Science Policy Group Writing Workshop

A man stands speaking in front of an audience.

Workshop participants look on as Gus Greenwood reviews some tips and tricks for communicating your work to the public.

“Know your audience” –this was one of the key points addressed on Wednesday, February 6th at the first Science Policy Group Writing Workshop. In conjunction with the Writers Workshop on campus, the Science Policy Group Professional Development Committee held a 90-minute workshop on communicating science to non-scientists. The guest speakers included Ananya Sen, an experienced science communicator and doctoral candidate in MCB, and Carolyn Wisniewski, Director of the Writers Workshop, along with her co-presenter Gus Greenwood, an MS student in Environmental Engineering.

After a brief introduction to the Science Policy Group, Ananya kicked things off right away by having the 26 attendees participate in a stimulating mental exercise. She had them write down how they would explain their research to three different audiences: 1) An expert in their field, 2) A 5-year old, and 3) A peer not in your field. The exercise not only put their research in perspective, but also challenged them to remove the jargon. At the conclusion of the exercise, Ananya answered several audience questions about her journey, how she got started, and what she blogs about. Overall, the attendees felt that the activity and her personal experiences were a valuable part of the workshop.

For the remaining hour, Gus presented helpful pointers in communicating science to the public, such as knowing your audience and getting to the bottom line right away. He illustrated his point by giving an example of talking to his grandmother about his research –how could he pare down and use metaphors and similes? Gus then transitioned into an example of a form of science communication, a policy memo. He explained the basic structures of a policy memo and then introduced the upcoming National Science Policy Network memo writing competition. Many of the attendees expressed interest in the competition and with a March 1st deadline, the timing of the workshop was perfect.

As a final activity, Gus and Carolyn passed out examples of different samples for analysis, including a blog post from a well-known physicist, a Washington Post opinion article, and a few policy memos. After skimming through them and coming back as a group, they pointed out the differences in writing styles, target audience, and technical language used. There was productive conversation and discussion regarding the written examples and collectively, the group agreed that the writers were able to get their point across.

At the conclusion of the workshop, participants were satisfied overall with the workshop content and activities. They learned some valuable tips on communicating science to the general public and information on the upcoming memo writing competition. In addition, Carolyn and Gus provided everyone with additional resources available to them through the Writers Workshop. From Biochemistry to Food Science and Human Nutrition to Economics, the departments represented by the attendees were diverse but still united in the goal to communicate science to the public effectively. This workshop was a great introduction and springboard for future partnerships with the Writers Workshop and science communicators alike to help people from various science backgrounds communicate science to the public.


Event coordination and write up by Alisa King.

Champaign County Environmental Town Hall

Join us in the Beckman Auditorium on September 14th from 3:00-4:15pm to learn how the Future Energy Jobs Act, passed in December 2016, will promote development of renewable energy and clean jobs. Panelists come from the Illinois Senate, Faith in Place, Urbana’s Environmental Sustainability Division, and Continental Electric Construction Company. Audience members will have an opportunity to ask questions toward the end of the town hall.

RSVP for this free public event here:

Networking Workshop

Participants practicing their networking skills!

Event Recap:

On September 4, the Science Policy Group Professional Development Committee, in collaboration with Derek Attig and Mike Firmand of the Graduate College, ran a networking workshop. The workshop primarily focused on learning how to craft elevator pitches targeting legislators and other governmental policy makers, as well as more general networking tips for a broader audience. We really wanted to create a single event where participants could both learn how to network and also have the opportunity to practice with experienced professionals, so we invited four additional faculty/staff members from the University to join us for a reception following the workshop. Those professionals were Dr. Ashlynn Stillwell of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Dr. Gay Miller of Veterinary Medicine, Doris Dahl of the Beckman Institute, and Melissa Edwards of the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research. Both Dr. Stillwell’s and Dr. Miller’s research inform policy, and they each have previous science policy work experience- Dr. Stillwell at the Congressional Research Service and Dr. Miller through the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship. Doris Dahl and Melissa Edwards are both experienced science communicators.

Derek and Mike ran the first 45 minutes of the workshop, giving a very interactive presentation on how to network, why it is important, and some common strategies. Tailoring this to the science policy group, Mike kicked off the session by having the group practice elevator pitches, pretending we were pitching our research or job idea to a policymaker. Participants commented that condensing their “pitch” down to 30 seconds was very difficult. Key takeaways here included to NOT to think of it as “dumbing down” the statement, but instead to choose words very carefully, and then practice, practice, practice!

