UConn professor talks STEM, importance of communicating

UConn biology professor Colleen Spurling speaks during her lecture, “What do you Study? Communicating STEM Concepts to a Broad Audience," on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015. (Allan Lang/The Daily Campus)

Public misconception of complicated subjects can have disastrous consequences, particularly in areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). University of Connecticut biology Professor Colleen Spurling gave a presentation Friday on the importance of effectively communicating ideas within STEM.

“Public perception is important for us,” Spurling said, “to improve and continue for the greater good and our personal health as well.”

Spurling urged students to prioritize transparency, sensitivity and respect in her talk, “What do you Study? Communicating STEM Concepts to a Broad Audience."

“You have a duty to be cognizant of what you’re saying and that it makes sense,” Spurling said, “and sensitive of how it will be interpreted.”

According to Spurling, much of the controversy within these topics is based on miscommunication and misunderstanding. She used three examples of polarizing contemporary scientific issues: stem cell research, attempts to reintroduce creationism to schools and the anti-vaccination movement as it relates to recent measles outbreaks.

She further detailed the medical importance of stem cells. She explained that stem cells are valuable because they are dynamic and can be modified to serve a wide range of biological functions. 

These properties of stem cells, Spurling continued, make them crucial for research in discovery and development of drugs, observing the earliest signs of disease and treatment of diseases via implants and transplants.

On the anti-vaccination movement, Spurling explained, the fraudulent connection between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism is based entirely upon the word of one British surgeon, Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield’s research has since been discredited multiple times and the doctor ‘s medical license has been revoked.

Spurling called vaccination a “social responsibility” for all who are able. The more individuals within a population who have been vaccinated, she explained, the less likely the disease is to spread and infect those few individuals medically unable to be vaccinated.

Spurling then referenced public misconception about the theory of evolution and attempts to reintroduce scientifically discredited creationism into public schools.

A third of Americans, in a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, said, “Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” She described this as a failure of scientists and educators rather than the public at large.

“We haven’t properly educated people as to what a theory is,” Spurling said, “that it’s something that has been rigorously tested and is the most likely explanation.”

She cited a study from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which showed that the United States ranked behind the average of other developed nations in test scores of reading, science and math.

Spurling noted that nations ranking higher in the same study “placed emphasis on training good educators.” The key, therefore, to effective communication on subjects of STEM is education.

“People who are the great communicators are those who are very knowledgeable about their particular topics,” Spurling said. “They’re the experts who understand well enough to break it down to a simple level.”

“If you don’t really know a topic,” she continued, “you don’t have the power to impart a love for it."


Christopher McDermott is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.mcdermott@uconn.edu.