Figures in Academia

Episode 18:”See the Attached Figure”: Communicating Data in Academia

Figures in Academic Writing

Do you work with data and are in academia? Tune into this episode to get advice from Dr. Sarah Treit, founder of Figures First, on how to communicate with data in academia. We also talk about the common forms of communication, figures in academic writing, predict how that will change in academia, and more.

You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.

What You’ll Learn in this episode

  • Different forms of communication common in academia and how they differ
  • Where academics struggle the most in communication
  • Tips for improving communication skills
  • The future of communication in academia

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Episode Transcript

Welcome back to another episode today, we are joined by Dr. Sarah Treit to give us some insights on data communication in the world of academia. Welcome Dr. Treit could you start off by telling the listeners a little bit about yourself?

For sure. Thanks so much for having me here. So my name is Sarah Treit and I live in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I received my PhD in neuroscience from the university of Alberta in 2015. And my graduate work was really focused on using magnetic resonance, imaging, or MRI to study brain development and children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

So since then I've continued on in that field. So I still work in neuro imaging, but my research area has broadened a bit. So I really focus a bit more on how brain structure changes across the entire lifespan. And how aspects of brain structure become abnormal or deviate in certain neurological disorders.

So it's an area that I'm really passionate about and I really enjoy the work that I do in that area. But throughout graduate school and my current career, I've also really developed a passion for making figures. So I've always really loved playing around with trying to plot my data in different ways and playing around with different graph types and trying to.

Optimize the way that I communicate my findings. But in doing this, I've also really come to appreciate how important good figures are specifically in academia. So one of the main outputs in this area is of course published manuscripts. And for a lot of us, when we go to read these, we'll often sort of skim the abstract.

Skip straight to the figures. So if you get there and they're sort of confusing or poorly put together, sometimes you end up moving on so you can lose your audience before they've even read the paper. So really come to appreciate how important they are. But also that this is an area that most graduate students and academics don't really get any training in.

So for most grad students, it's actually just sort. Trial and error to learn how to make effective figures, all of the training on data communication and science communication in general focus. Pretty much exclusively on writing, which of course is also extremely critical, but there's really not much focus on making figures.

So that sort of led me to start figures first, which is my consulting company where I'm trying to not only provide a little bit of consulting work to PIs in academia, but also develop some course content to help graduate students hone their skills in this area.

I really appreciate your focus on helping graduate students and people in the world of academia to improve their data, visualization skills. Like you, my first exposure to figures was out actually at. As a graduate student while I was in academia. And that actually made me very interested in data analytics.

But as you mentioned, I like many others did not get any formal training in how to make these figures effectively. And sometimes I felt like it was also made as an afterthought or. But you have a very good point that many times people will skip to the figures and so they are important.

And they're also really something that they're the piece of your work, particularly for manuscripts that then. Get circulated as well. So when you see papers that get pressed, for example, or get discussed in review articles, it's often a figure that's pulled outta the paper and then you know, placed in another media type.

So they could be really important, but I totally agree. Often they're treated almost as an, an afterthought.

So you're actually the first guest I brought on this show that is coming from the world of academia. And for the listeners who may not be familiar with the world of academia or are just about to enter it. Could you share more about what different forms of communication you often use to communicate your work?

You mentioned journals, but are there other forms that you often use?

Absolutely. So yeah, journals are probably one of the main formats. So papers published in peer review journals. But also presentations are extremely important. So presentations are given often at conferences of course, but even more locally at, you know, rounds or departmental meetings. And then also that's how you're.

Often gonna communicate with your lab members and other members of your committee and so on. So presentations are another really important format. And then the other sort of, I guess academia specific format would be posters that are presented at conferences. So these are often just. Literally a physical paper poster, although we're sort of moving away from that which is often a collection of graphs.

And then, you know, some text to go along with it. That's supposed to sort of explain your entire study in one piece. So those are the main formats that are used.

Got it. So how would communicating about the same research project? Look when communicating in a journal versus a presentation versus a poster like you mention.

Figures in Academic Writing

Yeah, so academia is kind of funny because for the most part we still certainly for manuscripts or, you know, peer review publications, we still format and design everything for print. Even though these journals are published online and most people actually consume that output online as well.

We still format it all as though it's. A paper print document. So figures that you're gonna make for a paper are always static. So there they're always static images. And in presentations, of course, you've got a lot more opportunity to be more interactive with it. So doing things like using video or animation to help walk your reader through a graph and also being able to sort of build.

