Dr. Virginia Dale realizes that the value of a question lies equally in the asking as well as the answering, while on a trip to the rainforest to conduct ecological models on land-use change. Listen below or stream the official podcast!
Virginia H. Dale, PhDis a mathematical ecologist who uses a landscape perspective to understand patterns and processes. Her research interests include environmental decision making, forest succession, effects of climate change, land-use change, landscape ecology, ecological modeling, and sustainability of bioenergy systems. She is a Corporate Fellow in theEnvironmental Sciences Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee and was selected as the 2006 Distinguished Scientist for the Laboratory, where she is currently Director of the Center for BioEnergy Sustainability. She was among the members of the science community that contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Scientific Assessment that in 2007 received the Nobel Peace Prize. Virginia completed her PhD at the University Washington just in time to be able to join the first group on ecologists entering the “Red Zone” after the eruption of Mount St. Helens. She continues to monitor vegetation reestablishment on permanent plots she established there more than three decades ago. She often refers to herself as a disturbance ecologist, for she studies natural and human changes on many landscapes. Virginia has enjoyed sharing her expertise by service on national scientific advisory boards for five federal agencies (the Environmental Protection Agency and US Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, and Interior) and on several committees of the US National Research Council. For thirteen years, Virginia was Editor-in-Chief of the journal Environmental Management and still serves on the editorial board of several journals. Virginia has been active in her community as a scout leader, soccer coach, and protecting ecosystem services and was selected as a Top Citizen of Oak Ridge. Her son is an aerospace engineer, and her daughter works on environmental policy and is mother to a vivacious girl and has a second child due in July. Virginia enjoys traveling to visit family and to explore new areas and swims wherever the water is warm.
Michael Feuerstein, PhD, MPH, is professor of medical and clinical psychology and public health and biometrics at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. After his recovery from a life-threatening brain tumor he has devoted his life’s work to improving the quality of health care survivors receive through research and by disseminating scientifically informed knowledge to health care providers and cancer patients following treatment.
Dr. Feuerstein has published a book for Cancer Survivors and their families and has edited three textbooks for diverse health care providers on the challenges experienced by these patients. In 2007, he launched a peer- reviewed multidisciplinary journal, the Journal of Cancer Survivorship, whose mission is to improve evidence- based health care in those living with a unique history of cancer and cancer treatment. He lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland with his wife Michele. They have 3 grown children (Sara, Andrew, Erica) and 3 grandchildren (Kiran, Maya, Zain).
Researchers are under increasing pressure to communicate the results of their endeavours more widely. But how can we begin to establish a meaningful dialogue with an audience we don’t know?
My name’s James Harle, and in my capacity as a writer for Research Media I work with researchers and research-performing organisations to help share their work in an accessible and impactful way. It can be a demanding task; research is inherently complex after all – if it weren’t, we’d all be doing it – and many investigators are only used to explaining what they do to similarly expert colleagues. In my experience, however, there is no topic so obtuse or abstract that it can’t be made accessible (at least in principle) to a given audience.
And therein lies the crux of the matter: powerful communication – the kind that not only puts a message across but makes it stick, makes it memorable – begins with knowing your audience. When you know the person you’re talking to, you understand their experience and frame of reference; when you can speak directly to someone’s experience, you can engage their interest, and there is no limit to what you can make them understand.
It has often been said that there is some virtue in being able to explain a concept in simple enough terms that your mother (or grandparents, or a barkeep, depending on who you listen to) can understand it. So, in that spirit, let’s use my mother as an example: she’s a middle-aged beekeeper from Devon, with no formal training in the sciences. She doesn’t have any interest in, say, research that uses machine learning to uncover hidden networks within social media – but she does know a hell of a lot about bees, and a handy analogy can bring those two worlds together. I might tell her it’s a computer program that could determine which of her bees had probably been in contact with which other bees behind her back.
It’s easy to communicate effectively with an audience of one – especially if it’s your mum – but engaging the public usually means audiences with higher volumes, and this can raise issues. Specifically, the more people you want to talk to, the more general your frame of reference has to be. At Research Media, some of our most difficult clients are those who want to reach everyone. When you say that your audience is everyone, you are necessarily being lazy; 89 per cent of the world’s population doesn’t speak English, for a start. The fact is that a message to be read by ‘everyone’ may be heard by many, but will be too diluted to achieve any impact.
Another common stumbling block for researchers is falling back on communication methods that work for academic audiences. Too often, I come across scientists who are not prepared to give up (even for a moment) their project acronyms, their technical jargon and their citations. I won’t deny that these tools have their place; they are useful in communicating effectively and efficiently with your immediate colleagues. But the problem is that, put simply, your colleagues already know what you do – and this language won’t help anyone else get in on the action.
So, choose your audience wisely, as they should be at the centre of your communications strategy. When you aim to engage or to explain, begin by exploiting the commonalities between members of your audience; build your communications on shared and fundamental knowledge. Finally, avoid common mistakes that can distort your image of the people you are speaking to. The truth is that, complex as your work may be, it is for the benefit of the general populace – and it won’t be as far from their comprehension as you think.
