Translating science into news

Feb 21, 2012

Scientists researching complex topics often come up empty-handed when it comes time to explain their findings. It’s hard to distill years of intricate, complex research into tiny bytes a layman can understand.

As an agriculture reporter, I often meet with food scientists and agriculture experts. I spend a lot of time translating what they told me so that I can pass it along to you.

Communication experts at the University of Missouri's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, like Kristen Smarr, want to get past these hang-ups. She envisions tons of fruitful partnerships between data-driven experts and wordy writers, but both sides have to learn how to make that possible. Once they do, though, Smarr says it’s also a win for the university.

"We had a researcher that was featured in Time magazine. Hits to our website, enrollment in our food science program, possibilities for industrial commercialization of his product, went up," Smarr said. "We can't afford to be insular; you have to be looking for opportunities to collaborate."

But first the university is training scientists to take their work to the streets without losing the smart stuff.

Today on Field Notes, teaching scientists to communicate.

Stefani Bardin, an artist from New York, has collaborated with a scientist, and their work has yielded content with the potential for universal appeal. She's a TEDxManhattan 2011 fellow and currently, she's working on a project with Massachusetts General Hospital gastroenterologist Dr. Braden Kuo. Bardin and Kuo produced a video that combines an artist's eye for the visual with a scientific edge.

A word of warning for those with weak stomachs: Bardin has had success communicating their scientific message. In other words: don't view over lunch.

Jessica Naudziunas reports for Harvest Public Media, an agriculture-reporting project involving six NPR member stations in the Midwest. For more stories about farm and food, check out