I always have felt that prisoners perhaps need the most connection to science and to nature. Because of their acts and their behavior, they land in a place where they have no access to either. So in 2005 I started a program called the Moss in Prison program … People will say, “wow, a scientist in a prison?” you know, “prisoners working with scientists?” Suddenly you find yourself on the Playboy honor roll for being one the 20 most creative college professors. Believe it or not, that is valued. I think it is a good thing in most circles.
Over the course of the workshop, many attendees described their experiences engaging with various audiences about science, sometimes only after investing significant amounts of their time and resources. During formal presentations, panel discussions, and group brainstorming sessions, scientists shared inspiring personal stories of public communication and engagement—how they did it, why, the obstacles and incentives, and their perceptions of the impacts. These stories include:
• May Berenbaum, an entomologist who has opened up the world of insects to countless bug-averse individuals by starting a tradition, now nearly 3 decades old, of Insect Fear Film Festivals;
• Nalini Nadkarni, a tropical forest ecologist who has redefined the meaning of diverse audiences by engaging young girls, religious congregants of multiple faiths, and prisoners with nature, science, conservation, and adventure;
• Daniel Colón-Ramos, a neuroscientist who, with a network of geographically dispersed scientists, promotes science, science education, and scientific awareness in Puerto Rico (his home country) and beyond; and
• Craig McClain, a biological oceanographer who has cultivated an approachable and trustworthy online network of ocean scientists by first engaging with readers of his blog in an informal and authentic voice.
The following is a summary of their stories, which were shared as part of the formal program.
For the first 18 years of her life, May Berenbaum was “terrified” of insects. She only confronted her fears in college, when, faced with otherwise unresolvable scheduling conflicts, she enrolled in an upper-level course on terrestrial arthropods. The class changed her life. She pursued entomological studies in graduate school at Cornell University, where she began writing articles about insects for the popular press. She is now a professor of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and, as of 2013, had written more than 170 articles and 6 books for the general public.
Berenbaum recognized, however, that her writings reached a select segment of the public; namely, people who were already interested in science. So, after unsuccessfully pitching the idea to the chair of her department at Cornell, Berenbaum waited until she
FIGURE 2-1. Advertisement for the annual Insect Fear Film Festival. The festivals began in 1984 through the efforts of Dr. May Berenbaum and the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Source: May Berenbaum, slide 17.
joined the faculty at UIUC before launching the first annual Insect Fear Film Festival (IFFF) in 1984, with screenings of the films Them! (1954) and Bug (1975). Members of the Entomology Department discussed the films and introduced the audience to some of “the stars.” Her hope was to reach a broader audience; it was, in her words, a “screaming success.”
The IFFF, which has continued for 28 years, now includes an insect petting zoo, face painting, demonstrations, and an art contest for local students. By building each IFFF around a theme, Berenbaum explained, organizers are able to provide new information and activities every year, such as a blood drive in conjunction with a mosquito-themed IFFF (Figure 2-1). The festival has attracted considerable press attention nationally and internationally and has spawned similar film festivals in the United States and beyond.
Each year, Berenbaum chooses the theme and the films, but much of the planning and coordination—such as booking the venue, arranging publicity, and designing and selling t-shirts—is done by the university’s Entomology Graduate Student Association. The students benefit in a number of ways. They develop communication skills with a wide range of audiences, build organizational skills by conducting the annual art contest, gain experience interacting with various media outlets by publicizing the festival, and are able to
demonstrate evidence of service and leadership skills on their resumes. And because the Entomology Graduate Student Association is a registered student organization, steady campus funding has been available to support the festival.
In addition to overseeing the IFFF, Berenbaum said that she almost never refuses an invitation to speak to an audience, and she always finds audiences interested and willing to learn. She also established a general education course in entomology, intended for students with nonscience majors. The course began with an enrollment of 11 and ultimately was capped at 220. She makes a special effort to reach out to the “entomophobes” in the class. And, although some students have decided to major in entomology as a result of this course, Berenbaum noted that she is proudest of the smaller successes: “the metamorphosis of fear and loathing into grudging admiration and respect for the predominant form of animal life on the planet.”
