Crash course for young scientists aims to increase public trust, science literary

Approximately one hundred students from the University of Arizona’s Undergraduate Biology Research Program attended a seminar on writing effective press releases led by Chandler native and National Beckman Scholar Randall Eck.

When researchers ask children to draw a scientist, their pictures are dominated by white lab coats, colorful test tubes and men. Stereotypes about scientific researchers persist in adulthood with real-world consequences for public health and diversity in scientific fields.

For the last 31 years, University of Arizona’s Undergraduate Biology Research Program has sought to recast the stereotype of a scientist by sponsoring thousands of exceptional students in research labs across the state and providing them the skills to be successful ambassadors for science. 

“There’s a popular philosophical question: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” said Jennifer Cubeta, UBRP director. “Likewise, if a scientist discovers something important, but can’t communicate it effectively, is it significant?” 

As scientists, UBRP students have the responsibility to communicate the importance of scientific research in society not only to their family and friends but also to taxpayers, donors, school children, policymakers and all impacted by their work Cubeta said. 

This summer, UBRP students received a crash course in writing a press release about their scientific research from Chandler, Arizona native Randall Eck. Eck is a seasoned science reporter for The Daily Wildcat, UA’s student newspaper, and also is an aspiring scientist himself receiving a national research fellowship from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. 

Picture of Randall Eck presenting to students
Chandler native and UA Beckman Scholar Randall Eck walks students through a series of activities on writing scientific press releases in an effort to increase dialogue between scientists and the public

Eck led the UBRP students in a variety of activities focused on writing honest headlines, explaining scientific terminology and taking eye-catching pictures. 

“In my experience, writing about scientific discoveries is not easy,” Eck said. “Scientists from two different fields oftentimes do not fully understand each other’s work.” 

The real challenge for the UBRP students is to create a captivating story about their journeys as  young, talented scientists and convey the potential impact of their research on everyday life Eck said. 

In the lab, Eck uses fruit flies and rats to study how the formation of RNA stress granules, a major type of stress response in our cells, changes during aging to better understand the mechanisms of stress resiliency and neurodegeneration. 

“Last year, I attended the Walk for ALS in Tucson and had the humbling opportunity to interact with people who my research impacts,” Eck said. “For too long, people have seen scientists as isolated in their labs; I want to help my fellow researchers  share their passion and knowledge for science.” 

Reading the stories of hard-working researchers and students can reshape public perceptions and keep science accountable according to  Daniela Zarnescu, a professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at UA. 

Zarnescu’s frequent conversations with the press allow her to increase public understanding of research and ethical topics that may not traditionally make the news but are critical to her study of neurodegenerative diseases. 

“When researchers share their excitement about their work, it can provide role models for burgeoning scientists as early as primary school and attract and build a more diverse science workforce,” Zarnescu said.

For Cubeta, the press releases also provide an opportunity to showcase the innovative research and talented students at UA. 

“We hope that not only will our students gain a valuable lesson on the importance of scientific communication, but that these press releases will be published and the public will learn about the work being done by amazing undergraduates here at the UA,” Cubeta said.  UBRP also publishes select student press releases on its website for the public to read, enjoy and learn from.