Episode 22 – Yang Shao-Horn On Publishing As The Beginning Of A Conversation

There’s an understanding that just because research has been published, that doesn’t mean it’s some kind of final answer to a question. And Professor Shao-Horn takes comfort in this, this sort of ever-changing landscape of knowledge and information.


Guest Starring Yang Shao-Horn, W.M. Keck Professor of Energy

Produced & Hosted by Adam Greenfield

Executive Produced by Patrick Yurick, Instructional Designer – MIT OGE

Executive Produced by Heather Konar, Communication Director – MIT OGE

Special thanks to the following editors who provided us invaluable feedback that aided in the development of this show:

Christopher O’Keeffe, Co-Founder of Podcation

Kristy Bennet, Manager – MIT Women’s League

Jennifer Cherone, Phd Candidate – MIT Burge Laboratory

Erik Tillman, Phd, Formerly of the Kim Lab & Currently A Fellow at Vida Ventures, LLC

The Great Communicators Podcast is a part of Gradcommx. Gradcommx, targeted at enhancing research communication, is the first offering of Gradx – a professional development project created for the graduate student population at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the Office For Graduate Education.


“All The Best Fakers” by Nick Jaina is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License (http://freemusicarchive.org)

“Castor Wheel Pivot” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License. (http://freemusicarchive.org)

“Mind Body Mind” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License. (http://freemusicarchive.org)

“Deliberate Thought” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) is Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/



Welcome to The Great Communicators Podcast presented by The MIT Office of Graduate Education, a professional development podcast expressly designed to bring lessons from the field to our graduate student researchers.

My name is Adam Greenfield and in today’s episode, let’s talk about a subject that, within the scientific community, is a pretty significant aspect of written communication. Today we’re going to talk about publishing.

But we’re not going to talk about how to get published in the sense of what sort of guidelines publications are looking for. Instead we’re going to focus on how to engage your peers and readers, and also understand how writing helps you, the communicator, have a clearer, stronger grasp on your research. Not only does publishing help ensure your ideas are reviewed by your peers but it also cultivates new ideas and discussions.

All of these reasons are why our speaker in today’s show is a big fan of publishing.


I think publishing is really great.


That’s Yang Shao-Horn and she’s a W.M. Keck Professor of Energy at MIT. She also teaches material science engineering and mechanical engineering and her area of expertise is in developing storage technologies.

Professor Shao-Horn is no stranger to publishing, either. Just in 2016 alone, some of her publication titles include “Descriptors of Oxygen-Evolution Activity for Oxides: A Statistical Evaluation,” “Anionic Redox Processes for Electrochemical Devices,” “Optimizing Nanoparticle Perovskite for Bifunctional Oxygen Electrocatalysts,” “pH Dependence on OER Activity of Oxides: Current and Future Perspectives.”


You know,just to name a few.

And these publications range from Journal of Physical Chemistry to Ceramics International. All in all, Professor Shao-Horn has been publishing knowledge and work for 20 years. Sounds like someone has a pretty decent grasp on what it takes to write for publications.


So, I really enjoy publishing, and I think the number one reason is that when we write things down, we can think, at least for me, I can think more clearly and make arguments more rigorously, put work much more in context. So, this is essentially the dominant mechanism that we can communicate with other scholars. We can actually push ourselves forward.


But, of course, publishing research is never that easy, is it? Sure, it may look easy just from the pages upon pages of listed publications on her MIT site. But even with her name on all those articles and documents and research results, that doesn’t mean she can wipe her hands clean and move on. In fact, to Professor Shao-Horn, publishing is just one step in the process of educating and learning.


I do not consider a publication a perfect work. I always consider publication as a thought based on limited data and a view through a window that can create to see the natural world. It is not a piece of work that is with certainty or perfection, but rather it enhances our understanding of the natural and physical world. If we use rigorous methods and rational deduction of the facts, that is how we think about this problem, that is how we communicate with our peers. I always find it really exciting to then discuss with peers because even for the same set of observations, people can have very different interpretations because we interpret the observations based on different sets of assumptions. So, then publications is a way to lay everything out very clearly.


So there’s an understanding that just because research has been published, that doesn’t mean it’s some kind of final answer to a question.

And Professor Shao-Horn takes comfort in this, this sort of ever-changing landscape of knowledge and information.


I am such an imperfect person, so I think it is always, for me from the beginning. So, I am always comfortable with publishing. In fact, it is quite exciting to share the thoughts because then you can actually lay the assumptions out, and you can actually discuss with others. If you have something that is really incorrect and people can clearly point that out, that is how we make progress forward.


And this is where Professor Shao-Horn’s publishing experience comes into play. She’s now pretty familiar with how to construct your thoughts and words on paper so that whatever you are trying to communicate is clear enough for your audience to interpret. Fortunately for her students, this has become part of her curriculum.


Yeah, so this is something I work extensively on with my students. I find most of them actually are very hard workers, and they are also very good writers. I think that maybe what I find challenging for graduate students is that, how to put different pieces together so that you can tell a very, sort of, systematic and rational way of interpreting the observations, and how to prioritize some of the key observations and some are maybe secondary observations and maybe some are key conclusions, this is with more of the certainty and some of the secondary conclusions, how to present the results and the thought in a systematic way so that the key points and most important main points will come through in addition to other maybe secondary, in some essence, that are less important points. So, how to make that very clear and how to make the assumptions in support of that thought is very clear to us as well.


And of course, like everything we hope to become proficient in, it doesn’t happen overnight.


I think over time, we become better writers and we communicate better. So, essentially I think publishing, to be able to have a simple story that you can tell, I think it is a very effective way to communicate.


I think one of the biggest aspects of communication is the engagement in discussion and ideas with other people, whether they’re peers, friends, or family. A lot of the time, that exchange and interaction is a more immediate form of communication.

But when it comes to publishing as the mode of communication, the transfer of concepts and research is a more drawn out process. Still, as Professor Shao-Horn pointed out, that allows you the time to focus on how you’re disseminating the work in writing so your audience will come away with a clear, concise understanding.

Then, once you’ve published your research, you’ve engaged your peers and fostered communication. And in doing so, you receive feedback and are then able to gain more knowledge and insight into your work as it evolves and grows. So publishing is not the finality of something, but more a step along the path of growth through communication.

Thanks for listening to The Great Communicators Podcast brought to you by The MIT Office of Graduate Education. My name is Adam Greenfield, and feel free to talk amongst yourselves.