Creating Healthy Working Cultures in Marine Science Education

Below you’ll find a document I’ve been thinking about for more than a decade. I teach marine science field skills to undergraduates and graduate students at Field School and the University of Miami, and I’ve had a lot of opportunities to observe science and scientific learning in action. This is my best effort to distill the key principles I’ve learned about creating a healthy, supportive working environment. Starting the year, my students at Field School will all read and sign on to these principles before working with us.

It feels important to add that cultures are the product of choices and actions (or inaction). They don’t create themselves; they are created by the people within them. That means, sadly, that in every toxic organization there are people who choose, and benefit (or think they benefit) from that toxicity. The good news is that it also means we can choose something else. It’s not out of our hands.     

I’ve spent a lot of my time thinking about how to create welcoming, supportive learning environments for all of my students. And no: I don’t believe compassion and acceptance mean you have to sacrifice scientific rigor—in fact, I think students learn and grow more in these settings.

If you are also engaged in looking for solutions to the systemic problems in how we train future marine scientists, please feel free to join me by sharing this, implementing it in your own teaching, or reaching out with suggestions for how it can be improved based on your knowledge and practice. If you are a student who is struggling with these issues and you need advice or a friendly ear, please know that you are not alone, and my inbox is always open to you.

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Fun Science FRIEDay – A fish without blood

Amidst all the hysteria surrounding the seemingly unstoppable COVID-19, we bring you a story of a fish without blood. In 1928 a biologist sampling off the coast of Antarctica pulled up an unusual fish. It was extremely pale (translucent in some parts), had large eyes and a long toothed snout, and somewhat resembled a crocodile (it was later named the “white crocodile fish). Unbeknownst at the time, but the biologist had just stumbled on a fish containing no red blood pigments (hemoglobin) and no red blood cells – he iron-rich protein such cells use to bind and ferry oxygen through the circulatory system from heart to lungs to tissues and back again. The fish was one of  sixteen species of what is now commonly referred to as icefishes that comprise the family Channichthyidae, endemic around the Antarctic continent.

The Antarctic ice fish on the seafloor surrounded by brittle stars. (Photo credit:  E Jorgensen/Alfred Wegener Institute)
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Science and Conservation Media Literacy 101

Author’s note: This blog post is part of a multi-week assignment for students taking my introduction to marine biology course at Arizona State University, and also part of an exercise in my professional development training workshops on communicating science to the popular press. I am sharing the background information publicly because I believe it’s a topic that is of broad interest.

The internet in general and social media specifically have made it easier than ever before in human history for experts to share information relevant to their area of expertise with the interested public, with journalists, and with policymakers. Unfortunately, these same communications tools have also made it easier than ever before in human history for misinformation to be widely shared. When wrong information goes viral, it can lead to the destruction of democracy and civilization as we know it people believing factually incorrect things about fish.

Therefore, it’s important for anyone and everyone who cares about the future of democracy and civilization as we know it my marine biology students and media training workshop participants to be aware of how to find reliable and accurate news, and how to spot misleading or inaccurate news. If you can do this effectively, you may well save democracy and civilization as we know it do well in my course.

Something need not be actual “fake news,” a term we should consider using less because it’s become politically charged to the point that it’s nearly meaningless and people don’t hear what you actually mean to say, to be inaccurate and problematic. There are many different ways that a news article can be biased, misleading, and/or wrong.

First, I’ll go through some elements of a reliable, accurate science or environment news story. Then I’ll go through red flags of inaccurate, problematic news stories. Throughout, I’ll highlight representative examples. (Students, after reading this you’ll be assigned some articles to look for these elements and red flags in).

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Fun Science FRIEDay – Suspended Animation

Scientists (and sci-fi fans) have to varying degrees been discussing the concept of suspended animation for years; the idea that the biological functions of the human body can somehow be put on “pause” for a prescribed period of time while preserving the physiological capabilities. If you’ve ever watched any sci-fi movie depicting interstellar travel you have probably seen some iteration of this concept as a way to get around the plot conundrum of the vastness of space and space travel times, relative to natural human aging and human life span. The basic principle of suspended animation already exists within the natural world, associated with the lethargic state of animals or plants that appear, over a period, to be dead but can then “wake-up” or prevail without suffering any apparent harm. This concept is often termed in different contexts: hibernation, dormancy, or anabiosis (this last terms refers to some aquatic invertebrates and plants in scarcity conditions). It is these real-world examples that likely inspire the human imagination of the possibilities for suspended human animation. The concept of suspended human animation is more commonly viewed through the lens of science fiction (and interstellar travel), however, the shift of this concept from scientific fiction to science reality has a more practical human application.

Computer artwork of futuristic humans in suspended animation (Photo credit: Science Photo Library).
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Come to the geek side of #scicomm: Marine science education by Dungeons & Dragons

A couple of years ago, several of the people organizing the International Marine Conservation Congress let slip in their planning discussions that they played Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). There are many of us of a certain age that remember fondly playing in our youth, some of us have kids who are now getting of an age where we can, in turn, teach them how to play, and some were drawn in by the surge in Youtube and podcast shows like the hugely popular “Critical Role” where literally millions of people turn in to watch a bunch of nerds play Dungeons and Dragons … and have fun.

This led to the idea of playing a game at the conference. After more discussion, perhaps helped by a few drinks, the idea was spawned that perhaps we could make this game marine-themed and educational? Maybe even play this game in front of an audience at the conference? Perhaps even record it and share it online…?!

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A decade of failures in Science Communication.

