Keynote #1: Defending the Golden Age of Science Communication

Thomas Hayden, director of Stanford University’s graduate program in environmental communication.

There has never been more, better quality science journalism and communication produced than there is today, and the work of connecting the practice and insights of science to diverse audiences has never been more important. And yet the field itself and the careers of individual science communicators have never been more under threat. This talk will address this fundamental disconnect at the heart of science communication and highlight the importance of practitioners supporting practitioners in defending its golden age.

Keynote #2: Why Science Communicators Need Solutions Journalism

Sarah Gustavus, Mountain West Regional Manager with Solutions Journalism Network.

Gustavus will explain why journalists should move beyond just reporting the problems facing society to covering the whole story, including where and how people are making headway against the problems. She’ll give tips on how to do solutions journalism, explain what counts as evidence in a solutions story and share examples of solutions reporting on science.


  • New Models of Science Communication As traditional funding models decline, can science communication hang on, or even thrive? Moderator: Melissa Gaskill. Panelists: Kiah Collier, Texas Tribune; Brendan Gibbons, Rivard Report; Keith Campbell, Dallas Morning News.
  • Using Improv to Sharpen Science Communication Skills (an interactive workshop) Austin’s own Nichole Bennett guides you through some of her signature STEMprov activities to inspire you to think about communicating science in a whole new way. Moderator/Speaker: Nichole Bennett, STEMprov.
  • Bringing Science to the People Science communication is much more than crafting stories in words, sounds and images and then casting them out into the world like messages in bottles. Meet local communicators engaging “the public” face-to-face in all its weird, messy glory.  Moderator: Marc Airhart, Univ. of Texas at Austin; Panelists: Monika Maeckle, Texas Butterfly Ranch; Pamela Owen, Texas Memorial Museum; Audrey Stewart, Animal Facts Club.
  • Expanding Your SciComm Toolkit Communicate science and technology to millennials; discover the key details in the tangled forest of a scientific paper, and tell stories orally. Moderator: Viviane Callier, freelancer. Panelists: Mickey Delp, Dadageek; Thomas Hayden, Stanford University; Bonnie Petrie, Texas Public Radio.

Roundtable Discussions (CANCELED): Small group conversations on participant-chosen themes such as: “Network locally: How to grow your sci comm group from the ground up,” “Getting Your Book Published”, “Journalism vs. Content”, “Walking the Line Between Activism and Journalism”, “Are Embargoes a Good Idea?”, “Communicating Climate Science in the Post-Fact Era.”



Thomas Hayden is director of Stanford University’s graduate program in environmental communication. He came to Stanford in 2008, following a career of reporting and writing about science and environmental issues for national and international publications including Newsweek, US News & World Report, Wired, Smithsonian and National Geographic. Hayden is coauthor of several books: On Call in Hell, about battlefield medicine in Iraq, Sex and War, about the biological evolution and cultural development of warfare through human history, the 9th revision of the National Geographic Atlas of the World, and The Science Writers’ Handbook. He received an MS degree in marine biology from the University of Southern California and completed five years of doctoral study in biological oceanography at USC.

Sarah Gustavus is the Mountain West regional manager for the Solutions Journalism Network. Prior to joining SJN in 2018, she was a senior multimedia producer at New Mexico PBS, where she produced the weekly, statewide news program New Mexico In Focus. She has extensive experience reporting on issues in both rural and Native American/Alaska Native communities. As executive producer of national programs for Koahnic Broadcast Corporation, a Native American-owned media company, she led coverage of the nationally-syndicated radio programs Native America Calling, National Native News and Earthsongs. She has produced radio stories for national programs like All Things Considered, Latino USA, Weekend America, Making Contact, Tell Me More, the NPR newscast and various documentary specials. Sarah earned a master’s degree from City University London and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin.

New Models of Science Communication

Keith Campbell is vice president and managing editor of The Dallas Morning News. In a nearly 29-year career at The News, Campbell has held a variety of editing positions, including interim managing editor, deputy managing editor for news and business, assistant managing editor for news, communities editor, deputy sports editor and Page One editor. He directed coverage of the 2016 Dallas police ambush, which was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize. Campbell has served as a vice president for The Dallas Morning News Charities since 2014. He is active in numerous journalism organizations, including the Online News Association and American Society of News Editors. He’s a graduate of the University of Missouri.

Kiah Collier reports on energy and environmental policy for The Texas Tribune. Previously, she reported on government and politics for the Austin American-Statesman and the Houston Chronicle. Kiah has won a variety of awards for her reporting, including a Peabody for her work on a 2016 project that examined research into a specific type of hurricane scientists say will eventually devastate the city of Houston. She is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin.