Jonaki Bhattacharyya, PhD, does applied research in ethnoecology (focusing on Indigenous and traditional ecological knowledge), conservation planning, and wildlife management. Integrating cultural values and knowledge systems with ecological issues, her research endeavours have ranged from remote villages in India to backcountry meadows in British Columbia (BC), Canada. As Senior Researcher withThe Firelight Group Research Cooperative, Jonaki works with First Nations and communities in Western Canada. Focusing on relationships between people, animals and places, she seeks to make applied contributions to conservation and human management practices around wildlife, protected areas, natural resources, and ecological systems. Jonaki is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia.
Jonaki’s current work builds upon years of engagement with Indigenous peoples, and diverse stakeholders and agencies throughout BC. She continues long-term research on wild horses and traditional Tsilhqot’in First Nations’ systems of land management in BC’s Central Interior. She holds a PhD in Environmental Planning, and Master of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo. She was recently awarded a Wilburforce Fellowship in Conservation Science. Jonaki is motivated by the desire to connect the power of individuals’ experiences in wild nature with policy and governance decisions, so that the knowledge and conservation ethics of people on the ground have a stronger voice in decisions affecting the land.
Yes. Unhesitatingly, yes was my response when invited to share a story at a storytelling evening among landscape ecologists.
It’s not that I’m a show-off. In fact I’m an introvert. But I was burned out at the time, worn down from overwork and life stresses. The result was that I felt I’d lost whatever creative spark used to infuse my work. Storytelling seemed like just the thing to get the juices flowing again. So I leapt at the chance.
Little did I know that only weeks later as the event drew near, I’d be wrestling with a draft of my story, a growing tangle of nervous discontent and self-judgement in my belly.
The good news is that it didn’t end that way.
As a social scientist with a background in the humanities and ecological sciences, I’ve always been drawn to stories in research and life. The core questions that underpin all of my work are: How do people experience their own love of nature? What moves them to care for and protect natural places? How does one person reach out and touch that motivation in another?
For years, I’ve worked in the field of environmental conservation, always focused on people, places, and stories – ethnography, oral history, local knowledge, Indigenous culture. I’m that woman who walks around in the backcountry with an audio recorder in hand, always ready for the next good tale. My professional writing is woven with narrative excerpts – the stories people have shared. Even tracking wildlife or measuring plants, I’m really just following storylines that are imprinted on the land.
My own memory is chock-full of personal stories from the field – wacky adventures, near misses, beautiful reflections, colourful characters – that never make it into formal written papers. But somewhere along the way, my own brief pieces of creative writing fell aside, and dried up all together – casualties on the factory floor of academic productivity.
So of course I was eager to tell a story. It sounded like good fun! The staff from Springer and Story Collider were supportive from the start. They warmly received my pitch for a story over the phone, and encouraged me to send a written draft so that we could polish it together. No problem. I write for a living.
Yet somehow, when I wrote it out, that spark fizzled out again.
I entered the familiar territory of revising, wordsmithing, struggling with decisions about what to edit out…and the story lost its energy. I had excellent feedback from the producer, from friends and colleagues with whom I practised…yet I couldn’t make my story feel right.
In anguished frustration, with five days to go until performance night, I complained to my partner: “I should be good at this! Stories are what I do. I want to be good at it. Why is this so hard?”
That was when he gently pointed out something that should have been obvious to me: “You deal with other people’s stories. Telling your own is different. How often do you do that? It’s going to take practice.”
Hm. Of course.
It turns out that telling a good story, a personal story that touches other people, is an art and a craft. Like music or singing, it is a unique combination of skill and technique, together with phrasing, tonal and emotional nuance, feelings. This is something that the people at Story Collider know very well, and thankfully they have experience guiding people like me through that epiphany. Their producer didn’t skip a beat when I told her four days before the event, “I’m throwing away my written draft.”
I went for a walk, cleared my head, and then got out a blank sheet of paper and a pen. I drew a meandering path across the page, and began filling in features along the way: events, quotes, sensory details. Then I looked at it for a while, put it away, and recounted my story from memory over the phone to Story Collider’s producer. Better. Getting there.
Practice, practice, practice: over the phone to friends; muttering to myself while walking on public footpaths; visualizing silently on the plane to the event.
At last we were there. I saw the other storytellers, and realized we were all nervous – even the senior professors who have taught and lectured to large audiences for years. This was different. There were no notes, no slides, no prompts, and it was personal.
I walked to the microphone and spoke my first sentence. Eager smiles and laughter! Second sentence – the audience was right with me. I thought, This is going to be OK. And it was. In fact it felt wonderful.
And that is the magic. People connect through stories. Stories are how we learn, relate, empathize, and remember. Standing up there and telling my own story, I felt the power, humility and vulnerability in sharing a personal story with a room full of people. I was reminded by the audience of the generosity inherent in the act of listening, really listening.
As a social scientist, working on the story gave me helpful first-hand insights to many of the methodological decisions I deal with in my academic and professional writing. What details to include or leave out? Where is the central theme? How much to guide the audience’s interpretation of someone else’s experience? Am I representing the characters fairly?
Crafting a good story yielded some valuable techniques that translate to improve the way I communicate about my work and how I teach. I truly believe personal stories do have a place in professional scientific discourse. Without them we are at best dull and forgettable, at worst lost.
For me, storytelling is not merely a form of science communication. It is a core aspect of human connection to the world around us. In my work, storytelling is a forum where the colourful personal emotions and experiences that often make conservation science work most meaningful are celebrated as the best part! It reinvigorated the dormant passion that underlies my work – the creativity I’d lost in recent years. I can’t wait to try it again.