Last year, public health researcher Professor Penny Hawe undertook this science communications course at the Banff Centre in Canada. The Centre, set amid the stunning natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains, has as its mission “inspiring creativity”.

Hawe found the course such an enriching and transformative experience that she now plans to establish a similar program in Australia, but focused around the communication of public and population health.

She has funded Dr Therese Riley, Senior Research Fellow and VicHealth Research Leader in Social Connection at the Centre for Health & Society, University of Melbourne, and myself to attend the course this year, with the aim of scoping how an Australian public health version might be developed.

Hopefully such a course would be of use to a wide range of people involved in population health and related communications, including academics, policy makers, journalists, and the NGO sector. Maybe some citizen journalists might be interested as well.

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The writer, broadcaster or film director inside every population health scientist

Penny Hawe writes:

The thing I was proudest about last year is not on my CV.

I scripted a short film on cougar habitat.  OK, I confess the film remains widely unknown.

I also made an audio post cast. Mapped out the plot of a book. And I found out what it was like to whip up an article for Scientific American on late-breaking news in aphid biology, against a brutal deadline.

Penny Hawe

Then, working into the small hours of the morning for three nights a row, I helped design the first year anniversary gala for a completely fictitious science museum.

We did invitations, costume design,  lighting, music, narration, website  and activities for kids. We even made interactive exhibits – the science of white water rafting being the most challenging.

Meanwhile, in the next studio some of my fellow classmates designed a TV series on cognitive psychology (a cross between Kids Say the Damndest Things and America’s Funniest Home video). Another group designed and launched a restaurant (“Spice”) themed around the science of food chemistry.  In their case we watched their film and then ate their cast!

The event I’m talking about was a two week residential summer course in the Canadian Rockies on science communication.

It’s been running annually since 2006, due to the foresight and brilliance of Mary Anne Moser, a zoologist turned professional science communicator and Jay Ingram, former host of Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet and CBC’s Quirks and Quarks.

The course admits a diverse mix of 20 people from across North America – communicators,  film makers, journalists and scientists.  I was completely intimidated by all of them, naturally. But then I just had to decide, what the heck.

Up until that point I had been just an ordinary human being, totally unperturbed by how to engage an audience in the science of aphid behaviour.

Let me introduce myself. I am a population health researcher.  I work in a population health intervention research centre.  I sit on grant review panels. I supervise students.  I write papers.  I am slow at returning emails.

I love my work, but no one really understands it. Not real people anyway. By that I mean the public.  I always knew that was my own fault.

The closest way I have to describe population health research is to say that while some insights about how to improve human health come from studying smaller and smaller units – like cells and genes-  different insights and vital missing clues come from studying bigger and bigger units of analysis. They come from studying groups of people or populations. For example, it’s only by studying groups of people that we discovered processes like person-to-person spread of infection.

Feeling down trodden? Or is your everyday life materially and experientially more like king-of-the-castle? By studying populations we found that people’s position in the social hierarchy affects all kinds of things, like heart disease rates and cancer.

Put it this way, as soon as you get more than one person, the disease processes in the first person are affected by the presence of the second person, and vice versa.  That’s population health. Well, quite a bit of it anyway. Cool, huh?

Now all I have to do is to work out a way to make all that sound a whole lot snappier!

You see, if more people ‘get’ what our science is, then we may gain greater support for the kinds of public policies that are needed protect the health of the population. Right now it’s probably fair to say that most of the public think that most of the solutions to better health lie at the bottom of a microscope, or maybe in a brain scan.

That’s why I did the course.  It’s why I got Melissa Sweet and Therese Riley to check it out this year as well, so that we can work out a way to bring the course back to Australia from 2013 onwards.

All credit to Mary Anne and Jay to allow us to build a ‘sister’ course. Thanks also to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Population Heath Intervention Research Centre in Calgary and Melbourne’s new Centre for Excellence in Intervention and Prevention Science for backing the idea.

Me, well, I still have long way to go before I appear in a You Tube science video with Alan Alda.  Or get to advise Pixar on how to depict my type of science in their next movie.

But the first step was thinking that it was possible and knowing why it would be worthwhile.

Meanwhile, I always take every opportunity to practise my new communication skills on aphids.

• Penny Hawe left the University of Sydney in 2000 to take up a research chair in health and society at the University of Calgary, Canada. She worked closely with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and other agencies to help build the field of population health intervention research. Penny returned to Australia earlier this year. She maintains a research program in Canada in whole-school interventions to improve children’s mental health.

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PS from Croakey

For those interested in hearing more about the course, look for #Banffscience on Twitter.

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