In our never ending quest to find all available resources for scientists interested in incorporating story into their science communication, we were thrilled to discover TWO excellent webinars from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The first, Hear Me Out: Making Meaningful Connections through Storytelling, is hosted by Mónica Feliú-Mójer, Vice-director, Ciencia Puerto Rico and Program Manager, iBiology and Michele Roberts, National Co-Coordinator of the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance.
Among the MANY great points made, a few key takeaways here are:
Storytelling provides scientists with a powerful way to help their audience make personal, meaningful connections with science.
As a scientist, storytelling helps you go beyond the data to convey the ‘so what’ of your research and why it matters
Because storytelling is about your audience, it can be a powerful tool to make science more inclusive.
You can incorporate elements of storytelling into communicating your science across the board and to multiple audiences: from your peers to the general public. It will make you a more effective communicator and a better scientist.
An excellent list of resources for Storytelling and Science and Science Communication is also provided here.
Covering “Storytelling 101”, the webinar covers how to craft a story, build suspense, and get people interested in your work, as well as strategies for storytelling and resources on communicating important ideas in a story framework.
When Jane Gray Morrison and I met in 1986, I think it’s a safe scientific bet to say it was love instantly. I would argue plus or minus 30 seconds, perhaps. When we met, I was full-stream in a career encompassing five interrelated areas of passion: global ecological research, teaching, writing, filmmaking and exploration. Jane was in Vienna studying opera. On our first date I had Jane holding a newborn snow leopard cub behind the scenes at the San Francisco Zoo. This was a pivotal moment for us both. Snow leopards are a species numbering fewer than 4,000, and there is nothing quite like an encounter with the healthy cub of a (tragically) endangered species to win a woman’s heart.
I’ve always sworn to the fact that the soul speaks when it is spoken to. The cub, all sentient beings affect me, and Jane. I was born and raised in San Francisco and when I was about three years of age, my father took me down to the zoo one foggy morning where I witnessed a wolf in captivity for the first time. This Canadian gray wolf exhibited (what I later learned was called) stereotypies, a condition of desperate boredom and fatalism, resulting from being caged. In humans it is comparable to a range of neurological disorders. In captive animals, it is true suffering and can easily lead to premature death, after years of sheer torture.
I asked my father, “Why was this amazing animal in jail?” My Dad responded, “Welcome to the world, kid.”
I was horrified and the shock of that encounter, transformed me instantly into an animal rights activist, an ecologist, and a deeply distressed person. Once you encounter a horror-story in the form of a magnificent animal being trapped, stressed, and, in essence, tortured, by our species in the name of “environmental education” or, worse, “entertainment” – it is a deplorable discovery.
Ever since that epiphany with a wolf, I have researched the global ecological conditions of our species in the context of the tens-of-millions of other species; trying to understand the serious challenges we pose to the biosphere in an age of the Anthropocene, and looking towards pragmatic, urgent solutions to those problems.
Romance amidst the penguin guano and tragedy
Following our “date” with the snow leopard cub, I persuaded Jane that she might enjoy researching in ankle-deep guano the behavior of penguins. She wasn’t sure how “romantic” that would be, but judging by the success of our snow leopard outing, it was clear to me that Jane and the penguins would get along magnificently. I was not wrong.
At the Argentine Base Esperanza on the Western Peninsula of Antarctica, Jane and I hunkered down amid one of the largest Adélie penguin rookeries on the entire Antarctic continent, with some quarter-million breeding pairs.
One of three members of the Pygoscelis genus, dating to at least 19 million years ago as a species, the Adélie penguin at the time of our research, was in decline. Climate change, ozone depletion, even the veritable eruption of eco-tourism– all put in doubt the future viability of their kind. Adélie penguins are one of seventeen penguin species in the world and are best noted for their Chaplin-esque saunter.