Back story a little bit differently. So in a presentation you might be able to pull out figures from some of the work that led to your work. Whereas in a manuscript you really almost would never do that. You'd only show figures from your findings. So they're really quite a bit different, but I think presentations really provide you more opportunity to make more interactive visualizations.

And then posters are sort of this weird in between where they are traditionally meant to. A print poster where again, all it's all static images. However, more and more conferences are moving towards E posters or sort of, you know, electronic versions of that format where you're actually standing in front of a screen and it's more like a mini presentation.

So they're kind of, I guess, an in between of those two worlds, but for the most part papers are all still formatted for just that for paper.

Thank you for these insights. This sounds really intriguing. I remember when I was a graduate student, I created those static, printable posters and standing in front of it. So when you, when you're talking about like the, the E posters that are showing up on the screen, are you there presenting it or is it just like people are walking up?

There's no one else there, but they're watching these presentations.

Yeah, so I'm sure it varies a lot conference to conference, so I can't really speak for all areas, but certainly the ones I've seen you are standing there. So some of the conferences will do like almost like a hybrid format. So there'll be some paper posters where, you know, you're intended to be standing in front of your poster.

And then there'll be E posters where you're given a time. So you're standing in front of literally a screen. But there'll be like 10 screens in a line or something, and you're standing there for an hour period or something like that. And then the rest of the time, it's just flipping through your slides, idly.

So people can kind of go and get your explanation of it, or they can go and try and get it as a standalone. Sort of slide deck. So you almost have to design it for both. So that it's understandable when you're there and when you're not there, but again, that is all sort of an evolving format and it is I'm sure quite discipline specific in conference specific.

I assume that the paper format of posters will be. A thing of the past at some point, cuz it is sort of funny. You have like these actual print deadlines and you have to go get your paper poster and then put in a tube and carry it on a plane. And it's just seems like a funny thing to still be doing, but it, it does still happen.


Yeah. I remember one time I went to a conference and I was carrying around my tub of poster everywhere. And I was exploring the city at the same time. Like, so I was taking an Uber everywhere with it and the Uber rider's like, I see people carrying this around the city all day today. Are you all architects or something?


are you carrying around big posters?

What's there?

Yeah. This is really insightful and interesting, and I'm really excited to see how the media of communicating changes in academia. I know things usually change at a slower pace, but it's really exciting to see what that future will look like.

And now that we've talked about these different forms of communication, where have you noticed academics struggle the most when it comes to communicating data?

So I think I'm sure it varies a lot, but from, in my area, in my experience, at least I think that students tend to struggle the most with giving good presentations. I mean, all of it's a learning curve, certainly writing manuscript, making figures for anything is a learning curve. But I think that.

Presentations tend to give students the most trouble. And even the students who aren't shy and maybe don't struggle with public speaking, but they sort of need a lot of practice with learning sort of. How to read their audience, how to adjust what they're presenting accordingly, how much back information they're gonna need to give and sort of what data out of their project, they need to show to get their message across to their viewers.

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So you often see students who will show way too much, like they'll show. 40 graphs on a slide or they'll show way too little and make way too many assumptions that their audience already understands. The data that led them into their project and so on. So I think it's, that's probably one of the steepest learning curves.

And then of course getting that all into a timed format. So typically at a conference, it's a very specific time limit that you have. So sometimes it'll be nine minutes or 12 minutes or something really, really specific. So being able to make your work digestible and get your message across effectively in a usually pretty short amount of time.

I'm assuming like, even for the same research project, someone may have to present to different audience members and as you mentioned, they could be different media involved. Do you have any tips for someone who is in academia and wants to improve their presentation skills?

Yes for sure. So thinking about your audience is probably at the top of that list. So certainly for conferences the audience really varies. So sometimes you're giving a talk to people in your specific niche area of science, like your exact peers and you're really gonna need to tailor what you're showing.

Accordingly versus even giving a talk to a more broad scientific audience, or sometimes we give talks to more public audiences. So really thinking about your audience and what kind of background they're gonna come in with what kind of understanding of your data are they gonna be familiar with the variables that you're talking about?

Something that you've actually talked about a lot, Hannah is like, are they gonna be familiar with the chart types that you're showing. All of that kind of stuff. Like how much do you need to explain to them and how much do you need to walk them through your data in order for them to come out with the message that you want.

