Kestenbaum’s work on This American Life. “Science can often look mysterious, exclusive, or too complicated to understand. David’s work is a great example of how science journalism can reach people and get people excited,” he said.

With Kestenbaum’s background both in science and journalism, Ketter thought he would be the ideal guest speaker to help scientists rethink how they communicate their work and find new ways to tell stories.

Engaging the public with stories and conversations

During the Q&A, Kestenbaum emphasized that being able to hold someone’s interest is paramount in effective communication. If people stop reading or listening, there is no chance to convey anything.

In the context of This American Life, Kestenbaum said a good story has “stakes," a main person or people, a plot, and a surprising ending that gives you a feeling. Testing out material on audiences, particularly children, is another way to make sure stories are engaging.

The event emphasized going beyond communicating science for its own sake. Instead, communicators should focus on the why and how, as well as what scientific concepts are actually important to make clear to non-scientists. Sometimes this starts with listening to the public’s concerns.

“I think a lot of the time people don’t need to understand science [to understand its value],” Kestenbaum said, referring to how phones work, for example. But he thinks it would be great if more people understood the scientific method—the process of discovery and proof. If more people understood the process, that might lead to greater confidence in scientific advancements, such as the safety of vaccines, he said.

Rico-Beck highlighted that keeping your audience’s interest requires listening. “Science communication and public engagement is a two-way enterprise—learning from and relating to your audience is just as important as talking about your work,” she said.

Ketter hopes attendees see the importance of connecting new people to science, even when it means challenging the usual narratives used to convey technical information. He and Rico-Beck would like to see the event kick off an entire science communication speaker series that brings new and unheard perspectives to the forefront.