Communicating What It Is That We Do: The I-RITE Program

In 1999, Stanford University initiated the I-RITE program. The idea was to help doctoral students and postdoctoral scholars produce brief written statements explaining their research in understandable and compelling ways to a nonspecialist audience. To date, 200 individuals, mainly from Stanford but also from institutions across the United States and Sweden, have participated in the program.

Originally motivated by what participants produced--statements of research that could be used to interest novice college students in science programs--I-RITE has become directed at the participants themselves. Rick Reis, co-executive director of the Stanford Research Communication Program, explained that the program has given participants a competitive edge when it comes to communicating effectively. And this has translated into better grant writing, better speaking, and better understanding. "We also found it provided some unexpected benefits," said Reis. Among them, the I-RITE program has fostered interdisciplinary research, and it has provided participants with training in the give and take of peer review.

How does it work? I-RITE participants are selected from a pool of interested postdoc or advanced Ph.D. applicants. For 6 weeks, groups of six to eight people meet once a week for an hour. The first meeting is kicked off by discussions of each person's brief talk and an abstract that explains the individual's research. Fellow participants then comment on the draft abstract in the following weeks. Each I-RITE participant rewrites the abstract three times, based on the reviews, which at first focus on organization, clarity, jargon, and structure, and later on grammar and punctuation. In turn, every I-RITE participant is expected to review and revise two to four abstracts from unfamiliar academic disciplines.

"It was very useful to revise other people's abstracts because it made me realize how important it is to have a good analogy when you need to explain fairly complicated research in plain language," said Cath Gilchrist, a 32-year-old biology/medical research postdoctoral fellow from Australia. Gilchrist has been at Stanford for the past 4 years studying Lou Gehrig's disease, a neurological condition affecting the nerves that control muscle movement. "Reading other people's abstracts made me realize what worked and what left me mystified."

France's Sophie Chauveau, 29, agreed. Chauveau, who does research in plasma physics in the mechanical engineering department at Stanford, found, however, that the program had an additional advantage. As she put it, "I read work from disciplines I know nothing about. It made me realize how the conventions in each discipline differ--and [made me] pay more attention to those in my own field."

Gilchrist and Chauveau both found the program to be highly useful for postdocs, particularly in classroom situations where it is important to explain a complex concept in a simple way. The program, however, also taught them to explain their work to the "outside" world. Gilchrist applied for the program to improve her ability to tell elementary school students why they should be excited about science, and she found that the program did help her make her research accessible to that group. Chauveau signed up for I-RITE to explain her work to people who are not familiar with her field. "I want to be able to explain my work to the world without them thinking that scientists are a bunch of weird people," she said.

Although the program does help scientists communicate with the general public, it is not intended to create for them an abstract that is immediately useable for job searches or grant applications. Nevertheless, it clearly lays the foundation. I-RITE asks the participants to write for a lay audience between the ages of 16 and 18 because this forces them to explain or get rid of technical jargon and to think creatively about how to simplify complex work. "I understand the pedagogical value of that approach," said Chauveau, "but the more you simplify your work, the farther away it feels from what you are actually doing. On the other hand, I am more comfortable explaining my work now, and that will be useful for writing job and grant applications, too."

An exercise almost all participants found useful was reading the research abstract out loud to another participant, who would then explain what the research was about. "It was eye opening to have someone tell back to me what I had just read out because it made me realize how much got lost, how few points you can make when you speak, and how I needed to clarify relations between major and minor points," said Gilchrist.

Both Gilchrist and Chauveau agree that I-RITE could have been a week or two shorter-- "In the end, you had an overwhelming amount of feedback on your work," said Chaveau--but both intend to recommend the program strongly to their colleagues. "It was particularly useful to be forced to explain your research to a group of scholars from other disciplines. You knew they were highly educated people and that if they did not understand your research, it was probably because you didn't explain it well enough," Gilchrist noted.

In light of its local success and increasing national interest, members of the I-RITE team at Stanford met in November with representatives of higher-education groups to discuss moving the program onto the national stage. Said Michele Marincovich, associate vice provost and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford, "Graduate students and postdocs recognize the importance of communicating outside their field." However, very few realize that these are precisely the skills needed to write successful grant proposals. Because the I-RITE program has developed a set of instructional materials and processes, it may offer a way for more universities to establish programs to address this need. Vanderbilt University, for example, is creating an undergraduate interdisciplinary major in science communication, and it is using the I-RITE program as a piece of the curriculum.

Experiences at other institutions, in turn, may have something to offer I-RITE. At the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB), a science communication program initially geared toward international students "just took off," said Joan Lorden, associate provost for research. The program is now available to all UAB students, and postdocs make up about half of the participants. The Association of American Colleges and Universities, recognizes a public demand for information and a willingness of researchers to participate in a dialog, and it has created the SENCER program to teach science by civic engagement.

But where in all this do the humanities fall? At Stanford, most--but not all--of the I-RITE participants are from the natural and social sciences. As a postdoc in modern thought and literature at Stanford, it was very beneficial for me to be teamed up with people from the sciences because it highlighted how differently we situate ourselves in relation to our research when we describe it. (We write "I argue" etc., and they write in the third person, for example.) It was also interesting to read abstracts from scholars who primarily had a commercial interest in the research, and I was stunned that there was no ethical, moral, social, or political rationale behind the urge to do research for a Ph.D. in this particular case.

In general, I-RITE made me realize how wide the spectrum of postdoctoral research is. It also made it a huge challenge to explain my own research because the theories, methods, and terminology are so different, and I couldn't expect my reviewers to share any knowledge about these. I-RITE was a great exercise, and it definitely improved my ability to explain my research. Maybe people in the humanities believe they are exposed to so much writing that they don't need I-RITE, but being a writing instructor at Stanford and from the humanities myself, I must say that I was still surprised to see how much I benefited from the reviews and the rewrites.

Humanities students and postdocs are just as much in need of the I-RITE program as people in the sciences are, and not just from the writing perspective. Indeed, if funding is a measure of public interest and support, then the humanities may need public outreach programs like I-RITE even more than the sciences.

"There is an element missing in graduate and postdoctoral education: communicating," said Reis. Programs like I-RITE, UAB's Science Communication Program, and SENCER are starting to answer that need. So next time your Aunt Beatrice--who, by the way, might chair a foundation board considering a science funding portfolio--asks what you do, you won't be at a loss for words.

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