Award encouraging PhD students to communicate research to the public grows

All PhD students in the biological and physical sciences now eligible for science communication award


A science communication award for PhD candidates at UW–Madison is growing this year to become available to students in more doctoral programs.

The Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy (WISL) Award for Communicating PhD Research to the Public offers awards to doctoral candidates who submit a PhD thesis chapter that describes their research to non-science audiences. This means avoiding discipline-specific terms that someone without scientific training wouldn’t understand, as well as directly conveying the significance of the research.

When WISL established the award in 2010, it was available only to students in the Department of Chemistry. With additional funding from the Graduate School, all PhD students in the biological and physical sciences will be eligible to receive the award beginning in the 2019-20 academic year.

“In today’s environment it is crucial that we properly communicate our science to the general public and especially to elected officials and decision-makers at the federal and state levels,” said Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy director Bassam Shakhashiri, the William T. Evjue Distinguished Chair for the Wisconsin Idea and a professor of chemistry at UW–Madison. “One of our responsibilities as scientists is to share our discoveries and the results of our explorations with family members, friends, neighbors, community groups, state legislators, members of the U.S. Congress, and funding agency program officers. These thesis chapters are one way to enable this sharing of science, and for the student to share the satisfaction of a major accomplishment with their community.”

Since its inception, more than 50 PhD degree recipients have received the $250 award for including a chapter for a lay audience in their theses.

Students who have won this award in the past have said they took on this challenge because their families and friends didn’t necessarily understand what they did at work. Having a better grasp of sharing scholarly research with a general audience gives students the chance to share their work with their families.

Science communication has continued to gain interest among professional and national organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) which hosts internships and conferences to train young professionals in science communication. For UW–Madison, the Wisconsin Idea – that the work done at the university reaches every corner of the state, nation, and world – underscores the importance of researchers sharing their work with a wide audience.

WISL provides guidelines to help students interested in including a chapter in their thesis on how to communicate technical information to non-specialists. Throughout the award process, students work with Shakhashiri and a professional editor to refine their chapter.

Students who are interested in participating and know a time frame in which their thesis chapter will be completed should contact Completed chapters are posted on the WISL website.

“In addition to publishing research in the scientific literature, communicating with non-scientific audiences can be consequential,” Shakhashiri said. “Our future depends on the public’s appreciation and support of the vital role of science in serving society.”

Shakhashiri founded WISL in 2002, recognizing the need to promote science, technology, and math literacy among public audiences.

Other programs on campus also encourage graduate students to practice science communication. Each year the Madison chapter of Graduate Women in Science (GWIS) and Graduate School Office of Professional Development partner to host a Three Minute Thesis competition where PhD students in science, technology, engineering, and math have three minutes and one presentation slide to explain their thesis research to a general audience.

Additionally, the Graduate School gives financial support for two graduate students to attend the annual Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop in Washington, D.C., where they learn about science policy and advocacy.

Learn more about all of WISL’s programs at