We made several films in Antarctica, including a MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour (today called the PBS NewsHour) special on ozone depletion over Antarctica, as well as a one-hour PBS special entitled “Antarctica: The Last Continent,” which put eco-tourism, as well as the National Science Foundation on notice: Issues, including open dumping and burning at the bases – the smoke harmful to endemic species, among other things – were all vividly examined.
Two of the most graphic images in our “Antarctica: The Last Continent” film revealed an Adélie penguin struggling through an open-pit garbage dump at McMurdo Base. It just sat there, sprawling in a multiplicity of cast off metal junk, used barrels with leaking toxins, fencing material, sharp dangerous garbage right on the water’s edge. It was insane and to film a penguin trapped in that was beyond heartbreaking.
At the Argentine Base, having heard a rumor that something equally sinister was occurring, I placed our film crew in a line-of-sight position and sure enough, one morning “it” happened again: an Argentine military helicopter crew, from the back of our ship, flew directly over a penguin rookery, unnecessarily very low, in a positively idiotic and sadistic effort to frighten the birds. As the cameras rolled we saw penguins fleeing down the rocky slope in a panic towards the water; their frantic dispersion resulting in the death of penguin chicks, crushed eggs, and young chicks left parentless and fully exposed to swooping Skuas (a large Antarctic seabird of the Genus Stercorarius that preys upon penguin chicks, alive or dead).
Apparently, one soldier had said this kind of thing was “fun.” Stupid and insane is a more appropriate description. Indeed, at another base in the Antarctic, tourists apparently overheard one group of base personnel describing how they had deliberately placed an explosive device at a penguin rookery and detonated the bomb “in order to see penguins fly.”
Such indications of human nature in the 20th-century, have only gotten more outrageous, which makes it rather awkward and uncomfortable discussing a love affair, or even presuming to share a smile in the face of a magnificent Earth that is under siege by our species. The dark underbellies of human behavior can be so rough, at times grotesque in its violence meted out to others, that research is tainted by the silence of pain; observations marred by the bias that comes from anger.
Both Jane and I have struggled with this, as do most ecologists we know throughout the world. Although our struggle has a kind of burden, we sometimes feel few share, namely, the belief system that not only are species and populations critical, but so is every individual, to the chain of life. And so we have truly had to cope with the fact we are both firmly committed, not only to conservation biology, but also to animal rights; to saving huge areas the size of national parks and wilderness areas, but also trying to save every living individual we can.
To Earth, with Love
When Jane and I returned from our Antarctic work we soon embarked on another, longer “date.” This time it was a ten-hour dramatic miniseries (starring William Shatner and the voice of Faye Dunaway) on the Gaia Hypothesis, the notion that the Earth is a living organism with its own destiny. Jane and I traveled throughout the world with film crews, documenting everything from examining pollution in Chesapeake Bay to exploring some of the earliest evidence for the origins of life on Earth on a glacier in Chamonix. The project encompassed two-dozen countries
In the process of these epic “dates,” Jane and I have fallen madly in love with this planet at levels that have continued to galvanize our passions for anthrozoology – the study of human life in the context of the remarkable biodiversity with whom we have the amazing privilege of sharing our time on this Earth.
Jane and I, the essence of our love affair and friendship with each other, has manifested a tandem torch-bearing volition to see more national parks and protected areas created; and to safeguard and liberate animals, to the extent possible. All those fabulous, sentient beings who find themselves trapped in a never ending cycle of captivity and exploitation.
In some of our films and books including the recent Springer book, Why Life Matters: Fifty Ecosystems of the Heart & Mind, and through our nearly 17-years running the Dancing Star Foundation, Jane and I have put our passion for one another out there into the world of our research, and environmental education, hoping to share our love of the Earth with everyone we meet, and can hopefully reach.
With the Pope’s latest Encyclical on the Environment, and a rising consciousness everywhere, we remain guardedly optimistic that humanity’s ability to love and celebrate nature and natural beauty may well be key to the thriving of all species on this planet.
