A picture might say a thousand words, but few things stick with the mind longer than sounds. Whether it’s the sound of a raucous campaign crowd or the tremble in a young child’s voice as he reveals his fears as a displaced refugee—what we hear can elevate us, inspire us, enrage us, and haunt us.
That’s been the driving force behind Brian Southwell’s career. He’s spent his professional life dedicated to telling stories of the human condition. In particular, he’s focused on making scientific research relatable.
“I’ve been attracted to finding ways social science research can inform the broader public discourse and be useful in finding a way to translate work that happens in the public arena,” he said. “I’ve realized scientists and researchers often struggle to inform people of what they do. Translating their work is very important because social scientists study the everyday life of humanity.”
To help increase the understanding of social science in the future, Southwell, an adjunct professor in Duke University’s Social Science Research Institute (SSRI), teaches students how to analyze, decode, and share research that affects public attitudes and policies. But they don’t write stories. Instead, they produce radio segments for both local and global audiences.
With Southwell’s guidance, these students tackle topics to peel back the layers of how different societal groups relate. They hope this knowledge will positively impact social relationships and activities.
Though he teaches, Southwell is more than an adjunct professor. He’s an academic Renaissance man. Before instructing Duke students on the intricacies of sharing compelling stories based in heady research, he served as a tenured professor elsewhere, a communications researcher, a government and non-profit analyst, and a radio broadcaster.
As a tenured professor at the University of Minnesota for more than a decade, Southwell taught health, science, and strategic communications as an associate professor of journalism and chair of the graduate school’s Social Science Policy & Review Council. During this time, he also worked with many government and non-profit organizations.
In 2011, he brought his expertise to North Carolina, becoming the Director of Science in the Public Sphere at RTI International—a position where he augments how the public understands science and the role it plays in society. As director, he’s concentrated on a wide variety of topics, including cancer prevention, tobacco cessation campaigns, and improving science coverage on television. He also took the lead on RTI’s work with examining public attitudes about the Zika virus in Guatemala.
RTI hasn’t kept his talents in-house, though. In addition to his faculty appointments at Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Southwell hosts “The Measure of Everyday Life,” a radio show broadcast on North Carolina Central University’s WNCU 90.7 FM station. It’s dedicated to interviewing social scientists about the human condition.
Recently, shows and podcasts, which are available online for a global audience, have spanned the gamut of topics, including social alienation in virtual reality, the reinvention of urban spaces, and school drop-out rate reduction.
To ensure the public has a greater knowledge of science in the future, Southwell is using his radio and podcast class to groom the next generation of social science communicators. As a cross-listed course with the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Center for Documentary Studies, the class falls perfectly in line with SSRI’s support of interdisciplinary activities.
In fact, according to SSRI Director Tom Nechyba, the course teaches students the skills needed to address the challenges the public faces when trying to access social science research and findings.
“This is a class where students learn to talk about social science in a way that [Southwell] does on his show. I think we’ll see students producing short pieces that may well end up on the show,” Nechyba said. “I hope all sorts of new ways of bringing social science insights to the public will emerge.”
Southwell agreed that SSRI offers a natural platform for creating interdisciplinary discussions around improving social science communication.
Set up like a workshop, the course has 10 enrolled students. Southwell said he begins the class by introducing students to classic theories on the role social science plays in policymaking. They have open discussions about unconventional ways of connecting the public to social science, including podcasting, and students master technical editing skills by using free or low-cost editing software.
During the class, he said, students produce several 4-to-7-minute stories on individual topics.
“The students are responsible for brainstorming about their story topics,” he said. “They learn how to pitch the stories and do all the background research to put their pieces together.”
For example, undergraduate class participant Jesse Remedios produced the podcast on reducing North Carolina’s high school drop-out rate. He spoke with several state high schools, gathering advice and tips on helping students stay enrolled.
Two other students, McCall Wells and Lou Kendaru collaborated on a story about votership among white women in the most recent presidential election. According to Kendaru, talking with women who voted for Donald Trump prompted her and Wells to identify their own internal biases, helping them recognize the importance of objective reporting.
“We worked to push aside our disagreements with the voters to identify the logic behind their votes,” she said. “We used it as an opportunity to truly understand the support for the Trump presidency rather than just pretend we understood it.”
Students also learn how to talk with people and handle unfamiliar and unforeseen situations while working on stories, Remedios said, while they sharpen their research skills.
Southwell also teaches students how to use straight-forward language that allows the public to understand the importance and impact of social science research, Kendaru said.
“I get very frustrated with academia being in the Ivory Tower and not being very accessible,” she said. “This class and these stories are things that normalize conversations about the world we live in. And, we’re having them in a language that is accessible to most people. That’s important.”
For his students, Southwell is much more than a professor they see only in the classroom. He’s an approachable mentor—an instructor who takes time to get to know his students individually and unearth their goals and dreams.
“Dr. Southwell supports us all. He pays attention to our individual goals and tries to think through ways to help connect us to the next step,” Kendaru said. “We’ve all had conversations with him about where we see ourselves in five to 10 years.”
It’s not enough to simply give students the technical skills needed to produce compelling stories, Southwell said. Aspiring social science communicators can benefit from networking and internship opportunities, as well.
Consequently, as part of the course, he brings in professional communicators, such as David Crabtree from WRAL and Susan Davis from WUNC, to answer questions.
Several students, including Remedios, Wells, and Kendaru, also accepted internship positions to work alongside station staff on “The Measure of Everyday Life” at WNCU 90.7 FM. These opportunities are invaluable, Remedios said, because it gives students a head start on their careers with actual work experience instead of only classroom learning.
Ultimately, Southwell said, the class work and the internships open the students’ eyes to the effort that goes into creating stories for radio that appear seamless and easy.
“This class is good preparation for the students to get out of their comfort zones and ask good questions. It helps them recognize they’re not the absolute expert in all areas,” Southwell said. “They learn to be humble in asking insightful questions. It’s a good skill to have whether for podcasts, shows, or for life.”