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Director weekly highlights 25 Feb

Nicholas Evans, Outreach

Date: 25 February 2022

As we speed into our final year of CoEDL, one of the tasks we face is figuring out how to communicate the many exciting fruits of our research to an outside audience. Doing this can be difficult — especially given that there is no one outside audience, but many dozens of intersecting audiences — but getting your ideas across, to whoever you are trying to reach on a particular occasion, rarely fails to be a challenge. While we want our science to be judged by our peer researchers, which is one face of what we do, if those in outside audiences fail to understand what we do, our work will ultimately be seen as irrelevant. Educational policy-makers or those designing health messages will proceed without regard to what we can offer, and funding for our research, our students, our language workers, will dry up or be redirected to other, more articulate fields. 

One of the really positive things to have come out of CoEDL is the way it has encouraged so many types of cross-talk, by bringing together people from so many different fields who weren’t used to conversing. From the Linguistics Road Show, to new methods of visualising complex linguistic data, to interactive exhibitions on Sydney Speaks at the Powerhouse Museum, to the Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Science, just to name a few, there has been a huge amount of creative exploration of how to communicate about language, and languages, to a broader public. I still think we have a long way to go as a field before we are up there with the top science communicators, but we’re certainly moving in a good direction. That’s why it’s particularly important, this week, to have two stories that highlight the importance of communicating with a wider audience. 

One is the story about PI Morten Christiansen and Nick Chater’s new book The Language Game, featured in the Cornell Chronicle. Following on the heels of their MIT book Creating Language, this book constructs a version of their argument that aims more at the general readership. It is part of the same shift in our field, which has been a recurring theme throughout CoEDL’s research program, towards seeing language as a culturally-evolved phenomenon rather than the result of a hard-wired ‘universal grammar’. 

Another is our featured spotlight of the week about Karen Mulak — see below — for whom her time as a postdoc at CoEDL’s WSU node played a vital role in moving into health communication for the National Institutes of Health. 

It’s also well worth following the link in the news paragraph on the Dharug Dhalang bootcamp, which leads to the SBS interview with Jasmine Seymour and Corina Norman about their approach to developing a language curriculum for Dharug Dhalang – the traditional language of much of the Sydney area. There’s a fascinating story behind it, going back to the linguistic encounter between Patyegarang (Patji) and Lieutenant William Dawes (which inspired the name of the Patji-Dawes Award); leading through the careful piecing together of a grammar from these and other materials by our Associate Investigator Professor Jakelin Troy, now Director, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at the University of Sydney; and on to the original initiative you can hear about here, supported by CoEDL members. Two things that really stick in my mind in their approach are their call for a wider teaching of linguistic concepts in Australian schools, as a fundamental building-block of language learning, and the need to take a whole-of-community approach to teaching back a language like Dharug Dhalang so as to create a community of speakers. 

Turning now to Karen Mulak for our weekly cameo of the new talent to have come out of CoEDL, and leaving it to Paola Escudero, with whom Karen was a postdoc, to introduce her, I’ll sign off now, wishing you all a productive and communicative week. 

Nick Evans


CoEDL spotlight: Karen Mulak 

Paola Escudero: 

Karen and I have worked together since 2011 when I started at MARCS and she started as my first RA; then she worked as my first Research Officer for my first DP project and finally as my first postdoc within CoEDL. In the past 11 years, we have designed many experiments and written many papers together. One day she said: "Paola, I would like my work to have an impact not only on the academic sphere but on policy" and I said “That's fabulous” and wholeheartedly supported her application to work for the National Institutes of Health and mentioned working there would really see her wish come true. While she has less time for projects and papers, I'm humbled and proud to have Karen as a life-long colleague. Despite her busy agenda, we are currently working on three papers that are nearly ready for submission to Child Development, Developmental Science and Brain Sciences. 

Karen Mulak: 

In August I began a position at the National Institutes of Health as a Health Scientist in the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development following my selection as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow. I work in the Office of Science Policy, Reporting, and Program Analysis (OSPRA), where I summarise, analyse, and report on NIH-funded research and programs primarily centered around child and reproductive health. Some of the things I particularly enjoy about my new role are the connection with current events and issues, and the opportunity to directly contribute to connecting science with policymakers. Highlights of my work to date have been preparing talking points on the impact of technology and social media on child development for the NIH Director for use in Congressional testimony; summarising recent advances in contraception for a Congressional report; and translating scientific articles across a variety of topics into lay summaries for stakeholders and government officials. 

Science communication is a core component of my work, and CoEDL has played a significant role in developing my skill in this area. During my postdoc with Paola Escudero, I had the opportunity to collaborate in the drafting of multiple press releases corresponding to articles we had published. In several instances, this led to opportunities to participate in radio and television interviews, which were further supported by media training at Western Sydney University. As well, as part of the community engagement inherent to the CoEDL mission, I gave several community talks at family expositions and public libraries. These experiences have supported me immensely in my ability to convey complex scientific topics to lay audiences, and my skills in this area mean that I have been able to take on more advanced tasks sooner than was anticipated in the course of my fellowship. 

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University