How do scientists communicate among their peers and then to the general public? First, we attend conferences and workshops! Some people give oral presentations about their research, while others present their posters hoping to capture your attention in a matter of seconds. The goals are to facilitate connections with other researchers doing similar projects, gain insight from professionals in that specialty, and inspire you to ask new questions. All this has to be done among the scientists before you can move onto the next and arguably most important stage of research: communicate findings to society, decision-makers and the involved stakeholders.
Why do we do this? We care. We love nature and are curious enough to ask scientific questions about it. This is why the GCMP attended the Western Society of Naturalists (WSN) conference this past November. WSN is a scientific society with a strong focus on natural history, ecology, marine biology and evolution. Most members are concentrated on the west coast of North America, but today it has spread far and wide due to collaborations with researching members around the world. Over the course of four days, over 1200 members attended the Hyatt Regency in Monterey, California. Our representatives from the GCMP included PhD students Arturo Ramirez-Valdez, Leticia Cavole, visiting post-doc Maria Bagur, and myself, the GCMP communications coordinator.
The conference happened to occur at the time it mattered the most. For a large portion of attendees, there was an unsettling feeling present from the recent news of the Elect- President of the United States, who has coined himself a climate-change denier. Nearly all presenters mentioned this in the talks since their research often involves the impacts of climate change on the environment. “Now, more than ever”, was a unanimous voice in this concerned and vibrant scientific community. We need to work harder at communicating the importance of our research with the end goal of protecting our ecosystems and natural history. In light of this, the first event of the conference delivered: a student workshop was held by WSN organizer, Sara ElShafie and guest speaker from Pixar Animations, Daniel McCoy.
The workshop taught us the art of storytelling for science communication. This was extremely resourceful for us scientists, who often have difficulty explaining our research to the public. We learned how to prevent readers from suffering “mental jiu-jitsu” when you explain your research by using emotional and visual cues to improve comprehension. For example, circles often represent happy, soft, and safe things while triangles are scary, pointy, and dangerous. Therefore, when drawing, sharks are often sharp and angular, while kelp forests are undulant, mysterious and unsettling.
Many other interesting events happened during the weekend – The Monterey Bay Aquarium hosted WSN for a special evening and private dinner. Seeing these creatures in the nighttime and admiring their beauty was definitely a reaffirmation to keep us doing what we love.
Another highlight was learning about what our own GCMP team members are up to. Arturo Ramirez-Valdez, our kelp forest ecologist, shared part of his graduate work on the 100 Years of Research on Kelp Forest Ecosystems in California and Baja California. He stressed the importance of the kelp forest ecosystems that are shared between Mexico and California, both of which have very different histories in terms of exploitation, research and climate change impacts. He also highlighted the need for Mexico to improve kelp forest knowledge to better understand and protect the connectivity of these ecosystems. Leticia Cavole presented her poster on growth comparisons of juvenile yellow snapper (Lutjanus argentiventris) in mangrove forests in the Gulf of California and how they are affected by environmental changes such as temperature gradients. Visiting post-doc Maria Bagur shared her work with bivalves as important ecosystem engineers in the Patagonian rocky shores.
To end the conference the famous ecologist James A. Estes, author of An Ecologist’s Quest to Understand Nature, and many other scientific publications and professor at UC Santa Cruz was the keynote speaker. He told the story of why he became an ecologist. He also shared how the hard and unexpected turn of events in his life shaped his career. Coincidentally, without these unplanned hardships, he wouldn’t have been able to observe and study one of ecology’s most famous trophic food web relationships: the sea otter-kelp forest-sea urchin relationship. As a naturalist, ecologist, and adventurer, his message was strong and clear to all of us. Keep discovering by spending time outside, keep natural history alive, cherish those important friendships and professional relationships, learn from your mistakes and don’t give up.
Now, back to work communicating science.
Author: Rachel Labbe Bellas
GCMP Development and Communications Coordinator