When I reflect back to our first month of “dating” among snow leopards and penguins, it is characteristic of the nearly thirty years of subsequent collaborative work Jane, who would become my wife, and I would together embrace – and continue to do so to this day.
This post was originally written for the Naturejobs blog by Emily Porter and posted on 8 July 2015.
Emily Porter shares the top five lessons she learned from a media training workshop with the BBSRC.
Contributor Emily Porter
Engaging with the media is important and is an effective way of communicating messages to millions of people worldwide. It provides the opportunity to enthuse and inform the public about your research, as well as the potential to create new collaborations, increase funding and add to debates.
These days, to get your research noticed, you need to be proactive. Part of this is getting your science out there using traditional media, such as TV, radio and newspaper but also social media, such as Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr and so on.
But where to start? I signed up for a media training day run by the BBSRC, which included practical sessions focussing on writing for the media and dealing with radio interviews, as well as theoretical sessions around social and digital media and working with your press office. Here’s what I found out:
Prepare. Think before you speak. Science journalists often have a reputation (albeit unfair) for reporting science inaccurately. However, a study by Sumner and colleagues, focussing on health related science news and portrayal by the press, found that much of the exaggeration in the media was already present in the press release complied by the research institute itself, based upon information provided by the scientists. Sign up for media training at your university or institute if they offer it. If not, check with your funding body as they may also offer courses to researchers.
Structure. If you want to write a press release or news article, use the 5 W’s as a template for your first paragraph – Who, What, When, Where, Why. This ensures that if the reader doesn’t bother progressing past this point or if your article is edited, then they still know the key facts. Also think about ‘Who cares?’ as this will help you create a ‘hook’ to draw readers in right from the beginning of your article. This is easier in some subjects than others, for example, anything that has an impact on health will generally get most people’s attention.
Language. We played a game in which we were each given a piece of paper with a scientific word written on it. The words were all selected from a pre-course exercise involving a short description of our research. The aim of the game was to give a definition of the word within 3 seconds of reading it. If it wasn’t possible to do this, then that word should be avoided as the chances are your reader or listener won’t understand it either. A great illustration of this is ‘Ten hundred words of Science’ where you can only use the 1000 most used words in the English language to describe your research.
Share. Social media isn’t scary. You don’t need a million followers on Twitter. Whether you want to use it for networking or simply for raising awareness of your research, the best approach is to follow, tweet or message other researchers who do have a large number of followers. When they share your post, hundreds of people will see it with minimal effort from you. Again, talk to press officers and enlist their help if you are unsure where to start. For example, BBSRC helps its researchers produce short YouTube videos about their research.
Personality. Be animated when doing interviews, but also in situations such as writing a blog post. Tracey Logan played ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams in the background to hype us up before our mock radio interviews. This song perfectly illustrates the fact that, most obviously, you need positive energy to engage people, and also provides a guide to the rhythm at which you should speak. Remember, people can’t see you on the radio so a helpful hint is to do your interview standing up as this allows you to move around and gesture which consequently will come across in your tone of voice.
If you need any further persuasion, an Ipsos MORI poll found that 59% of people said that television was their main source of science information and 23% of people said that newspapers were. So whether you update your Twitter account, get in touch with your press office or chat to your local radio station, remember, if you don’t talk about your area of science then someone else will!
Jeffrey Shaman is an infectious disease modeler at the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University. His background is in climate, atmospheric science and hydrology, as well as biology. He studies the environmental determinants of infectious disease transmission, in particular, how atmospheric conditions impact the survival, transmission and seasonality of pathogens and how hydrologic variability affects mosquito ecology and mosquito-borne disease transmission. More broadly he is interested in how meteorology affects human health. Much of his work is computational, employing combined model-inference systems to forecast infectious disease outbreaks at a range of time scales. Shaman also studies a number of climate phenomena, including Rossby wave dynamics, atmospheric jet waveguides, the coupled South Asian monsoon-ENSO system, extratropical precipitation, and tropical cyclogenesis.