What Happens When You Take Classes Out of Your Comfort Zone

by Lauren Back

What Happens When You Take Classes Out of Your Comfort Zone
Enjoying my work at NASA Langley!

Have you ever wondered what opportunities there are for communication students? Looking for a path less travelled or doing something outside your major? If so, then I’m your girl!

My name is Lauren, I’m a senior studying communication with a double concentration in public relations and journalism and a minor in environmental science. During my time at Mason, I’ve been a Mason Ambassador, a Communication Department Ambassador, and a sister of Pi Beta Phi’s Fraternity for Women. I’ve studied abroad in Millport, Scotland, and I’m currently an OSCAR scholar through the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program (URSP). I’ve also held several internships outside of Mason, including one with George Mason’s College of Science as a written communications assistant and at NASA Langley as a communication mentor through the Virginia Earth Systems Science Scholars program (VESSS). 

My path was unconventional. I always knew I wanted to work in public relations, but I never thought about the opportunities to communicate science until I was asked to work for NASA. One afternoon, I got a call from an old high school teacher who had moved into working at NASA Langley, designing a program called VESSS. She needed a public relations student who could mentor the high school participants over the summer and I accepted immediately. The next spring, I worked on redesigning the public relations portion of the program, and went back as a paid intern. The work I do with VESSS inspired my passion for science communication, and led me to add a minor in environmental science to my degree. Through that minor, I met a professor who challenged me to be bolder. 

I took Environmental Science Communication with Dr. Chris Parsons, a scientist largely known for communicating his work through Twitter. That class led me to be able to connect with major researchers on social media and gave me an array of people to ask questions and to verify facts with. There were so many moments in this class where I was intimidated because I felt out of place. I persevered, reading before class and participating in discussions. I started interacting with my peers, asking questions about science and what it means to communicate science to them. I was met with so much passion, it was truly one of my favorite classes at Mason. Dr. Parsons runs a study abroad to Millport, Scotland for science students to study marine mammalogy. I was the only communication student there, and although I was there to write about what was being done on the trip, I was able to perform the same as my science major partners. That trip solidified my confidence as a researcher, which inspired my favorite science communication project yet; my research through OSCAR’s URSP program.

In the Spring of my Junior year I was spending a relaxing afternoon watching one of my favorite programs, Shark Week. I found myself having to fast-forward through all of the programming I thought was overdramatized and filled with false information. Then, it hit me: the programming had changed so much since the first year I had watched it back in 2007. The next day I ran into Dr. Richard Craig, one of my favorite professors (he teaches media classes, I highly recommend them!). I brought up what I had noticed the night before and mentioned that it would be interesting to study Shark Week’s content shift from education to entertainment. I asked him if he knew anyone who would volunteer to be my mentor through OSCAR, or if he even thought it was worth pursuing. I was shocked when he said he’d do it, and that I should submit an OSCAR application as soon as I could. We got approved for the fall and I got to work immediately. I’ve expanded to studying overall public perception of Shark Week and its content, seeing if people without a media background are noticing what I’m noticing. I never thought I’d be able to research something I’ve loved since I was kid, allowing the potential for me to make a difference in its programming. 

If I could give any advice to students in the communication department, or looking at majoring in communication in college, it would be this: turn your passion into your work. My strengths have always been in communication and marketing, but my passion has always been science. There is always something to research in any field you combine with communication. My research combined science and communication, but I’m planning on taking that data into policy work to lobby on The Hill for marine life. The opportunities that you’ll find when you combine your skills and your passions are endless, so take them. Talk to your professors, ask them about their research, and take classes out of your comfort zone. I promise you won’t regret it.