For the next portion of the workshop, Derek gave a more general overview of networking. He emphasized acting as the “host” of the event instead of the “guest,” making sure to introduce yourself  to other people and to invite outsiders into your conversation. The goal is to have a few meaningful interactions, NOT to have one extended conversation or to meet as many people as possible. This part of the workshop easily led to the reception, where the professionals spread around the room and participants grabbed some refreshments and began networking with each other.

Over 40 people attended the workshop and event registration indicated that participants were from a variety of departments and at a variety of stages in their academic career (undergrad to post-doc and research staff). At the reception, the room was abuzz with conversation, and it looked like everyone who wanted to chat was able to find a conversation partner or group. We saw even saw some contact information being exchanged! Participants had positive things to say about their experience, and the faculty were enthusiastic about interacting with the Science Policy Group again in the future.


Marshmallows, Baileys and the Science of International Engineering

Ann-Perry Witmer, P.E., M.S., has followed a curious path through life, ultimately coming to engineering in midlife when she enrolled in the University of Illinois’ College of Engineering after a successful career in newspapering. After graduating with honors and becoming the first civil engineering major ever to win the prestigious Harvey Jordan Award from the College of Engineering, she became a practicing professional engineer in Wisconsin, designing water systems for communities throughout the Midwest.

She also helped to create organizations that work directly with communities in Central America and the Caribbean to provide engineering assistance for disadvantaged communities in need of safe, sustainable drinking water.

Ann now teaches freshman engineering electives as well as engineering service design courses at the university, and she is faculty advisor to Engineers Without Borders-UIUC and AWWA/WEF. Her service travels have taken her to Central America, Africa, Asia and South America, where she’s developed a deep understanding of the relationship between technical and social considerations that must be co-evaluated for communities in need.

She is currently pursuing a novel graduate degree in engineering that investigates the relationship between technical design and non-engineering considerations like politics, culture and economics.

More information: here.

Connection is a Choice

Illinois MRSEC presents a plenary by an expert from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. This interactive session introduces participants to general principles in how to craft short, clear, conversational statements, intelligible to non-scientists, about what you do and why it matters. The session consists of an interactive presentation and discussion on interpreting technical material using examples and analogies to illuminate unfamiliar concepts to your audience. This plenary will address problems and solutions in public interactions as well as peer-to-peer communication. Participants will be actively engaged in improvisation exercises and will practice clarity in speaking to non-scientists about their work.

Friday, May 18 at 1 PM – 2:30 PM

204 Loomis (Physics Interactive Room)

Springfield Trip

The Science Policy Group will be taking 12 students to Springfield on April 24th to meet with legislators to argue against HB 5134, a bill that would keep eight uneconomical coal plants in business by raising our electricity bills by $115/year. These coal plants, owned by Texas’ Dynegy Inc., emitted 32 million tons of carbon dioxide this year.

Attendees are expected to be available from 7:30am-6pm on April 24th, and should plan to bring money for breakfast and lunch. Business formal attire is also required (

Please note, due to limited seating, only members of the Science Policy Group can officially go on this trip as a part of SPG.

Science Policy Group Call-A-Representative-Day

Call your Representative on Wednesday, November 29!

Currently, Congress is assembling tax reform legislation that will impact you and your ability to study as a student. In the House of Representatives version, tuition waivers will be taxed as income. Universities typically provide tuition waivers to graduate students in exchange for teaching and conducting research. As tuition rates soar, this becomes an increasingly important part of compensation. Counting tuition waivers as income will increase the tax burden of graduate students by thousands of dollars a year, de-incentivizing American graduate education overnight. The new tax legislation would severely limit the number of students able to pursue graduate research which in turn will limit America’s international competitiveness.

But, it’s not too late to make a difference! The Senate is voting to pass its version of the bill Thursday, so let your senator know you oppose the proposed legislation. The Science Policy Group at the University of Illinois and the Graduate Employee Organization are asking you to join us and hundreds of other students in contacting legislators to implore them to vote against the current tax legislation. Calling your Senator takes just a couple of minutes but may change the vote in Washington.

If you would like to voice your opinion about the tax legislation to your senators, either call during lunch break or stop by our CARD info booth for more information.

View the University’s official stance on HR1 here