Brendan Gibbons covers the environment and water for The Rivard Report, an independent nonprofit newsroom in San Antonio. He previously covered the environment for a daily newspaper in Scranton, Pennsylvania and the San Antonio Express-News. He holds a degree in science journalism from the University of Missouri, and his background includes a stint as a science aide monitoring birds for the U.S. Forest Service and as an office assistant for a plant science lab in Missouri. He grew up in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Using Improv to Sharpen Science Communication Skills (an interactive workshop

Nichole Bennett researches science communication in the Ph.D. program at Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin. Through STEMprov, she teaches scientists improv to boost their communication skills ( She teaches coding at Long-View Micro School and has her Masters in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior from The University of Texas. She is also an improv performer, instructor, director, and technical designer and has won three B. Iden Payne awards. Nichole teaches improv to neurodivergent youth through The Hideout Theatre’s Building Connections Program. You can follow her on Twitter @choleness or Instagram at @theawkwardoff.

Bringing Science to the People

Monika Maeckle: After a career in media and marketing, Monika Maeckle cofounded San Antonio’s independent nonprofit news website the Rivard Report, started the Texas Butterfly Ranch, a pollinator advocacy website, and founded San Antonio’s Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival, now in its fourth year. She writes about pollinators, native plants and the ecosystems that sustain them from a citizen science and Master Gardener perspective. She is working on a book, The Monarch Butterfly Chronicles.

Pamela R. Owen is Associate Director of Texas Memorial Museum, the natural history museum at The University of Texas at Austin. She is a mammalogist and vertebrate paleontologist as well as an informal science educator, providing preK-12 teacher professional development and specimen-based public outreach programs in the natural sciences for more than 19 years. Two of the most popular outreach programs she runs are Identification Day and Texas Wildlife Day (learn more here). Dr. Owen’s formal education includes a B.A. and M.S. in Biology from California State University, Long Beach and a Ph.D. in Geological Sciences from The University of Texas at Austin.

Audrey Stewart runs the research and education side of Animal Facts Club – an Austin-based art-science collaborative that shares information through creative acts and productions. She received her Master’s in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior from the University of Texas at Austin and has worked as an environmental educator with municipal, nonprofit and research institutions for 10+ years. She is also the Conservation Program Coordinator for the City of Austin’s Wildland Conservation Division.

Expanding Your SciComm Toolkit

Mickey Delp is an electrical and computer engineer with expertise in analog and digital circuit design and embedded systems programming. He is an instructor at dadageek where he teaches analog audio electronics. He is the founder and Chief Inventor at Delptronics, a maker of unique electronic musical instruments. He is a frequent presenter at Dorkbot and Nerd Nite, and co-developed and co-runs the Nerd Nite Austin Ambasador program. Mickey is also an electronic musician who performs solo and with various projects around Austin.

Thomas Hayden (see bio above)

Bonnie Petrie covers bioscience and medicine for Texas Public Radio. Bonnie grew up on the Canadian border in northern New York, but has happily called Texas home for 15 years. She is a 2017 Texas Radio Hall of Fame nominee in recognition of her work in Houston and Dallas before moving to San Antonio. Most recently, Bonnie worked in Los Angeles reporting for public radio stations KPCC and KCRW. She is mom to a middle-schooler and spends her free time solving family mysteries through genetic genealogy.


On April 6th, a diverse crowd of about 75 gathered at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin to network and discuss science communication. The rainy Saturday in the Dickey-Lawless Science Building was the second annual meeting of SciComm South, a conference focused on bolstering the community of science communicators in the Southern Central United States. The first SciComm South meeting last year was generously funded by a Peggy Grisham Idea Grant from NASW, and this second meeting was supported in part by sponsorships from Texas A&M University Press and Huston-Tillotson University’s Department of Natural Sciences, as well as many volunteer hours from meeting organizers Juli Berwald, Marc Airhart, Melissa Gaskill, Viviane Callier, and Nichole Bennett. Collaboration and connection were the central focus. As Berwald put it in her opening comments, “what makes us different as humans is that we work together, this is our strength.”

Thomas Hayden
Thomas Hayden delivered the first of two keynotes, making the case that this is the golden age of science communication.

Thomas Hayden, Stanford University’s director of the graduate program in environmental communication, also reflected on the power of human collaboration in the first keynote speech. Hayden described a golden age of science communication, with new models of journalism and lower barriers to entry in the field. He reminded the audience that this golden age is the result of individuals working together to create new opportunities for their work. “We have willed it to be this way,” he said of the abundance and variety of science content available. Hayden also talked about the importance of avoiding isolation and seeking out connection in his career, saying that he found a close group of other science writers when he was just starting out.