So I think for sure, thinking a lot about your audience and then hand in hand with that is thinking about what your communication goal is. So what's the take home message that you want them to remember and narrowing down what you're gonna show. So that, that comes out as something memorable. I think a lot of times, 

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certainly in academia and probably in every area, you have so much more data and you may have so many more visualizations than are really gonna end up in a presentation.

So picking which one of those graphs that they need to see in order to understand what it is that you're trying to get across to them.

Yeah. That's actually a very common struggle that I know my students have is the, the question they have is like, how do I select the insights I wanna share?


And you mentioned the scenario where people are sharing like all the 40 different graphs, they have prepared during the entire duration of their research.

And I remember that feeling even when I was presenting to my non niche members, I thought I would impress them by showing them like, look, I know so much, I work so hard. Right. But we forget like our audience members, like it's gonna be overwhelming for them. They're not gonna be able to focus on the main message.



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And really it's not it's not about showing them how much you did, which is so tempting as a graduate student, when you worked so hard on all of that data and it took you forever and you made all those 40 graphs and you think they're all really important, but really the. The most impressive presentations are the ones where people walk away with a understanding or they've learned something from it, not, oh, wow.

That presenter did so much work. So I think. Really narrowing that down can be so critical. And then of course with that is just getting feedback, like making sure that you have shown this to other people in your area, shown it to people outside your area really figured out, you know, is the way that you're delivering your message actually getting across.

So did they really understand it when you present it in this way?

Especially if you have friends or family who are not in this particular realm or research, talking to them and seeing if it passes the test with them, if they can understand what you're talking about without feeling lost. That's a interesting test to do, which yeah, I did that with my, I did that with my mom and I don't think she still can remember what I researched.

But it's a great skill though. Right? It's being able to, to communicate even to a lay audience, even when that's not your goal, most of the time, if you can do that you can figure out sort of what are the basics of the story that I need to get out there and then, you know, building into that. 

Exactly. Can you share five tips for academics who work with data on how to communicate data more effect?

Some of that is some of what we are literally just talking about. So thinking about your audience and tailoring sort of accordingly to who it is that you're speaking to whether that be someone in your niche area, someone in a broader area of science and so on. Second one would be thinking about your communication goal.

So what is the actual take home message that you're trying to get across and sort of keeping that in mind as you make your figures and make your graphs and making sure that they all sort of contribute to that message or build up to that message. I would also say play around with your data and plot it in multiple ways.

So it's really, really common. Especially in certain areas of academia to get really stuck on always presenting certain types of data in the exact same way. So playing around with different plot types can just make it obviously a more interesting way of presenting it, but sometimes it can give you more insights as well.

And then next, I would say spend time on details and formatting. So really sort of think about all aspects of your figure and make sure that you've sort of designed them with purpose. So an example of that could be like thinking of really carefully about how you've named your axes and making sure that that name is actually sort of The most optimal name that you could choose again, thinking about your audience as well when it comes to those, those details.

And then lastly, I think getting feedback is just so important. You always need that outside set of eyes. It's so easy to just. Really, especially when you've focused on something and you've been working on it for a really long time to just become blind to the HES in it. You've stared at that graph so many times that it looks great to you and then you show it to somebody else and you realize, oh, you're missing some element or the legend doesn't make sense or, you know, whatever it may be.

So just getting feedback from others would be that last tip.

Awesome. Thank you for all this advice on how to  communicate more effectively to our audience members. I have a follow up question to something I've been thinking about what you said earlier about having to reuse some of your figures for different forms of presentations.

And I was wondering. You have an idea of like common tweaks you do to your figures. when you're moving them from a paper you wrote for a journal to a presentation or poster, what are some like common ways you find yourself tweaking things? Or if anything.

One common way for moving for manuscript to presentation is I'll often and this is maybe fairly area specific, but I'll often pick one example figure instead of showing all of them. So in a manuscript, let's say I'll have a figure that contains four graphs because there. You know, four manipulations of something, but they essentially show all the same thing in a presentation.

I would maybe show one so that I have the opportunity to walk my readers through that graph. Make sure they understand the message. And then verbally say that it, you know, this was replicated in the other three conditions or whatever that may be. So picking a subset of a figure I think can be really helpful.

And then I would say my other. Top tip would be relabeling your axis. So sometimes it's just about being more descriptive. And knowing that your audience, when you're giving a talk, hasn't read the paper. You need to make it as explanatory as possible. Cause they only get to look at your figure for a finite amount of time.

