There are many professionals who make a career of science communication. I'm sure they would do a better job than I at describing the ins and outs of how to effectively communicate science to the public. Instead of paraphrasing their ideas, today I am focusing on why I personally value science communication and public outreach.
Last week, I received some much-anticipated news. The first manuscript of my PhD research has been accepted! This is very exciting for me because, although my work has been published before, this is the first publication that I led through the entire process. Specifically, this is the first time I was the one to actually submit the paper and communicate with the representatives of the journal, in this case, the journal "Environmental Science & Technology."
The article is currently listed on their "Just Accepted" page as they have not sent proofs yet, so it is currently in a less-than-pretty format. I went ahead and put it out on Twitter anyway and have had very kind responses from several scientists from other institutions who I have met, but also from many I have not. I am so pleased that Twitter enables such a supportive group of people to share new work. This experience has also motivated me to not only like and retweet interesting papers, but comment as well. The feedback has made this milestone even sweeter!
Let me know if you are interested in having a reprint of the article once the final version is available!
Haake, D.M., J.H. Knouft. (2019) Comparison of contributions to chloride in urban stormwater from winter brine and rock salt application. Environmental Science & Technology.
Being a scientist...being an engaged citizen...being locally active in my community...these are things I work on each day. These are some of the 'shoes' or 'hats' I wear. I know these color my perspectives and my actions. I often try to view the world without these accessories, to see another side of a story, to reflect on how others perceive my words and actions. This practice is very helpful when trying to find common ground with people who disagree with my opinions and I am often quite successful.
The times when I have the least success are times when the 'others' in the conversation are unwilling to accept statements that are considered factual within the scientific community. This can range from the importance of wearing a helmet when riding a motorcycle to the links between carbon dioxide and our changing climate. I don't understand why so many people don't accept the science. If I want to know about taxes, I'll trust my accountant. If I want to plan a major event, I'll consult an event planner. If I offer my insights as an ecologist, I expect to have the same consideration for my education and experience that I give to others in their area of expertise - I've earned it!
In the past, I have read many journal articles that describe research that happened several years before the paper was published. It used to make me wonder, what was the delay? Why did it take so long to go from collection to publication. As I go through my journey toward a PhD, I can finally say that I understand. There are many steps in the process. I'll try to walk you through them.
(1) Learn what you know and what you don't. There is no point in doing scientific research on a topic until you've figured out what has been done. Along the way, make note of things that maybe should have been done differently and thoughts on other questions that the prior studies bring to mind. These will be the basis for finding the niche of your work. As I get further in my career, I expect that this will take less time, unless the direction of the research takes a big turn.
(3) Processing samples can take a lot of time. Scientific knowledge is generally gained not one sample or site at a time, but hundreds of samples from dozens of sites at a time. Depending on the methods and equipment available, determining how much of a certain chemical is in a water sample can take several minutes per sample. So if you have 90 samples and are testing for 4 parameters that take about 5 minutes each, you are looking at about 30 hours of work, not including running controls, cleaning glassware, ensuring proper waste disposal, etc. In my experience, the most convincing studies have far more samples than this.
I am currently focused on sorting invertebrates from sediments in a set of samples collected using a Hess sampler. This process can take between from 2 to 20 hours per sample. Part of me wishes I had been tracking this so I could tell you how many hours have been spent on sorting, but I think I'm better off without this knowledge. Identifying the individual invertebrates to genus or species will take many more hours. Multiply these many hours by the number of sites and samples and invertebrates needed to reach an acceptable sample size and this can result in thousands of hours of work.
(4) Quality number crunching is vital for successful science. You know how I posted about the bajillion hours it takes to process the data needed for most good science? Well, nobody wants to look at all of that data until it is pared down to a few highly relevant numbers and a couple of figures and tables. Statistical analyses fit in here, too. Properly summarizing data into these smaller pieces is really a work of art when done well. When done poorly, it is a horror to behold. It takes time to reach the artistic stage and I don't claim to be there yet, but I think I'm beyond the nightmare stage.
(5) Writing is a process that is not for the faint of heart. There are many wonderful articles, blogs, Tweets, and other bits of wisdom that can be found on the internet or in your favorite bookstore about writing. There are strategies for making yourself start writing, for taking breaks when writing, and for knowing when its time to just stop writing. I don't feel the need to go into that here, because everyone writes differently and plenty of other people can provide far better insights than I.
(6) Still not done! So, you've written a manuscript chock full of references to the latest research, well-executed field collection and lab analysis, and artful statistics and figures. Says you... Now it is time to send it for review. Even on the most excellent papers, this process can add months to the time before publication. The editor must get the manuscript to reviewers. The reviewers must find time in their busy schedules to read and comment on the manuscript, the comments are compiled, and (unless the work is outright rejected) it is all placed back into the hands of the author for minor or major revisions. I've heard rumors of manuscripts being accepted the first time with no changes, but I have trouble believing that...
So, the process of taking a project from idea to publication can be lengthy. If this is the only thing a researcher has on their plate, then they are fortunate. Most researchers are balancing this process with teaching, networking, mentoring, grant-writing, collaborating, learning, presenting, doing other research, and (hopefully) living a life outside of their discipline. I am glad that I've been learning to juggle!
Last night, I replaced the broken screen on my daughter's phone. This was my first attempt at electronics repair and involved taking the entire phone apart (phones have lots of little pieces!) and putting it back together again.
I started the project with fear that my meddling in the unknown would result in failure; I ended with satisfaction in a job well-done. It's funny how the emotional ups-and-downs of scientific research can be replicated in such a comparatively small project.
As you may know, I've been doing a lot of work at the microscope these past two months. I have been taking advantage of this time to catch up on some reading I've been wanting to do. You may be thinking, "Reading? At the microscope?!" Well, yes. I have been a fan of audio books for many years and have recently listened to a couple of classics: Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" and Harriet Tubman's "Uncle Tom's Cabin." I recently expanded my audio enjoyment to a few news and science podcasts to brush up on world affairs and scientific happenings. As much of the science air-space was taken up with tributes to the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission in July when I began listening, I went to some of the older material to start with. This is not to say that I dislike space science or that I have anything against that mission. I just wanted a little variety (though I admit that I did enjoy the bits I heard about human waste disposal in space).
One great thing about science podcasts is that you can start on any episode. If they do a good job of listing the topics in each, you can pick and choose anything in their archives, which is especially useful if you are caught up with all the the current offerings. Here are a few of my favorite science podcasts so far:
There is a lot of scientific work going on out there that I know nothing about. This includes work in urban streams (an area of expanding knowledge that I try to focus on), prairie restoration (an interest to me because of my work with the Missouri Botanical Garden), other biological areas of study where I have less experience (birds, microbes in the soil, mammals, genomics, the animal microbiome, etc.) and a wide array of scientific disciplines outside of biology that are too numerous to list. I am hopeful that listening to these podcasts will both inspire me to ask new questions and make me better informed about these disciplines that are complementary to my own.
If you have a favorite podcast, please tell us about it in the comments below!