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From left, "America's Science Idol" judges Corey Powell and Indra Viskontas with host Chris Mooney and winner Tom DiLiberto '06 following the competition at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting. Photo: NSF Science and Engineering Messengers.

CALS alumnus crowned 'America's Science Idol'

In a heated contest featuring talks about insect sex, gamma-ray maps of the universe and even a rap about lasers, ultimately weather prevailed.

Tom DiLiberto

Tom DiLiberto '06, a forecaster for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Tom DiLiberto '06 became the Kelly Clarkson of the science communication world when he was crowned the first "America's Science Idol" at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in February.

The competition, a demonstration of effective science communication, gave six scientists the opportunity to present a science topic near and dear to their heart in three short minutes -- a formidable task, even for seasoned professionals like Bill Nye the Science Guy '77. But one an atmospheric sciences alumnus was up to.

A forecaster for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), DiLiberto immediately set himself apart from other contestants: He humorously defended the much-maligned profession of weather forecasting rather than providing a litany of "gee whiz" facts and figures.

"The public sees the forecast fail and then asks why the weatherman is paid to be wrong," decried DiLiberto. "What the public doesn't understand is that all weather models start with inherent error. Over time this error increases, which is why small-scale, local forecasts are challenging for meteorologists."

DiLiberto faced a panel of the Simon Cowells of science: Corey Powell, editor-at-large for Discovery magazine; Indra Viskontas, cognitive neuroscientist and "Point of Inquiry" podcast host; and Jen Bogo, articles editor at Popular Science. Chris Mooney, Viskontas' "Point of Inquiry" co-host and a Mother Jones columnist, acted as Ryan Seacrest.

The judges evaluated the contestants for clarity, delivery and overall impact. DiLiberto's presentation won over the judges with its humor, depth, real-world examples and a complete story arc.

"Scientists and future scientists have to remember that at a fundamental level everything is a story, no matter how complex the topic, even science," DiLiberto said. "And stories need to be interesting, engrossing and, most importantly, have a beginning, middle and end."

DiLiberto also feels scientists have a responsibility to communicate clearly with the public and strongly urges other scientists to know their audience.

"I recommend being short and concise and remembering that your audience probably does not have a strong understanding of your field," he said. "There is a fine line between giving enough information and too much."

But most importantly, he noted, "be careful with showing too many equations."

DiLiberto credits his own stage presence and delivery to Cornell.

He was president of the Cornell Chapter of the American Meteorological Society, a forecaster for Cornell Weather Phone, a weather columnist for The Cornell Daily Sun, and an on-air meteorologist for Ithaca College Television. When not dazzling the judges, DiLiberto works at NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, where he forecasts weather for Africa, Central America, Hispaniola and Central Asia.

"In general, Cornell certainly helped me cultivate my abilities at science communication," DiLiberto said. But it was the class Oral Communications that gave him the winning edge: "This is a class that everyone should take."

DiLiberto won a trip to Hollywood with the National Academy of Sciences' Science and Entertainment Exchange, a program that connects entertainment professionals with scientists and engineers to improve the accuracy of science stories depicted in film and TV.

Alex Koeberle '13 is a student writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Related links

"Point of Inquiry Live" (video interview with DiLiberto)

Tom DiLiberto, America's Science Idol

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