Jack Ahern: Lessons from the Landscapes

Landscape architect Jack Ahern travels to The Netherlands to get his Phd but comes home with a new lens on how to view his surroundings. Listen below or stream the official podcast!

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Jack Ahern, Ph.D., FASLA, FCELA, is Vice Provost for International Programs and Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture & Regional Planning, University of Massachusetts – Amherst, MA. He is a landscape architect who studies the application of landscape ecological theories, principles and methods on landscape planning and design projects – at multiple scales and across a range of contexts – from city centers to peri-urban landscapes and protected/natural areas. His earlier work looked at broad-scale integrated systems of protected lands known as greenways – linking their spatial configuration and resource base with a suite of ecosystem services and cultural landscape management strategies. Greenways are now an international movement and Ahern’s work built a robust theoretical basis to classify, plan, design, and manage greenways. His work contributed to an evolving intellectual bridge between the professional fields of landscape planning and design and the interdisciplinary field of landscape ecology. Continuing on this theme, Ahern published to translate landscape ecology principles and tools, meaningfully credibly, to a diverse audience of professionals and related academics.

Ahern’s current research is focused on the inherent challenges for sustainability and resilience in the 21st Century – the Century of the City. This work continues to engage landscape ecology as a theoretical platform to integrate the emerging, fine-scaled professional practices of green infrastructure and landscape urbanism across scales to form green urban networks linked with ecosystem services, sustainability and to build resilience capacity. He is internationally active, combining his leadership of the UMass International Office with his passion for urban sustainability and resilience.

Ahern shares these passions with his wife Linda, and together they enjoy their adult children and new grandchildren, as well as hiking, sketching and sailing.

Making News, For People

unnamedSo you are a scientist or press officer and you’d like to get something covered. Where to begin?

I shape news. Specifically, health-related news. I work for a major media organization. I’ve worked for major media organizations in New York and internationally most of my career.

Every day I come into work and help direct what articles will be written and where they will be placed. A large bulk of what’s commissioned or picked up is planned far in advance. We can guess fairly well which stories are going to trend and when: cold and flu season revs up in February; allergies hit the Northeast United States in late April.

We also cover more topical, breaking stories – the kind you couldn’t see coming. These might include a family in Denver adopting a kitten with rabies that consequently infected the whole family. Or how a pediatrician in Detroit refused to care for a child with lesbian parents.

There’s a third type of story that we cover too, the kind researchers often want us to publish. We often find out about those from press releases or direct media outreach.

Those last types of stories – the ones presented to the mainstream media to be considered for coverage – are often the hardest to sift through. This is partly because there is such a huge volume of them regularly being pitched at us. It is also because there’s a whole industry of highly skilled public relations experts pitching them. To borrow an expression from the statistician Nate Silver, how do we separate the signal from the noise? How do we determine what stories should be covered and what should be ignored? This is where good storytelling comes into play.

There is no universal methodology for news media picking stories. It can come down to a whole slew of factors including precedent, business intelligence and leadership, which are all organization-specific. But often what carries the most weight is people’s personal editorial discretion. Connect a potential story to an editor personally and you’ll be a heck of a lot closer to getting that editor to want to connect it with his or her audience.

It turns out that a good news story is often just a good story, period. It usually has the same elements. There is a conflict or problem established. People’s lives are affected or changed. Perhaps there’s an injustice or an illness that personally touches, or we have someone close to us who is affected. There’s often a solution, or at least an inroad toward one. If that solution is novel or surprising, all the better.

Good storytelling is essential to people – including news media professionals – caring, retaining and sharing. In most cases people click through directly to individual stories through search or a referral. Contrary to what most people probably assume, for most of mainstream media, the homepage is irrelevant as a traffic driver. The vast majority of traffic bypasses homepages and goes directly to individual stories. People find those stories by actively typing a topic into a search engine. They also find stories through curators like Yahoo! News and the Drudge Report, or curation-platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Essential to having a story go viral – which is most often the goal these days – it must connect with people. People must care, retain and then share the story. If people care enough to share a story, the odds are other people will find that story interesting, and worthy of sharing. This happens offline just as much as online.

So the next time you want to get research covered, or make sure your latest discovery makes the news, using storytelling can be key. After all, I can assure you as a media professional that the hype is not true – we are, indeed, people too.

Dennis Petrone is a senior manager at CBS Local Media in New York. The views expressed in this post are his own and not the opinion or position of CBS Corporation. He can be found through http://dennispetrone.com/

Storytelling Webinars for Scientists: Union of Concerned Scientists

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.

The second webinar The Story Behind the Scientist, features Speakers: Seth Shulman, Editorial Director at Union of Concerned Scientists, Casey DeMoss, CEO of Alliance for Affordable Energy and Eric Michelman, Director of More Than Scientists.

