I have been engaged in applied aquatic research of some kind in the Pacific Northwest for over a decade, and always made an effort to connect my and others’ research to a wide audience. Rather than accomplishments, I count these experiences as lessons learned about balancing my commitment to research and transforming conservation values in larger society.
Lesson 1: ANY research can be interesting – just add commitment. Over the last few years I’ve written articles and mini-articles about lots of different research, from blog posts about native invaders to the effects of shoreline armoring for the Seattle Audubon Society. I have been pleasantly surprised to find that most research makes for interesting stories – I’m also learning that engaging people in conservation is more about personal connection than about presenting evidence. So even if I might want to despair that my research is too technical to be interesting, enthusiasm and caring enough to communicate will go a long way to having people connect with my work.
Lesson 2: Practice, Practice, Practice. Our lab recently published an article for graduate students who wanted to become better at communicating about research with non-specialists (“lay audiences”). One of our major points was that although scientific training doesn’t hand students these skills, a do-it-yourself approach to science communication is absolutely possible with free tools and training opportunities. Scientists are trained to be conservative in communicating, but there aren’t any real formulas for getting kids interested in math, or getting the neighbors talking about climate change, or having the local newspaper publish a story about wildlife poaching. Practicing outreach over time and in different ways is the best way to hone these skills so they become second nature.
Lesson 3: The world is actually waiting for your knowledge. As an intern with the Marine Biotoxins Program, I was given the chance to help create and produce a short educational film about harmful algal blooms. I decided that teachers in classrooms could really use some classroom activities on oceanography and primary productivity to supplement the films. I got a grant to implement the idea, and nine months later had created The Harmful Algal Bloom Hunter’s Handbook. A single posting on educational listserves resulted in 800 requests in three days from teachers across the country for a copy of the curriculum and film, demonstrating the demand for current and accessible science.