Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Reflections on science communication & outreach--part of a blog carnival

On April 30, COMPASS published a commentary a paper in PLOS Biology on the journey from science outreach to meaningful engagement. This post is part of a series of reactions, reflections, and personal experiences to expand the conversation. Track the conversation by reading the summary or searching for #reachingoutsci.

I was a new assistant professor counting plants in the rain when I first truly realized that time was in short supply. The work was progressing slowly and my mood was soggy. I had to write a promised blog post for the class I was missing; I had a grant proposal due the next day that still needed to be routed through the research office; and I was having trouble with one of my field assistance who was going to need a heart-to-heart chat very soon. Don’t get me wrong. I had been busy and frantic before. Grad students are stressed; postdocs work hard; and I’ve never met an undergrad who hasn’t pulled at least one all-nighter. But I realized that this time constraint that I was facing wasn’t acute. It was chronic, and it was likely going to get worse because I only had more that I wanted to do.

One of the most important “more” that I wanted to do was engage with the people affected by my research. I realized that while standing in the rain, and I made a commitment to myself to try to be efficient and deliberate in my work choices. If I wanted to be accessible and relevant, for example, I might start by training someone else to stand in the rain counting plants. (Of course, every ecologists needs to spend at least some time in the rain to stay close to their study system.) My initial outreach and engagement attempts—once I had secured more field help—were initially targeted at the individuals who managed the land where we my students and I were performing research. I wanted to attend their planning meetings, have my grad students speak in their regional management conferences, and produce meaningful reports that helped them make decisions. I’m not sure that ever accomplished the latter, but we were able to draw regional attention to our research and the issues that we were studying.

Ten years later, my basic goals in outreach remain the same—help to make sure that what we are finding finds its way into the hands of someone who can use it and in a useful form—but the scope of my research has grown. Again, I’m faced with choices about how best to spend my time. I’m not so naïve to think that science by itself will change the world. In fact, if changing the world were my primary goal, I probably should have chosen another field. I chose to be an environmental scientist because I enjoy the mixture of discovery for the purpose only of knowing how nature works and the significance of those findings to society.

To achieve my outreach goals today, I have tried to implement a few things. First, I’ve tried to obtain more training, primarily through the Leopold Leadership Program and COMPASS but also through consultation with colleagues whose work in this area I really admire. Second, I’ve tried to kill as many birds as possible with one stone. For example, I’ve started using social media an outreach medium to talk about the scientific and science-social issues that I think are important, but I also use this medium to keep track of what is going on in my field and environmental news. In other words, I’ve switched from other modes of being informed to spend time in a place where I can also practice communication, accessibility, and transparency. And it’s quick. Third, I try not to let my worries take up too much of my time. I care deeply, for example, about the opinions of my peers and their evaluation of my scientific work. But that doesn’t mean that everything I do is intended for a peer audience, and I don’t need to continually fret about their opinions of my outreach and engagement (though I still do about promotion!).

I try to remember with some regularity that feeling that I had while standing in the rain. Over the life of a career, I know that I will feel that same sensation over and over again. But I’m trying to continually refine and redefine my priorities, make sure that my efforts are well-aligned with those priorities, and remember to seek help and assistance where my time and talents are not best invested. I’m grateful for a lab group to help me with all of this, and I hope that all of my students also have their rainy moment some day soon—and I hope that they become better scientists for it.


  1. Thanks for sharing Jessica! And thanks, especially, for being a role model for your students. Hopefully when they fledge and start their own labs, including outreach and sharing will be the norm, bc that's what they "grew up with" and what they know.

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