Seeding Interdisciplinary Public Science Writing Collaborations

Guest contribution by Stacey Pigg, Associate Professor of English

Over the past year, I received support from Leadership in Public Science to support an intern on a collaborative public science project with Dr. Lina Quesada-Ocampo’s Vegetable Pathology Lab. While I had initially intended to hire two interns—one for design work and the other for research–the application process introduced me to one candidate who was qualified for both kinds of work and had more time than other applicants to devote to the project. Thus, Lindsey Scheper joined this project as both a research assistant and communication design specialist.

This project had two goals: first, to produce communication artifacts that share information about plant disease with public audiences. And, second, to systematically analyze the collaboration processes among vegetable pathology and technical communication experts in a public science communication project with the goal of influencing future practice. I believe we met both goals–though with adjustments given the circumstances of the Spring 2020 academic year. In this short writeup, I’ll share information about our work toward both goals, and reflect on the overall project impact.

Public Science Communication Process and Artifacts

The first goal of our project was to produce public science communication, We began by devising a plan for supporting the lab’s postdocs and graduate students in leading collaborative drafting and publishing processes. With Dr. Quesada-Ocampo, we devised a workflow for writing diagnostic guides for plant pathogens for multiple audiences across multiple media. The lab’s doctoral students and postdocs lead teams that first drafted a diagnostic guide for submission a well-respected disciplinary journal, written in such a way that it could be broadly accessible to readers outside the academy (e.g., hop downy mildew). Following this formal written guide, each team worked toward a more broadly available video guide that could circulate more broadly. These videos have visual sequences and audio scripts that have been revised after feedback from the team. We hoped to have these videos completed by the end of Spring 2020, but what’s left is to voice the scripts, align them to videos, produce captions, and upload videos to a hosting location such as YouTube. While work is ongoing, we have also produced a draft Moodle Project Site that can host the videos as part of a training education series for extension agents.

Qualitative Research

The second major goal for the project was a qualitative inquiry focused on questions posed in the initial proposal: What can collaboration among humanities and agricultural scientists look like locally for students at NC State? How can we better prepare STEM and humanities students for working together toward public science communication?

Lindsey and I attended the group’s lab meetings as participants in this project during the 2019-2020 academic year, and used these meetings to conduct the work of the project (i.e., introducing project goals, reviewing and offering feedback on diagnostic guides and videos). We received approval from NC State’s IRB (#19114) for an engaged ethnography focused on our project, and we collected fieldnotes at each lab meeting, analyzed process documents used in the written and multimodal collaborations, and interviewed 5 members of the lab.

To analyze these materials, we identified and mapped public communication audiences addressed by members of the collaboration in discourse, as well as assumptions about audiences and communication practices and platforms used to interact with them. A key finding is that technical communicators need training in how to work with applied scientists who have a robust public science practice shaped by state extension infrastructures. Extension infrastructures and practices emphasize particular kinds of public audiences for particular ends, as well as particular methods and practices of communication outreach.

Dr. Quesada’s lab recognizes that they have many potential public audiences that extend beyond their current reach, but would need to actively create infrastructures through which these publics might be constituted and addressed. For example, the group is looking for more direct ways to reach urban audiences and home gardeners. Technical communicators are well suited for the work of creating infrastructures to reach and constitute publics, though this is less obvious form of expertise that is often less obvious to our scientific collaborators than content-related communication work (i.e., editing, reviewing, providing project management).

To share these findings, we had two accepted conference proposals for the Spring and Summer of 2020, both of which were unfortunately cancelled or delayed due to COVID-19. While we were not able to deliver these papers, we have moved forward with preparing manuscripts for publication to share the knowledge we’ve gained through our research. Our first in-process article, “When Extension and Public Engagement Meet: A Case Study of Collaborative Public Applied Science Communication” is fully drafted, has been reviewed by participants, and will be submitted to Technical Communication Quarterly by the end of November 2020 after a final round of revisions. Our next goal for the qualitative research is to produce an additional article that takes up what we have learned for pedagogy. We intend to create sharable pedagogical materials for supporting public science collaborations.


First, this support helped to create a high-impact learning experience in public science communication for graduate students and postdoctoral students across Plant Pathology and Technical Communication. Postdocs and Ph.D. students in Vegetable Pathology gained the opportunity to lead a small, interdisciplinary team and both formally and informally publish. Furthermore, Lindsey, as the intern for technical communication, gained invaluable experience in writing and collaboration has continued on to the Ph.D. program in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media where she continues to work with public science. She attends Vegetable Pathology lab meetings as a consultant, though her funding has ended.

Next, this support created communication artifacts that have already circulated quite broadly (admittedly likely among more academic audiences so far through Plant Health Progress). After the completion and circulation of our video diagnostic guides, communication artifacts created through this project will reach a broader audience of growers and extension agents.

Finally, this support led to new knowledge that will shape future public communication projects designed to constitute new publics that extend beyond the lab’s current focus on growers and extension agents. Part of this impact is due to the role of the support in ensuring an collaborative relationship between Vegetable Pathology and Technical Communication faculty, as well as support for the publication of our engaged ethnographic research.


I want to thank Leadership in Public Science for this opportunity. Even a small amount of funding can help provide the time and labor that enables projects that are mutually advantageous for students and faculty across disciplines. Working with this team was the highlight of my academic year, and I look forward to completing our projects this year and brainstorming for the new ones we will tackle later.