Eleven years is a long life for a science blog. Southern Fried Science was born in 2008, when the main writers were all graduate students. Over the last decade the online landscape has changed. Science Communication changed with it, adapting and evolving to meet an ever-shifting ecosystem. Looking back on the last decade and thinking about the next, it’s becoming easier to see where we went wrong. It’s not quite as easy to determine what we need to correct the course.

This is not a scientific assessment, this is my own personal observations from the last decade of running Southern Fried Science, from teaching Social Media for Environmental Communications for the last 7 years, from working with Upwell, one of the most dynamic and visionary ocean NGOs ever conceived, from helping build and launch multiple online platforms, dozens of novel programs, and hundreds of outreach campaigns, and from spending a lot of time since November 2016 reflecting on what we’ve done wrong.

That Hideous Deficit

Do we really need another 200 words on how bad the deficit model is and why it needs to die?

Apparently, yes.

The basic premise: that science perception and policy is shaped by an information deficit and that if we just make good science education content and spread it, we can combat the spread of misinformation, people will learn, and everything will get better.

It doesn’t work. It never worked. And it ignores the reality that misinformation is manufactured for political and financial gain, with tremendous incentives and, often, far better funding than science outreach campaigns. But beyond that, multiple studies have shown that, when confronted with information that challenges their fundamental world view, people don’t throw out their worldview, they reject the science, creating a more entrenched and intractable audience.

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Probing the submerged caves of Bermuda with Trident

Dr. Blanco-Bercial pilots the Trident ROV in one of Bermuda’s submerged caves.

Conservation research in submarine caves is among the clearest and most compelling use-cases for a small observation-class ROV like Trident, which is why, last week, we delivered the very first ROV for Good Sofar Ocean Trident to Dr. Leocadio Blanco-Bercial at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences to study the hidden biodiversity in Bermuda’s Anchialine Caves.

Dr. Blanco-Bercial is a marine biologist who studies the diversity and evolution in invertebrates, especially those in marine cave ecosystems. Bermuda is home to a network of anchialine caves (caves connected to the sea through underwater passageways) which are home to a diverse array of rare and ancient arthropod lineages, many of which are unique to Bermuda. These species are under threat from land development and other human activities.

“From the science standpoint,” says Dr.  Blanco-Bercial, “the Trident will give us independence from specialized divers availability, and will simplify the logistics associated with the sampling process – the Trident is easy to carry even by a single person – and sampling attachments and other gear is easily transportable by another colleague.”

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Fun Science FRIEDay – The Emperor of all Maladies

The Emperor of all Maladies is how Siddhartha Mukherjee, an Indian-born American physician and oncologist, aptly described cancer. Cancer, this scourge of mankind going back as far as 4,600 years ago when it was identified by the Egyptian physician Imhotep (the first in recorded history). Cancer takes one of the most successful traits of complex eukaryotes, cell division, and weaponizes it in unchecked cellular growth; some even consider cancer to be a more evolved form of cell division. This ailment has plagued humanity, and baffled physicians for centuries as they attempt to tackle the seemingly impossible, discover a cure for cancer.

Scanning electron micrograph of a human T cell. (NIAID/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
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What the hell is the DC Metro’s “climate change will increase shark bites” ad talking about? An investigation

Ever since I moved to Washington, DC last summer, I’ve been fascinated by an ad campaign for the DC Metro. The premise of the campaign is simple: taking public transit reduces your carbon footprint compared with driving yourself. It highlights various negative consequences of climate change, and points out how riding the Metro can help fight them.

Many of these ads highlight well-known consequences of climate change:

Photos by David Shiffman

Others highlight less well-known consequences of climate change, but are still on solid scientific ground:

But one ad in particular has been perplexing me for months:

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We want to give you an ROV!

Sofar Ocean Trident
What will you explore?

If you have access to a small, observation-class remotely operated vehicle to explore the ocean, where would you go? Would you use it to discover something new about marine ecosystems? Would you give students the opportunity to journey beneath the waves and learn about their local waterways? Would you hunt for lost lobster traps, track ocean plastic, deliver sensor payloads down into the mesophotic zone, or identify and protect critical spawning habitats?

Or would you undertake an expedition so novel that it has yet to be conceived?

Conservation X Labs in collaboration with Schmidt Marine Technologies and Sofar Ocean is delivering 20 Sofar Ocean Trident ROVs to researchers (both formal and informal), educators, citizen scientists, and ocean conservationist to help further projects to study, understand, or protect the marine environment, with a broad focus on marine conservation. Grant recipients will receive a Trident ROV with all the fixings!

Sofar Ocean Trident represents the next-generation of underwater drone. It is an out-of-the-box solution for ocean stakeholders that can perform many of the same functions of major research ROVs for a fraction of the cost and with no specialized training. Small enough to be stored in carry-on baggage, the ROV is extremely portable and has been deployed from vessels ranging in size from small kayaks to ocean-class research vessels to Polynesian voyaging canoes. Trident is fast, with simple controls. It is rated to 100m. The vehicle provides live video footage to the pilot through a kevlar-reinforced tether which can also serve as a recovery line. It has a series of ventral M3 mounting points that allow users to affix a variety of sensors, collectors, and payloads to expand its utility. It is one of the few consumer accessible vehicles capable of performing scientific research, documentary observation, conservation monitoring, and exploration from the surface of the ocean down into the mesophotic zone.

The application is simple and streamlined to get you out exploring the ocean.

Apply today and let’s discover the ocean together!