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Scientific Course Strengthens Students’ Communication Skills

1 February 2012 2,475 views No Comment
Jeanine M. Buchanich, University of Pittsburgh

    From left: LunChing Chang, Xiaozhi Zhou, Lei Ye, Zhen Zeng, Olufunmilayo Ogundele, Jiayan He, Haiwen Shi, Zhaowen Sun, and Yihe Huang

    Biostatisticians help scientists and other researchers formulate research questions, make decisions based on data, and discuss and synthesize results. To fulfill that role, biostatisticians must be able to effectively communicate to a variety of audiences. These communication skills include listening to others describe their work and their problems; translating problem statements made by others into statistical questions; formulating and solving the problems quantitatively using statistical methods for design and analysis; and reporting, discussing, and synthesizing results.

    Faculty in the department of biostatistics at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health developed a scientific communication skills course to strengthen students’ communication skills using different scientific presentation formats (i.e., oral, poster, written). Specifically, the objectives are to develop written and oral communications/presentations describing and interpreting statistical analyses for different audiences; perform critiques of written, oral, and visual materials; and incorporate suggestions and criticisms from critiques into their own work. Students typically use their own research topic, including work on a thesis or dissertation, allowing them to directly translate the skills they learn in class to their own work.

    Not only does the course help students in their coursework during their graduate studies, but also as they transition to their professional lives—communicating at scientific meetings, writing grants and manuscripts for professional journals, drafting résumés, interviewing, and sharing techniques with colleagues. These are lifelong skills that can enable biostatisticians to serve not only on a statistical program core, but also in management and leadership positions where communication skills are essential for influencing others.
    One of the main objectives for graduates of the biostatistics program is to “communicate the results of biostatistical analyses to individuals with varying degrees of statistical knowledge.” Effective written and oral communication skills are critical when conveying biostatistical information. In the current biostatistics curriculum, students do not have many opportunities to refine their communication skills.

    The course also helps students meet cross-disciplinary competencies developed by the Association of Schools of Public Health in the domains of communications and informatics and professionalism. These competencies include communicating with different audiences in the context of professional public health activities and commitment to lifelong learning and professional service, including active participation in professional organizations.

    By far, the most rewarding aspect of the course has been seeing the students’ confidence in their presentation skills grow. The Graduate School of Public Health holds a ‘Dean’s Day’ student competition annually and, last year, C. Akunna Emeremni, who completed the course, won first place in the Biostatistics PhD category. After the competition, she thanked me for the information, advice, and practice she received in the course.

    We want our graduates to be successful statistical leaders, and effective communication skills are an integral part of that development.

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