Hometown: Millburn, New Jersey
Primary research interest: Science communication in emergent environmental and public health challenges, how people think about science and use it in their decision-making
Favorite books: “Merchants of Doubt” by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes, and “There There” by Tommy Orange
Hobbies: running, hiking, backgammon
Say “hello!”: @AlexSegreCohen on Twitter
Science has taken a front seat in all our lives in the last few years. Climate change and the pandemic have instigated countless conversations and debates in both formal and informal contexts. We’re talking a lot about these topics, but how much time have we spent discussing the ways we’re talking about them — the biases, mental shortcuts and questions that go into our communication?
This often-controversial area is where the School of Journalism and Communication’s (SOJC) new assistant professor of environmental and science communication, Alex Segrè Cohen, is most at home. Segrè Cohen researches how people communicate about scientific topics. She’s particularly interested in the way we communicate about emerging environmental and public health issues, whether in personal discussions or in government policy.
We recently had the chance to sit down with Segrè Cohen to talk about her work and what she’s looking forward to at the SOJC.
Why did you decide to come to the SOJC?
The SOJC’s values aligned with the work that I do and with my overarching research and teaching goals. I think science matters more when it’s shared and used by people, and the SOJC is a place where people care about the impact of their work. It seemed like a great place to not only work, but also be embedded in community. That was really motivating. It turns out it really is a community of great people. I love being able to go over to someone’s office and chat with them or have passionate students come up and ask these big questions. It feels collaborative and lively.
What do you hope to accomplish at the SOJC?
This is my first time as an assistant professor, so I’m really interested in getting my research program launched. I’m hoping to get to work with some awesome undergraduate and graduate students on some research, and I’m hoping to build ties with different community partners in the work that I’m doing. I’m also looking forward to building collaborations outside the SOJC, doing work with folks in the broader UO and Eugene communities.
I’m part of the core faculty team in SCR, which means I help evaluate grant proposals for SCR’s small grants program, teach courses in the science communication minor and participate in outreach and programming activities for SCR. For example, I’ll be teaching J377 in winter 2023, the Science of Science Communication course. This is a required course for students in the science communication minor, and it should be a fun and engaging way for students to blend theory and application in the classroom.
What is the value in what you’re studying?
How people communicate about science will impact the use of science in both everyday life and policy. Studying how different groups of people communicate about scientific topics is an important way to understand how folks are making sense of the world. It also helps us understand how practitioners producing the science can better inform people and develop interventions to aid people in making better-quality decisions.
How did you come to study this?
I started in the school of geography as an undergrad, and I was really interested in how people relate to their world around them. I realized the questions I had were psychological in nature because I was interested in how people related to the environment. To really understand the cognitive mechanisms that were happening internally with people, I needed to study psychology.
I then did environmental psychology work, but the work and the questions also required that I brought in a communications perspective. For example, how do we communicate in different ways about the same problem? And if we change the way we communicate, how does that impact the way that people make sense of things?
It started from my interest in the context of environment, and then as I kept asking questions, I needed to get more grounded in the psychological and the communications literature.
One of the most meaningful projects I’ve worked on was my work with the nonprofit Our Climate Voices. We led workshops and programming about helping people tell their own stories and experiences with climate change. This was rewarding in and of itself, and it also helped me better understand my own relationship to the climate crisis.
What do you hope students will take out of your teaching?
I said this to the students in J557 on the first day of this term, but the point of the classes I teach isn’t to have all your questions answered; it’s better to develop new questions. I want students to come in with questions and be really motivated and excited to figure out those answers. I want students to leave with the skillset to ask more intentional, more thorough and more impactful questions given the knowledge they now have.
That’s happening now. I’m teaching Curiosity for Strategists at the graduate level right now, and it’s about fostering curiosity. Next term I’m teaching J377, which is the Science of Science Communication, and that’s also about asking questions and communicating questions effectively, just from a different perspective.
What is the most important concept for the next generation of professional communicators to take from your work?
What I think is really cool about the field I’m in is that the questions and the literature I explore can talk about any issue that people are passionate about. If professional communicators want to look at how people are choosing different brands and different products, we can talk about the psychology and the decision-making around those products. If we’re talking about how governments can make better environmental choices for their communities, we can talk about the psychology behind the decision-making that happens at that level.
Understanding peoples’ cognitive biases and the mental shortcuts they take when they make choices can be applied to a variety of topics people make choices about. I think the field of the psychology of decision science is applicable to folks in advertising, public relations and journalism, to name a few.
A lot of the questions that I have I apply in polarizing topics, like climate change and pandemics. Almost everything we talk about these days is polarizing and challenging, which adds a layer of complexity to questions of science communication.
What do you do in your free time?
I love spending as much time outside as possible. My partner and I read in our hammock in our backyard or play frisbee with our dog after work. You’ll regularly find us going on runs or doing weekend hiking or camping. Eugene feels like a really good spot for that. I recently unsuccessfully tried my hand at rollerblading, and it ended up in a couple stitches, but it was fun!
—By Chloe Montague, class of ’24
Chloe Montague, class of ’24, is an advertising major and multimedia design minor working as an intern with the SOJC Communication Team. You can find more of her work on her portfolio at www.chloemontague.design.