After the keynote, lunch was provided by the Texas Chili Queens food truck. Attendees braved a brief but intense rain shower as they waited in line for their food. But adversity builds connections, and huddling together under umbrellas seemed to do just that. Though the conference was aimed science communication professionals, it was open to all. Attendees ranged from recent graduates getting their footing to scientists hoping to better understand how their work gets written about. “I want to introduce you to…” became a popular phrase as people of different backgrounds got to know each other.

Two breakout sessions followed lunch. A panel on new models of funding for publications, featured Keith Campbell of the Dallas Morning News, Kiah Collier of the Texas Tribune, and Brendan Gibbons of San Antonio’s Rivard Report. Campbell brought up a core struggle of the communication industry: quality journalism is valuable and expensive to make, so many publications find it difficult to justify giving audiences free access. Both Collier and Gibbons were in support of free access, and Gibbons said that the Rivard Report is working to diversify their revenue streams in order to achieve that goal. Collier attributed much of the Tribune’s success with non-profit funding to an extremely passionate and hard-working staff who want to see journalism survive.

Concurrently, Nichole Bennett of STEMprov used improv to get attendees thinking about their approach to communication. In one exercise, participants were instructed to start each sentence with the first letter of their partner’s last word. The goal was to get people listening, rather than focusing only on a pre-prepared response. The activity was a reminder that communication is not just about expressing one’s own thoughts, but about being open to new ideas.

After a coffee break, a panel on communicating directly with the public featured Monika Maeckle of the Texas Butterfly Ranch, Pamela Owen of the Texas Memorial Museum, and Audrey Stewart of the Animal Facts Club. Stewart said that while there is a certain element of risk in putting resources into public events, the potential to create deeper engagement in the audience is worth it. Maeckle agreed, saying the tangible experience of seeing science up close and personal is unparalleled. After tagging monarch butterflies and watching them fly off, Maeckle is sure that individuals who participate in the Pollinator Festival will never look at a butterfly the same way again. Maeckle also pointed out that approaching science on many levels allows diverse groups to connect with it, from art enthusiasts to technology geeks. Owen added that interacting with the public is an opportunity to get immediate feedback about the clarity and quality of communication, as well as a way to open oneself up to new ways of approaching a topic.

Audrey Stewart of Animal Facts Club
Audrey Stewart of Animal Facts Club showed off props and costumes from her group’s live shows in the Bringing Science to the People panel discussion.

At the same time, a panel featuring Mickey Delp of Dadageek, Thomas Hayden, and Bonnie Petrie of Texas Public Radio focused on advice for navigating the field of science communication and connecting with audiences. Hayden reminded the audience that the field is always changing, and that lack of expertise won’t hold back anyone who is motivated to learn. Petrie agreed, saying “don’t ever have too much pride to ask a question.” She also emphasized the importance of bringing excitement and curiosity to science communication. The kinds of things one would tell a friend over coffee, Petrie said, are what will draw an audience and get them invested in a new topic. This kind of personal, conversational science could be the key to engaging millennials in science news. Delp explained that this demographic prefers discussion and interaction in the classroom, suggesting that this mindset may extend to their media consumption as well.

The second keynote speech was given by Sarah Gustavus, the Mountain West regional manager for the Solutions Journalism Network. Gustavus introduced solutions journalism as a useful method for telling science stories. The central question in this approach, Gustavus said, is “who’s doing it better?” The idea is to ask what systemic processes are leading to positive outcomes and make audiences aware of them. Gustavus emphasized that the goal of solutions journalism in not to provide a neat resolution to every story but to remind audiences that large, complex problems such as climate change are “works in progress.” She said that the hopeful message of solutions journalism results in more audience engagement in the long run. People are more willing to share these stories, and focus on the issues they cover, than the barrage of negative headlines.

During the final break of the day, Molly Cummings, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Texas at Austin and co-owner of District Distilling, gave a short presentation on the science of gin. Cummings told the audience she enjoyed the transition from doing biology to marketing alcohol. However, she noted a fundamental difference between the two: science is built on shared information and data, while in the business world, new ideas are called trade secrets. Cummings generously brought two of her company’s best-selling trade secrets for attendees to sample. As guests laughed over their spirits, the conference drew to a close. Whether individuals were walking away with deeper connections to others or to new ideas for their careers, the meeting of passionate minds at the second annual SciComm South was a success.

Adrianna Acosta is an undergraduate student in biology at the University of Texas at Austin.