by Riley Steinbrenner
Goodbyes are hard, especially when it comes to saying them to people you’ve lived with and developed friendships with over the past two-and-a-half months. (Seriously, where did the time go?!) And so, I’d like to start off my final post as Trout Lake Station’s science communication intern by thanking all the wonderful staff and student researchers who made my job so enjoyable. It’s hard to believe I got to call this my job.
Thank you to CFL communications guru Adam Hinterthuer who edited every single post on this blog and helped me create Off the Reel. Thank you to TLS head-honcho Susan Knight for your endless support, advice and knowledge. I’ll never know a faster walker than you. Thank you to Pam Fashingbauer, aka glue of the station and master of the color-laser printer. Thank you to aquatic-plant expert Carol Warden. Your passion for macrophytes and well-kept shorelines is infectious. Thank you to senior research specialists Pam Montz and Tim Meinke for teaching me the wonders of fish nets and the “mega buoy.” Thank you to Noah Lottig for letting me borrow your SnapScan and LTER Dynamics of Lakes book for photo identification. Thank you to John Verhs and Michael Coakley for all the thankless work you do to keep this place in tip-top shape every day.
Lastly, I would like to thank my fellow students, both graduates and undergraduates, from whom I’ve learned the most this summer—not just about the science they were doing, but about communicating it. Everyone wants their voice to be both heard and understood, and I can attest to the fact that those students toiling away, hunched over a laptop for hours every day are just some of the many scientists (and scientists in-training) who could use some help in reassuring everyone outside their scientific microcosm that what they are doing is truly important and worthwhile. Translating this for general-audience comprehension, I learned, is the duty of science communicators.
Understanding the language of science is not much different than understanding Chinese, German, French or English. It requires translation through metaphor, visuals and humanization. Metaphor is so deeply rooted in the human language that we don’t even realize when we’re using it. In fact, just in that previous sentence alone were at least two metaphors – a metaphor as a “rooted” tree and language as its soil. Of course, you can’t physically root an intangible idea—a metaphor—inside another intangible object—language, but it makes sense for us motor-skilled beings to do that in our heads to explain those “hard to wrap your brain around” concepts we want to explain.
For example, it’s hard to wrap your brain around the idea of “tree bendiness”—the topic of geological engineering student, Dom Ciruzzi’s, PhD study—but when comparing it to a wilted flower, like Dom did this summer, it begins to make sense. We all know what a wilted flower looks and feels like, as well as why it looks like that. So, when the two are compared, we understand that dehydrated trees also become bendy just like dehydrated flowers, just on a larger scale. To make sense of the complex—and often unseen—world of science, we must utilize our metaphor-trained mind to communicate and comprehend it.
Sixty-five percent of us are visual learners. I don’t remember anyone in my third grade class who objected our science teacher popping a Bill Nye the Science Guy video into the VCR and pleaded with her to read “Chapter Eight: Plate Tectonics” instead. Why? Because visuals—whether moving or still—transport us to the content of that image and increase our engagement and enjoyment with it.
In today’s routine of news perusing, often on a 5.5-inch smartphone screen, you take seven seconds max to decide if you want to click on that headline about conducting long-term ecological research (LTER) sampling on Trout Lake. What person in their right mind, unless supremely interested in Long-Term Ecological Research (in that case, they probably wouldn’t be considered average), would want to read that? It, by nature, is not relatable. But, when that headline gets paired with a picture of Sydney reaching over to one side of a wind-tossed motor boat holding a graduated cylinder with the kind of look on her face that anyone who’s had a stressful week at work is all-too familiar with, that article becomes more appealing. It’s something we can all relate to—that feeling of dreading the current situation but just having to push through and get the job done. And since most of us are empathetic humans who desire to discover when we see, you more often than not click on that headline.
