4 tips to boost scientific comms in the remote era

Gavin Lee 2021-09-16 5 min read

Work in the remote era. Photo by Compare Fibre.

Over the past year or so, many of our ‘workplaces’ have, more often than not, shrunk from an office or laboratory to a screen measuring anywhere between 11 and 15 inches. We meet and greet colleagues, new and old, through little rectangles and our small talk has been reduced to noticing new furniture or another room they are in. We are in a constant battle with crappy laptop cameras, microphones and unfavourable lighting every time we meet. Then there is the ‘Can you hear me?’, ‘We can’t see you’ or ‘Can you see my screen?’ troubleshooting before every group meeting. If Zoom had a penny for every time someone said that… And this is all before the meeting has even started!

Unfortunately this mode of work does not seem to be leaving us any time in the near future, so we might as well do the best we can. Here are some things that I learned worked quite well to make scientific communications more effective and impactful through your own little rectangle.

Context, please!

Fully remote work has really changed the modality of work. In an office setting, your colleagues are nearby for chats, work or play, and meetings are usually more formal, depending on your team. Even with instant messaging and project management platforms like Slack becoming widely used, one is often more independent in their work, physically and also in how they work. For managers, this may mean days full of Zoom meetings, which is incredibly fatiguing. On the other hand, as an early-career scientist, you may only have one or two catch-ups per week, which means they really count. It is thus really important to make sure your audience is up to speed with your particular project before diving into technical details which you have no doubt been poring over the last week or so.

Often a good strategy is to layer your communications from high level to low level. Often the message is the same, just seen through a different lens. Bringing your audience with you on the journey from high to low level is incredibly important so that you can generate valuable discussion at the low level, which is usually where the details are teased out and you get clarity on the problem at hand. You will notice if you haven’t got the audience with you, since there will either be silence or someone will ask you to go back and remind them what happened two weeks ago, for example. During your communication, you can adjust the pace at which you go, depending on the audience, the level of their caffeination (not a word) or other factors.

Choose the right props

Whiteboards, blackboards or flip charts are often where ideas are sketched out quickly to get your audience on board, but this type of live interaction is not entirely possible remotely. Whilst there are tools to draw on Zoom, for example, it is not quite the same as a whiteboard. What I’ve found to work quite well is to use and exploit web-based visualisation tools to help me get my message across. These days, tools like GitHub or GitLab Pages allow you to spin up a website freely and quickly. In fact, this blog is built with Blogdown through Netlify. Blogdown was designed to allow you to ‘build websites from R Markdown’ and in my experience, does this very well.

With Blogdown (or the related Bookdown), you can run show and run code snippets and display equations rendered in LaTeX. You can also lean into dynamic and interactive plotting tools like Plotly or altair which allow you to do a host of things which were are not possible with either a whiteboard or a static PDF print-out. Sharing your screen and scrolling through an HTML page makes your audience’s screen transform into a browser, which is essentially how we all interact with the web these days.

Reproducibility and traceability

Any project involving coding should use a version control system like Git. GitHub is the most popular and has many features which make it user friendly. There is a graphical user interface if you prefer it to the command line and a host of plug-ins through their Marketplace.

If full reproducibility is the name of the game, for example for accuracy, benchmarking or publication, a tool like Renku is indispensable. It allows you to track workflows automatically and you can also access a small amount of computational resources to use it on the cloud.

Developing your personal brand through writing

Effective scientific communication is not something learned overnight and the more you write, speak and present, the better at it you’ll get. Whenever you write a piece of code, equation or explanation, you will develop a certain style of communication (this is in addition to good grammar, full sentences when needed and other ‘basics’ which are assumed!). You can supercharge this with your own set of design principles which you choose when determining your ‘props’ (as above). Choosing a certain font or colour scheme are obvious ways to start honing in on your personal brand, but there is a lot more out there on this. The importance of personal branding is certainly critical these days and a good way to start is by cataloguing your notes or communications onto your website or blog. You can look back on this at a later date to then see how you’ve changed over time!

Back to the office

For many who can work from a laptop, going back to the office full time does not seem like something which will return any time soon. Even then, I think the ways in which we have had to adapt in this new era has forced us to do better, which I guess is a silver lining.