Building science students' communication skills with the MSWI

Published: 27 September 2021

Marina Nysten and Joyce Wu are the co-founders of the McGill Scientific Writing Initiative (MSWI), a student-run organization dedicated to promoting effective science communication at McGill and beyond. The Office of Science Education recently collaborated with MSWI, which concluded its first year in service to the student body. Here, Marina and Joyce reflect on MSWI’s inaugural year and future plans as recent McGill alumni.

As McGill University and schools around the globe transitioned to online learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many students found themselves overwhelmed by a drastic change in curriculums and teaching styles. It was apparent that our first three years at McGill had trained us to be excellent multiple-choice exam-takers, but we did not know how to write a persuasive essay, design a concise poster presentation, or present STEM topics to the general public. What started as a casual conversation between two friends about this challenge became a concrete solution: the McGill Scientific Writing Initiative. It soon became evident that we were not the only students to have identified this issue or to want to do something about it. We quickly grew to a team of nine undergraduate science students representing nine majors with diverse experiences and career goals. Since our launch in May 2020, our focus and objectives have broadened beyond scientific writing to science communication, literacy, advocacy, and equity.

Our first project was to create a library of free online resources tailored to McGill students. This included an ebook about all things scientific writing, a comprehensive list of science communication courses at McGill, and a blog discussing relevant topics such as networking and racial inequities in STEM. Little did we know that these resources were just the beginning of our impact on campus.

In September, MSWI began hosting live virtual events to enhance student engagement. Some of our favourite workshops this year were “Reading Research Articles” and “Getting Published as an Undergrad”. Through these events, MSWI formed lasting partnerships with other McGill student groups, including STEM Fellowship, MSURJ, McGill Tribune, Medical Direction, Student Research Initiative, and Scientista. Hosting monthly workshops facilitated valuable connections with individual students and other initiatives in the McGill and Montreal community.

One of our most significant undertakings of 2020 was planning and executing the SciComm Case Competition. Our vision for this event was to provide undergraduate students with a low-stakes opportunity to practise communicating complex scientific topics to diverse audiences. Our inaugural theme was “Environment,” and teams were challenged to select a topic and share it with the general public, academics, and children via a news report, literature review, and picture book. We were delighted to welcome over 60 students from six faculties and 22 majors to the competition. Topics included aquatic pollution, environmental health, and green advocacy, and were reflective of the diverse student body that participated in the competition. In partnership with the Office of Science Education (OSE), MSWI hosted a symposium in which teams shared their projects with the McGill community. The feedback from participants and judges about the SciComm Case Competition was overwhelmingly positive, and we are looking forward to seeing the competition grow in coming years.

MSWI accomplished more in its first year than we ever could have imagined. Our events, resources and programs proved beneficial to the McGill community and provided valuable insights into knowledge gaps in STEM higher education. In the future, MSWI hopes to offer outreach to broader student demographics, involve more faculty members, and engage students across Canada within the science communication space. Additionally, we hope that with the gradual return to in-person activities, MSWI can enhance our reach by creating more hands-on opportunities for students on campus.

As we transition from being McGill students to alumni, we are confident that MSWI is in good hands. Our incoming presidents, Sydney Wasserman and Kate Kim, are eager to embrace MSWI’s values and continue its legacy from its second year onwards.

Overall, we hope that our experience establishing MSWI as an organization inspires other undergraduate students to not only learn about science communication but to also think critically about gaps in their own education and create innovative solutions.

Equipped with the valuable lessons learned during their time at McGill and MSWI, Marina is headed to the University of British Columbia to begin her MEng in Biomedical Engineering, and Joyce will be attending the University of Toronto to complete her MSc in Physical Therapy.

To learn more about MSWI, visit the following links:

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