The power of photos don’t stop there, I’ve learned. While they work wonders reeling readers in, they also have a special power to augment key points in the written text because seeing is experiencing. This is especially important in scientific text where some information may slip through the cracks (metaphor!) For example, if a reader misses the explanation of what a gastric lavage is, they wouldn’t have to look much further than the picture below that sentence to understand that it means making a fish puke up in a petri dish. Overall, writing and photographing these Off the Reel posts have made me realize that photos truly help place the readers into the text, increasing their transport which increases their attention as well as their engagement, and ultimately their comprehension. After all, if you want to help someone understand how small-mammal trapping goes down at 6am on the outskirts of Boulder Junction, photograph it. Visuals are the highlights in scientific text from which readers recall the most information. That “as if you were there feeling” a photo can capture can have the same (if not stronger) impact as writing. There is no writer’s voice to alter the viewer’s experience, making the experience more relevant and meaningful to the viewer—an aspect of science communication that is crucial important – making things matter.
Metaphors and visuals aside, the most fun part about “sci comm” that I put into practice this summer is that genuinely being interested in someone each and every day can make it that much easier to personalize and humanize a science-focused story about their research. Newswriting professors will tell you that the most important part of writing a story comes before even putting fingertip to keyboard—the interview. Formal or not, interviews are the quintessential part of piecing together an engaging story. Here at Trout Lake, they took the form of brief meetings with grad students in the Juday conference room, or breakfast-table conversations with undergrads in the Juday House kitchen. No matter where they took place, they all had one goal: getting to know the people behind the science. Humans are wired for narrative, and the most engaging stories contain well-defined characters. As a result, making it easy to relate to these characters and transport—or “get lost” in the action of the text. You start to experience the narrative through the scope of that character, through their desires, ambitions, strengths and weaknesses. This helps improve comprehension and retention of the content presented in the narrative, because, in a way, it’s as if you experienced it for yourself.
You can see why narratives—especially ones that focus on the researchers themselves as “characters”—have become so popular today in science communication. (Think Nat Geo!) While the development of these Trout Lake “characters” often took place during pj-ensemble, breakfast or in informal conversations, it also took place in the field. One “aha” moment was out in the field with Kaela trapping wild, bog bacteria. But it started over breakfast. My breakfast schedule lined up with Kaela’s so perfectly every day this summer that it would put the Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017 to shame. And when you talk with someone for about ten minutes every morning on everything from puppies to family to Babcock ice cream, you grow close with them. By the time I went out in the field with Kaela, it was easy to write about (and photograph) the work she did because those breakfast-table conversations established some comfort—a level of trust—for both of us. And when a piece of the bacteria trap sank to the bottom of Trout bog (and Kaela remained ODDLY calm), she shared that story of how her experience at the plant pathology lab in Madison had increased her efficiency of problem-solving in stressful situations. A great way to personalize this moment in the field (and develop Kaela as a “character” in the Off the Reel post later on) that felt just like a normal breakfast-table conversation—just in a row boat.
These are just a few of the many things I learned about communicating science this summer. And I’d like to end this post by thanking all my fellow student researchers—my friends—for all those breakfast-table conversations and for letting me be a part of your crew. Thank you to Dom Ciruzzi for your endless advice and countless time spent helping each and every undergrad here on station. You didn’t have to, but you wanted to—and that’s the true definition of a teacher. Thank you to Holly Embke, Martin Perales, Ishita Aghi and Matt Chotlos of bass-walleye crew. Thank you to Pete Guiden and Raina Eddy of small-mammal crew (hope you guys are catchin’ many a smammal in Cali!) Thank you to Vince Butitta and Liddy Ginther of mussel survey. Thank you to Alex Linz and Kaela Amundson of microbial observatory. Thank you to Linden Taylor and Rosie Mohammadi of aquatic invasive species. Thank you to Aly Andersen, Aaron Ostrander, Josh Begale and Duncan Favill of fish crew. Thank you to Paul Schramm and Kevin Gauthier, Jr. of FLAMe crew. Thank you to buoy tech Keith Lyster. And last, but not least, thank you to Sydney DeMets and Camryn Kluetmeier of LTER base crew. It was a pleasure getting to know you all, including your life off station, your passions and your goals—whether those be as long term as becoming a reputable microbiologist, or as short term as just getting through chem week without getting poisoned by the sediment trap! Most importantly, thank you for letting me share your story. And while there may be days where your confidence wavers in regards to the impact you’re having in your professional field, just remember that there will always a young, future scientist out there who will be inspired by your story.
by Riley Steinbrenner