Inspired by the recommendations of a report by the National Research Council (2007) Committee on the Status of Pollinators in North America, Berenbaum spearheaded two pollinator-related outreach efforts—a citizen science initiative called Bee Spotter4 and the University of Illinois Pollinatarium.5 A discovery science center dedicated to raising public awareness of and appreciation for pollinators, the Pollinatarium came about thanks to the support of a local developer. It features displays and exhibits, weekend lectures, pollinator gardening classes, an Adopt-a-Caterpillar program, a photo workshop by renowned insect photographer Alex Wild, and a children’s garden that is planted, maintained, and harvested by children and their parents. Each year, more than 2,000 people of all ages visit this free-admission facility. So far, however, the Pollinatarium has had limited institutional support. It has one half-time staff member, but the salary line for this staff member was established only upon Berenbaum’s urging. After winning the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement in 2011, she turned down an offer from the UIUC president to have a campus celebration; she requested that the money budgeted for the campus celebration instead be diverted to fund the Pollinatarium’s staff. Even with this institutional support, today the Pollinatarium operates primarily on donations and the efforts of volunteers. Regarding this situation, Berenbaum commented, “altruism is not really a sustainable model.”
Nalini Nadkarni (University of Utah) grew up climbing trees in her backyard, immersed in her father’s science and her mother’s expertise in language. As a graduate student studying rainforest ecosystems, she recognized the need for rainforest conservation which, she realized, would depend on an informed public that shared her passion for nature.
As a junior scientist, Nadkarni said she devoted most of her time to her research. Then, in 1996, Nadkarni established the International Canopy Network (ICAN), a nonprofit organization that facilitates interactions among people concerned with forest canopies. The organization’s early outreach efforts primarily reached individuals who were already interested in science and nature. In 2001, Nadkarni was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled her to begin implementing some of her ideas for reaching a broader audience.
Nadkarni described three of her outreach projects, which she implemented with very little institutional infrastructure. First, she developed the idea for “TreeTop Barbie” as a
way for young girls to identify with Barbie as an adventurer and a scientist. When Mattel declined interest in the project, Nadkarni and her colleagues at ICAN purchased used Barbie dolls, dressed them in clothing made by volunteer seamstresses, and created a pamphlet about canopy plants and animals of the Pacific Northwest. The TreeTop Barbie package was distributed through ICAN.
The second project involves faith-based groups. After studying religious texts, Nadkarni developed a sermon on trees and spirituality, which she has delivered in places of worship, sharing the pulpit with clergy of many faiths. ICAN has also mapped trees in churchyards and documented them in booklets for congregations. This project has become more sustainable, Nadkarni noted, since ICAN began partnering with groups like Interfaith Power and Light, which is connected with places of faith.
Third, Nadkarni described ICAN’s Moss Project, which she initiated in 2005. Through her research on mosses, Nadkarni became aware of an industry in the Pacific Northwest that harvests mosses for the horticultural trade in a manner that is not environmentally sustainable. To reduce harvesting from wildlands, Nadkarni hoped to find a way to “farm” these mosses for the horticultural trade. Because prisoners may be among those most in need of a connection to nature—and because they have plenty of time—Nadkarni decided to partner with correctional facilities. This has turned out to be a great success. In addition to the knowledge Nadkarni gained about growing epiphytic mosses, she found that the prisoners loved being engaged with nature and science, and prison administrators reported that inmate behavior improved.
The Moss Project has since expanded to other prisons and has led to other, similar initiatives in correctional facilities, such as beekeeping and beeswax production, captive rearing of endangered frogs and butterflies, and farming of prairie plants that are now used for ecological restoration. The Moss Project has been made more financially sustainable, said Nadkarni, by engaging with the National Science Foundation as well as the Department of Corrections in the State of Washington, which now funds the project.
In a later discussion moderated by journalist David Ewing Duncan, Nadkarni described the circumstances she believes allowed her to engage so broadly with nonscientists. Early in her career, for example, she held a half-time position, which afforded her time to spend on outreach efforts. She acknowledged the dilemma facing most scientists today: “We are told to just focus on publishing and communicating with scientists. At the same time, there are Broader Impacts [criteria] that you have to fulfill, and they need to have impact and be evaluated and be creative. We are being told two different things. I think we have to reconcile ourselves that those exist.”
