Key takeaways

  • About 98% of scientific publications are written in English, which can limit their reach.
  • A multi-discipline UCLA collaboration with digital educational platform Knowing Neurons is translating scientific materials into Spanish.
  • The project’s goals are to spur diversity in neuroscience and STEM and widen the availability of public scientific content.

Scientific research continuously expands our collective knowledge and pushes innovation forward. But what good is that innovation if it isn’t accessible to large swaths of the global population?

English is the standard language for most scientific communication — nearly 98% of scientific research is published in English. While standardizing scientific publications into a single language can streamline discussion, it is incredibly limiting for populations that don’t speak English.

A UCLA-led project aims to alleviate this issue. A collaboration among the UCLA Brain Research Institute, the UCLA Department of Spanish and Portuguese and the nonprofit organization Knowing Neurons is translating the informational content on Knowing Neurons’ platform into Spanish. Created by a group of graduate students at UCLA and USC in 2012, Knowing Neurons works to make neuroscience accessible to people interested in learning about the brain.

“I think most scientists agree that science is universal in the sense that whatever we discover about how nature works, whether it’s the brain or anything else, is knowledge that everyone should have access to,” said Rafael Romero, assistant director for outreach at the Brain Research Institute. 

Translating these resources is one step toward making neuroscience accessible to a larger audience, including nearly 475 million native Spanish-speakers worldwide. The collaborators’ efforts and findings were recently published in eNeuro, the online journal of the Society for Neuroscience.

“Since the project started almost three years ago, we have translated 162 articles, created lesson plans based on the translated articles and conducted numerous community outreach activities in the greater Los Angeles area,” said Carla Suhr, continuing lecturer in Spanish. “Ultimately, we wish these resources to make scientific topics part of dining table conversations at any Spanish-speaking household.”

This program makes use of the diverse interests on campus by integrating humanities and STEM academic programs. Bilingual UCLA students work with professional linguists and neuroscientists to translate scientific material into relatable Spanish-language content.

“Many of the students connected to this project are pursuing a double major or minor in STEM and Spanish and aspire to become professionals in the medical sector,” Suhr said. “This project presents a unique opportunity for these students to practice the formal register in Spanish, learn new scientific terminology, improve their translation skills and present scientific content to the public.”

Working with neuroscientists and linguists ensures high-quality translations.

“Things can get lost in translation,” Romero said. “So we were very careful to make sure that there were quality controls so that the translations produced were well-written, with no mistakes in the language used or in the concepts described, so that native-Spanish speakers could trust the science.”

Romero said he’s proud this initiative is an example of fruitful collaborations between science and humanities departments. “We each bring expertise to the partnership,” he said. “In the world of science, we can take for granted that everyone communicates, everyone speaks, everyone writes, but we don't always look at the language structurally. 

“This project made crystal clear that we needed an expert in the structure of the language so that we can better communicate the scientific knowledge.”

The ongoing project is expanding across continents, with students from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid joining the program as editors for the neuroscience translations. Romero and Suhr will move from editorial operations to project oversight and programming responsibilities.

“We hope this project continues to grow and becomes even more collaborative by adding to our team more community partners as well as professors and students from other disciplines within UCLA and other universities around the world,” Suhr said.

UCLA student translators also develop outreach activities – including podcasts, presentations and audible articles – to complement the translated research articles and to create awareness of the availability of these resources. 

“In-person community outreach contributes to making our resources even more accessible for our local communities and allows us to see its impact firsthand,” Suhr said. “We have partnered with high schools and community centers in highly densely Hispanic populated areas in Los Angeles to conduct workshops on the translated articles for the Latinx youth. 

“Our UCLA Latinx students have reported conversations with high schoolers who approached them after the workshop to show their appreciation for presenting science in Spanish and to ask questions about STEM careers.”

Long term, researchers hope that increasing the availability of Spanish-language scientific information can help combat the persistent lack of diversity in neuroscience and STEM currently seen in academia. 

“We're hoping to encourage other people to replicate what we've done. You can theoretically translate any number of different fields into dozens, hundreds, thousands of languages,” Romero said.