Communicating Science – One story at a time.

What do ice cores, ocean gliders, frozen soil, and seal whiskers have in common? A group of scientists who travel to the ends of the Earth to understand them.

Communicating Arctic and Antarctic science is many things: On one hand, it is a unique opportunity to bring people into a corner of the world so remote and extreme that most shiver at the thought of visiting. On the other hand, it is a delicate interface between social and political issues. From any perspective, science communication is tricky.

Last weekend I had the privilege of spending three days at a science communication workshop with 31 peers. On the first morning, we nervously stood around the coffee table, unsure of the road ahead. Over the next 72 hours, we talked. We listened. We laughed.  We ranted.  We took risks. We revised. We came to realizations. Of importance to me was the recognition that we all wear many hats, some dustier than others, but if you take enough time to get to know someone, you’ll be surprised by the number of hats you have in common. Whether we are interacting with scientists, policy makers, elementary school students, journalists, or people tuning into the morning news, I guarantee we can connect on many levels:

  1. We enjoy learning. No one can deny those joy-filled, brain-rattling “Aha!” moments. But sometimes understanding tricky scientific topics can be like navigating a backcountry trail. Without a map. In the dark. (If you want to know what that’s like, think of the seals that regularly dive 3,000 feet underwater! Their whiskers are handy for finding fish). A scientist with good communication skills can be your map, and a few vivid stories can be your metaphorical flashlight. Learning can be an exciting adventure.
  2. We love a good story. Scientific storytelling is a way to hook an audience so that the message sticks. No matter who we are, or what we do, we can all relate to the frustration of a hurdle and the satisfaction of soaring over it. Sometimes we like to learn without knowing that we are learning.
  3. We have limits to our comfort zones. The media interview is a particularly daunting situation — an unchoreographed dance, with an unspecified leader and loads of people watching. Until that lightbulb goes off in your interviewer’s eyes, it’s hard to feel like you are communicating. Remember that a bit of predictability, consistency, and empathy can go a long way. We are human, after all.
  4. We are obsessed with “getting it right”. As scientists, we pour years and years of dedication into our science – how do we distill that down into a 7 second sound bite? It will take practice. I’m guessing you wouldn’t sample a 60,000 year-old ice core without first testing the method on a practice core. Treat science communication the same way you treat irreplaceable samples. It will be worth your time.
  5. We care, deeply, about humanity and our future on this planet. It’s the reason polar researchers spend thanksgiving at remote field camps instead of with their families. It’s the reason journalists pull all-nighters to meet deadlines. It’s the reason 2nd graders ask questions with reckless abandon. And it’s the reason I’m writing this blogpost on a late-night flight instead of getting some sleep.

If you are a policy maker, student, journalist, or person tuning into the morning news, thank you. Thank you for giving us the chance to tell stories about our science. And thank you for asking the questions that give our science a fresh perspective. Next time you find yourself face to face with a scientist – please, ask them to tell a story about their work. If you’re lucky, they won’t even use metric units!

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The workshop was organized by the United States Association for Polar Early Career Scientists. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs. Workshops on oral communication were facilitated by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Workshops on written communication were facilitated by the University of Colorado Boulder Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences Education and Outreach Program. 

To see just how human I am:

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