Daniel Colón-Ramos of Yale University, a cellular neuroscientist, described his early interest in science. As a boy growing up in Puerto Rico, his only exposure to science came in the form of popular press articles poorly translated into Spanish. Though these articles discussed fascinating topics, they seemed to have little relevance for him because they focused on organisms and ecosystems from other parts of the world. Further, Colón-Ramos did not know any scientists, so it was difficult to visualize himself in that role.
When he became a scientist in spite of these obstacles, Colón-Ramos realized that he could help other people see how science is relevant to them and, in this way, enhance their understanding of and appreciation for scientific research. Newspaper editors told him that they rarely received content from scientists and, when they did, it tended to be dry and inaccessible. To help close the communication gap, Colón-Ramos began writing for
newspapers himself, learning by trial and error how to balance scientific accuracy with interest and relevance to nonscientists.
More recently, Colón-Ramos established Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR),6 which uses social networking tools to bring together a geographically dispersed community of about 6,000 Hispanic scientists. The organization links basic researchers with science communicators, who collaborate to produce new science content—much of it in Spanish—and to organize science education projects in Puerto Rico. In the past 6 years, members have published close to 400 lay articles for the popular press. Many of these articles, noted Colón-Ramos, are used as teaching aids in elementary and high school classrooms to help make science relevant to students and to show them examples of Hispanic scientists. The use of these newspaper and magazine articles in classrooms, said Colón-Ramos, demonstrates the potential for synergies among engagement activities.
Like the Pollinatarium and other efforts described by Berenbaum, the communication activities of CienciaPR are accomplished largely through the efforts of volunteers. Infrastructure facilitating a scientist’s public engagement efforts, argued Colón-Ramos, would benefit not only society, but also the research institution and graduate students, who would learn how their science impacts their communities. “We are looking at a shadow of what could be,” he continued. “The opportunities [for public engagement] are far greater than what we’re taking advantage of.”
The feedback Colón-Ramos has received on his outreach efforts suggests that outreach is perceived, by many in academia, to be a hobby. “If I picked up windsurfing, or if I picked up skydiving, or if I did science communication—they are kind of at the same level. It is good for you and it sounds like you have a very rich life,” he remarked. Colleagues have asked Colón-Ramos to be sure his outreach projects don’t interfere with his research, “which is fair,” he said, “because [research] is my job.” He describes himself as a “basic researcher who is very interested in communicating science.” But, he argued, public communication can actually benefit one’s research. “I feel like better structures could be created … it enhances my research and it enhances the training of graduate students at my home institution and graduate students throughout the country. If you say you are completing all of your research expectations, then why should it be treated as a zero sum game as if I was picking up a hobby of rock climbing?” His observations, which echoed those made by Berenbaum and Nadkarni, portray an academic culture that undervalues public engagement.
Based on his experiences with public engagement, Colón-Ramos proposed that scientists use the same system that they use in cross-discipline scientific collaboration. “You don’t have to become an expert in electron microscopy to get the job done,” observed Colón-Ramos. “You collaborate with the best electron microscopist. Why can’t we do that with science communication?”
Craig McClain of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center explained that a “Nerd of Trust” is simply the expert in a particular field that friends, acquaintances, and others can turn to with questions relevant to that field. The concept of a Nerd of Trust, said McClain, could serve as a new model for informal science communication.
McClain began to realize the importance of a trusted, down-to-earth expert when he launched his blog, Deep Sea News, in 2005 as a postdoctoral researcher. Though he started blogging about ocean science primarily for himself, he soon gained a large following.
Now six other researchers write for Deep Sea News, which has expanded to more than just a blog—Deep Sea News is also accessible via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other social media outlets, each of which engages a different audience. “We have become friends with them. They have joined our group, our club, so to speak.”
What made this blog in particular so successful among both scientists and nonscientists? The blog filled a niche, McClain posited, by providing accurate, credible scientific information about the ocean, using engaging, sometimes humorous, language. Although one typically conceives of science communication with the public as a formal event, “a lot of the science communication that is done is [with] people who are with friends and family on Facebook or at the gym, at a party,” he added.
When asked about the barriers he has faced while building the Deep Sea News community, McClain stated that he felt his home institutions have been very supportive of his efforts. However, he expressed concern over less blatant reactions to his public engagement work, “like decisions being made about grants or awards … that my colleagues are taking into consideration … what I am doing with Deep Sea News … I worry about that a lot.”