Conference on Science Communication
Last week I attended a conference on science communication in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was an intense few days, but totally worthwhile and interesting. There were fifty of us grad students, seven 3-person panels of various experts, and more food than you can possibly imagine. (The sheer quantity of food rivaled that put out by Zooniverse for its workshops — and that’s saying something.) The grad students spanned all sorts of science disciplines, but the conference was arranged by astronomers, so there was, I think, a disproportionate number of people there who like to try to figure out what’s going on up in space. I really enjoy talking with researchers in other disciplines because there are rather distinct cultures across the difference sciences. It’s interesting to see what various fields value and how they do things. And frankly, I don’t want to reinvent the wheel and so prefer to borrow best practices from elsewhere rather than figure them out from scratch.
The more I talk to astronomers, the more I think ecologists can borrow stuff from them. I mean, astronomers are pretty constrained in their science. All they can do is observe stuff out there in space and then try to be super clever to figure out what’s going on. Meanwhile, here on earth, we ecologists can do all that sort of observing PLUS we can manipulate the world to do experiments. Because we can do hands-on experiments, that’s a big part of ecology, but as the tools are getting more sophisticated to collect the sort of large-scale observational data that astronomers already have, I think we may be able to learn new things about the living world that are hard to figure out from experiments alone. And we might be able to borrow ideas from astronomers on how to do so.
For example, check this out. It’s a hand-out from one of our panel speakers, Dr. Alyssa Goodman, an astronomer at Harvard, who talked with us about communicating science with other scientists in different disciplines.
So the cool thing that caught my eye was: Zooniverse! (I added the red oval and arrow; the rest is original.) But this whole Seamless Astronomy thing sounds like a neat effort to integrate large amounts of data, visualization, research, and social media into something coherent that people can use to explore and combine some large astronomy data sets. There’s nothing like this (that I am aware of) going on in ecology, but the sorts of things this project figures out in the astronomy world could be useful to us over in ecology.
Of course some things will always be different in different disciplines. One thing we did at this conference was to introduce ourselves and our research in short one-minute “pop talks.” We had to avoid using jargon, which is hard when you’re steeped in your science all day every day. To reinforce the no-jargon rule, everyone was given big, brightly colored sheets of paper — one that read JARGON and one that read AWESOME. If someone used jargon, the audience would all hold up their JARGON flags. If someone explained something well without jargon, up went the AWESOME signs. This sort of feedback worked really well and we all got good at speaking without jargon fairly quickly.
But it was easier for some of us than others. I got to stand up and talk about how I study “plants and animals and how they interact with one another,” which is pretty understandable to anyone. I felt bad for the particle physicists and molecular chemists who had to try to describe their work without using the technical terms for the things they study; but they did well: “The world is made up of little tiny particles. I study how these particles wobble, and in particular how they wobble when you shine really bright lights on them.”
Lucky for us, we get to look at savanna landscapes and amazing animals as we do our research, so I’ll appreciate the perks of ecology as I get back to work now that the conference is over.