ComSciCon comes to San Diego: Great Science, Terrific Writing, and Zombies!

By Samantha Jones

San Diego is a well-known hub for science enthusiasts. From industry and drug discovery to geosciences and environmental conservation, there’s something for everyone. It’s hard to contend with the diverse array of meetings and conferences that come through San Diego, so as a graduate student navigating the broad spectrum of careers that could follow after graduation, it’s an incredible place to be.
In September, San Diego hosted its first ComSciCon. ComSciCon is a “communicating science workshop for graduate students” that was started in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2013 and has rapidly spread since, with more venues popping up throughout the country each year. At ComSciCon San Diego, science researchers, journalists, bloggers, public outreach coordinators, television script writers, (you name it!) all converged to share their stories, offer advice, and network with eager graduate students like myself, who are starting to think more seriously about a career in science communication. The conference served as an incredible chance to learn about the range of opportunities available after obtaining a PhD, and how to start preparing now.

Our keynote speaker, UCSD Cognitive Science assistant professor Brad Voytek, is no stranger to navigating the tricky science research and communications landscape. He spoke to us about the excitement and anxiety that comes with exploring our options as graduate students. Brad made a lasting impression, not only with his intellect and perfect comedic timing, but with his evident investment in reaching the audience of graduate students, who he recognized were working hard to explore career interests outside of the traditional academia or industry.

Brad’s path to where he is now is different from most, and his being a professor in the intense UCSD research environment makes it even more unique. Outside of his academic work studying neural network communication and disease, Brad is publicly known for his “work” with zombies.

Yes, zombies.

Brad is the author of the book Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?, published in 2014, which he co-authored with Timothy Verstynen, now an assistant professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. In this humorous yet cerebral book, Brad and his colleague use their neuroscience background to break down the inner workings of the zombie brain, and why the “undead” act as they do, from a scientific standpoint. They came up with the idea as graduate students, hanging out in the lab after work one evening. Brad, seemingly always a bit of a prankster, ran with the idea, creating an academic poster outlining hypotheses surrounding the “undead brain” and taking it with him to a conference where he was also presenting (let’s say more legitimate) research. He left the poster, titled “Consciousness deficit hypoactivity disorder: A Case Study of CDHD” up in a free poster space, where it gathered equal amounts of attention as it did confusion. This was the very beginning of what Brad describes as his time “riding the zombie wave.”

From a TEDx talk and a two-part series on “Diagnosing a Zombie” for TED-Ed to appearing in The Atlantic, Scientific American, Nature, and Forbes (to name just a few), Brad has established himself as a high profile cognitive science researcher as well as an incredible communicator, known for inciting public enthusiasm about science.

Drawing from his own experiences, Brad advised aspiring science writers to first find their voice, or writing style, and then find their niche, developing the confidence to, in his own words, “dive right in.”

Brad first found his voice while blogging about strange neurobiology studies from the early 1900s, i.e., human studies that would be deemed far too unethical if conducted today. From this, Brad uncovered his passion for writing. To find your writing niche, his message is simple: just write. This writing can come in many forms, but often the easiest way to begin is by starting, or contributing to, a blog that interests you. “See who responds,” he advises. “Write every day. And above all else, know why you write.” When you do “dive in,” always tailor your writing for those you hope to reach. “Are you hoping to reach other scientists? Your friends? Your grandma?” Brad queries. “Know your audience and create your work for them.”

In many ways, Brad spans two professions: science writing and science research. He advises both aspiring science communicators and graduate students who hope to stay in academia. Brad stresses the importance of being tenacious while taking the stressful and often unpredictable path that is science research. “You don’t have to be perfect to succeed, you just need to persevere,” he says.

As a mentor, he’s honest with his students about the fact that there are many careers out there, and that pursuing any future in science is exciting. “It is plausible that experiments and grants don’t work out. That’s science,” Brad says, and he has a “Rejections and Failures” section of his publicly available CV to prove it. If nothing else, Brad’s talk left me with a more positive outlook for my future as a scientist and science writer.

Find your voice. Find your niche. Dive right in.

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