It's only up there for them while you're on that slide. So Making it really as easily understood as possible and depending too on the audience, sometimes I'll even rename the axis to be almost an explanation of the variable. Those would be my tips.

That's a really good one, cuz there's gonna be a lot of loss of context for people who are listening to a presentation.

Are there any trends or innovative ways of communicating data that you think we are taking off or have the potential to take off in the academic world?

I know we mentioned E posters, but anything else that you're excited about?

It'll be interesting to see, I think eventually the format of manuscripts is gonna have to change. We're gonna sort of eventually move away from this PDF style of, you know, Print out article format, but for now that's, that's still the way. But a lot of journals are moving into having graphical abstracts that can sometimes be other formats.

So there are some journals that will allow like a video format, graphical abstract or something like that. And that's a piece that they'll then feature on their homepage or will maybe get more Maybe be used more in press releases and so on, but it's still associated with your, your article online. So I think that is definitely a big upcoming trend, but I wouldn't be surprised if, you know, if we had the same conversation.

I would hope if we have the same conversation in 10 years, the format's gonna look pretty different by then. So I think slowly we're gonna move into. Some more innovative formats, but as you said, things take a long time in academia to transition. So see how long that takes.

That sounds really interesting about the graphical abstract. You mentioned about press,  I remember that there were times when I've heard of a very mainstream. Newspaper taking a take on a journal paper and getting it wrong and, you know, having a click bait headline, is it common?

Have you seen that?

Yes. I think that happens a lot. I mean, the hope is that, of course, all the time, they're at least attempting to interview the authors and they're, you know, these, these little errors are getting corrected, but it does happen. It definitely happens. And you can understand why, like, you know, These articles are not written for a lay audience.

They are written for a scientific audience as they should be. It's not that, you know, scientists need to be all of a sudden writing for a lay audience, but I think that spending a little bit of time thinking about. How your figures will be understood out of context can really go a long way. So even sometimes it's just like if there's little tweaks that you can make to your figures so that if it was taken on its own, it wouldn't be easily misinterpreted that can, that can be really, really helpful.

That's a really good point. Have you ever been in a situation where you've had to write a different version or a smaller version of your journal article optimized for mainstream consumption?

I've never written a shorter version. I have. Written blurbs, like, so, you know, they'll say, can you summarize your findings in a paragraph or something like that? And some, some journals actually also ask you for these highlights. So it'll be like summarize the key findings of your paper. Or, you know, explain the relevance in three bullet points with a certain character limit.

So we, there's definitely a lot of that where it's like, you know, they want a super condensed version of the take home message of your manuscript. So I think that's a really important skill. That academics need to develop. But it's also really, really challenging because often, you know, your work is, it's not easy to boil down into three bullet points and also not easy to do that accurately.

But definitely that is something that's asked for, even from the journals. I think part of that is that When you go to, to share these or give them circulation, certainly by media, that's what they need. That's what they want. They want that super condensed take home message.

So if you can write that for them, you're, you're more likely for them to accurately.

This has been a really interesting conversation and I know our listeners are probably really intrigued to learn more about figures in general, but also figures for academia.  For those who want to actually learn more, Sarah has. An amazing Instagram channel called figures first.

And I actually found her through Instagram and your Instagram is full of very informational and also very amusing reels.  that? I really like. I'm so glad that you started doing reels, but also her post are so educational. Can you tell us, if people are interested in getting in touch with you, how they can get in touch with.

 You can follow me on Instagram. So it's just at figures dot first. Or you can always email me. So my email address is Sarah figures, So I'm always happy to answer emails or you can reach out over Instagram.

Perfect. I will be putting Sarah's email address in the show notes, as well as her Instagram handle, as she mentioned, it's ad figures dot first. And you should definitely give her a follow, even if you're not in academia, I'm not in academia anymore, but her advice is very much applicable to people in the industry.

So I strongly recommend. You follow Sarah, thank you so much, Sarah, for coming on the show today, I really enjoyed this conversation with you. It was really insightful hearing your perspective, especially because you've been working in this field for so long and you have an impressive history of having 20 peer reviewed publications and so much experience with communicating in academia, as well as with data visualizations which is really exciting to see.

Cuz I really love looking at charts and. Your account is always very interesting for me to look at. So thank you again for coming on today. And I look forward to having you again in the future.

Awesome. Thank you so much for having me.