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.

Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison: Living in a World of Science, Ethics, Heartbreak and Love

Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison find love and a scientific partnership amidst some of the world’s most devastating ecological crises.

Tobias and Morrison
Photo by Jean Morrison

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

At the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by M.C.Tobias

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.”

Yellow Eyed Penguin. Photo Copyright Brent Beaven and Kari Beaven
Penguin on a New Zealand Off-Shore Island. Photo Copyright Brent Beaven and Kari Beaven

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.

©Michael Charles Tobias, PhD
©Jane Gray Morrison

Story Notes #3 — Use Just Enough Science

The following post about tips on storytelling is the third in a three part series called “Story Notes,” all of which originally appeared on the blog of The Story Collider Co-Founder, Ben Lillie. This entry was a guest post by Erin Barker, Senior Producer for The Story Collider.

Story+Collider_Vanessa+Tignanelli-30How much science should I include in my story? (Scientists Edition)

One of the biggest challenges The Story Collider faces when working with scientist storytellers is how to blend complex science into a compelling narrative that everyone can understand and appreciate. I will admit up front that I have not always had the best ideas in this area. I once asked a neuroscientist to explain his work at a fifth-grade reading level. Suffice to say, I regret this, and will never do so again.

It occurred to me after this conversation that maybe the key isn’t to treat the audience like ten-year-olds. After all, they aren’t dumb — they just aren’t all scientists. They may be experts in other things like tax law or real estate or cake baking or karate chopping, or other important or complex subject areas. They can be perfectly intelligent people who don’t want to be talked down to, just because they don’t happen to have a decade-plus of foundational knowledge in any given scientific field. There must be a better way to communicate with them than by condescending.

Maybe the key instead is to be concise, I thought. By limiting the amount of scientific explanation you include in your story, you could avoid overwhelming the audience without treating them like dummies. A great example of this is a Story Collider story by cognitive neuroscientist David Carmel. In this story (which, naturally, I highly recommend listening to), David struggles with his fascination when his own father suffers a stroke that leaves him believing that the arrangement of his limbs is out of order. (“The bottom two-thirds of my body are gone,” he tells David at one point.) David’s explanation of what’s taking place in his father’s brain, and why it’s so unusual, is succinct — no more than a few lines — and it lasts only about thirty seconds.

There is a representation of the body in the brain. It’s called the homunculus. There are actually several homunculi. There’s one for the sense of touch. There’s one for motion. There’s one for proprioception, the sense of where your limbs are at any given time, so that you can balance properly. And the homunculus is plastic, meaning it can change over time, through experience. For example, the representation of the fingers is larger in pianists. But I’ve never heard of a complete remapping, a complete rearrangement, of the body representation after a stroke.

I’m sure that David, being a cognitive neuroscientist, could have waxed lyrical about what was going on his dad’s brain for hours. But because he kept it to only a few lines — and used really only one or two pieces of jargon — it becomes much easier to digest, and in fact, much more memorable. I have remembered the term homunculus and what it means ever since I first heard this story over two years ago, which is longer than I remembered the names of half of the people I’ve dated.

Sadly, David and I are not the first geniuses to consider this. In his book Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, science communicator and filmmaker Randy Olson also advises concision.

“Dumbing down” refers to the assumption that your audience is too stupid to understand your topic. So you water down all the information or just remove it, producing a vacuous and uninteresting version of what in reality is complex and fascinating. “Concision” is completely different. It means conveying a great deal of information using the fewest possible steps or words or images or whatever the mode of communication is. The former results in a dull, shallow presentation; the latter is a thing of beauty that can project infinite complexity.

After listening to David’s story, who can argue?

So what can you do to be more concise? Start small. If you could teach someone just one thing about your work, what would it be? What are the facts we absolutely need to know in order to appreciate your story and the stakes at hand? Each time you are including complex scientific information, ask yourself: Does this advance the plot? Does the audience need to know this in order to follow the events taking place? If the answer is no, it’s likely that your story is better off without it.

You may feel naked without it. Suffocating detail can be like a warm, comforting blanket to scientists. It means you have covered all your bases and left no stone unturned – understandable instincts for someone in your line of work. But when it comes to storytelling, if that detail comes at the cost of losing the audience’s attention or overwhelming them, what is it really worth?

Erin Barker is senior producer of The Story Collider and a host of its live show in New York. She is the first woman to win The Moth’s GrandSLAM storytelling competition twice and has appeared in its Mainstage and shows in cities across the country, as well as on its Peabody Award-winning show on PRX, The Moth Radio Hour. One of her stories was included in The Moth’s New York Times-bestselling book, “The Moth: 50 True Stories.”