Explaining science through better storytelling

Sara ElShafie

Sara ElShafie

Science is amazing. It allows us to understand the world around us. It gives us ways to improve life every day. It even helps us in our efforts to connect with others.

We love it, and we march to protect it. We even tell great stories about it, whether it’s Matt Damon’s harrowing tale of survival in “The Martian” or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s intro to basics in the 13-part “Cosmos.”

And yet, we don’t always understand or appreciate the many ways science is at work across disciplines exploring questions and testing theories. It’s a vast, complicated field, and our scientific literacy is wanting.

Berkeley grad student Sara ElShafie (@elshafie_sara) has a solution: Teach scientists to be better storytellers.

At a time when the media has downgraded science coverage (as in many other beats), scientists have only themselves to get the word out. Many reporters on the science beat had training in journalism but not the educational background in biology or geology or physics. How can scientists help laypeople understand their highly specialized research?

ElShafie, who’s pursuing a doctoral degree in integrative biology, understands that scientists need the right guidance. “Communication skills require training, just like any other skills,” she said in an interview. “Good communication requires good storytelling. Maybe we can learn from professional storytellers.”

She reached out for expertise down the street. At nearby Pixar, two story artists volunteered their time to help with the project. And in the past year, ElShafie has held six workshops on campus and off to train scientists in the basics of storytelling, including characters, obstacles and revelations.

Attendance for her sessions is growing. ElShafie is one of the few in the United States adapting movie storytelling to science communication, which she works on in her spare time when not working on her dissertation research.

Science will always have great stories, but it needs more storytellers. Thanks to Sara ElShafie, scientists can learn how to share their important work in ways that all of us can understand and appreciate.

Read more on ElShafie’s passion project.

Read more on about Pixar’s storytelling lessons
on the Y’all Connect blog.

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About Wade Kwon

Wade Kwon is conference director for Y'all Connect. See his full bio.