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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The Wonderful Language of R Programming

Want to make compelling figures with your undoubtedly awesome data, but don’t know where to start? Don’t worry – I’ll help you get there in no time! 🙂

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I have put together an interactive tutorial on using R for statistics and plotting, including an .r file (that contains the script) and several comma-separated data files (.csv) that contain data. Please download all files from the Google Drive folder below, and put them in a single folder that you can easily find them (e.g. on your desktop):

Google Drive Files – R Tutorial

In addition to those files, please download both “R” and “RStudio Desktop” programs before the tutorial. R studio is a more user-friendly version of R, but requires that R also be downloaded on your computer. Downloading these files should be pretty quick, but please do it a couple days before our session so you have time to troubleshoot any problems.

R can be downloaded at https://cran.cnr.berkeley.edu/
RStudio can be downloaded at https://www.rstudio.com/products/rstudio/download/

After downloading both, you should be able to open RStudio and it will look like this (except not blue – you can change the colors under “settings”):

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Let me know if you have any questions or issues downloading the data or programs. I look forward to getting you excited about using R!

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship in Ecology

If you are interested in applying for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship in the field of Ecology, you’re in the right place! The fellowship is a fantastic opportunity to financially support your graduate school endeavors; however, the application can be a bit tricky to navigate. I’ve worked with several graduate student fellows to compile some tips that we found useful during our application process:

  • Be overly explicit about Broader Impacts in both the personal essay and in the proposal. In my final year, I actually had over a page of my personal essay under a “Broader Impacts” heading because in the previous years reviewers kept saying I was vague about them.
  • For the proposal, pick simple enough methods that they can be explained clearly and concisely! Biting off too much makes the methods section muddled, rushed, and too long.
  • Remember that NSF is funding YOU – not your project. In the research proposal, they want to see you carefully craft a hypothesis and then clearly outline the appropriate methodologies. In the personal essay, they want to find out why you are qualified to undertake high quality science.

Below are some example essays from graduate students who have been funded. I have included both successful and unsuccessful applications for students who were not funded the first time. Please remember that all materials are property of the original author and cannot be reproduced or copied without permission. A huge thanks to all of the graduate students who contributed essays and tips!

Evolution of embryo behavior: heterochrony of cued hatching mechanisms (Funded in 2016)

Effects of topographic complexity from crustose coralline algae to kelp forests (Funded in 2015)

Bioenergetics model of Weddell seals (Not Funded in 2014, Funded in 2015)

Effects of ocean acidification on the acorn barnacle (Funded in 2014)

Mule Deer/Bears (Not Funded in 2010, Honorable Mention in 2011, Funded in 2012)

Climate change and marine mammal behavior (Funded in 2008)

Importance of sea mounts to species of conservation concern (Not Funded in 2005, Funded in 2006)

Elephant seal lactation efficiency (Funded in 2001)


In addition to the proposal essays above, I have found the following materials, put together by James Faghmous (University of Minnesota) and Doug Causey (University of Alaska Anchorage) to be extremely helpful (and very concise):

Here are some links for websites that discuss the application process in much more detail:

And a couple websites that give very helpful tips:

Feel free to email me (roxanne.beltran@gmail.com) with questions that you have – I’m happy to help in any way that I can. Good luck with your NSF GRFP application this year!

Research Experience for Undergraduates – 2015

This summer, I had the pleasure of mentoring an undergraduate student through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. Clara Woolner, who is now a senior at Bard College in New York, spent the summer learning how to run stable isotope analysis, calculate whisker growth rates, run myoglobin assays, and determine blood volume using Evans Blue methods. Her final project was titled “Stable isotope analysis reveals variation in the summer feeding behavior of female Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) with different reproductive histories”. Clara was a fantastic addition to the lab, and we are very grateful for all of her hard-work a dedication. Good luck with your senior year, Clara!

A high-resolution version of Clara’s final poster can be seen by clicking on the picture below:

Clara REU Poster_Final

Blogging – The Beginning Of The End

In just a few weeks, I’ll begin a series of short blogs meant to help those who frequently program and plot using R and MATLAB. To make up for the absurd amount of time I’ve spent time toying around with code and making fancy plots, I hope to share the love (i.e. my codes) with those who might find them somewhat useful.

Next week I’ll write a post about creating time-activity budget plots in MATLAB. Here’s a sneak preview:

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