Ready, set, speak!  Tips for effectively communicating your science with public audiences

#SciCommMay 18, 2015

About the author – Dr. Allison Coffin is Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Washington State University Vancouver studying acoustic communication and hearing loss. Over the past 10 years she’s taught communication workshops to a variety of scientific and professional audiences and was the Audience Choice winner at the 2014 U.S. FameLab Finals, a science communication competition hosted by NASA and National Geographic.  She runs the science communication website and am a long-time member (junkie?) of Toastmasters International.

Why communicate your science?

You’re a scientist doing important and interesting work in conservation biology, right? You probably publish your research in reputable journals and give departmental seminars, but these reach a limited (and self-selected!) audience. Do you want your research to have a broader impact?  Head the call of recent editorials by Chris Parsons and Andrew Wright, and learn to advocate for your science – get out and communicate!

Between online forums, public scientific discussions such as Science Cafés, and interactions with the 24-hr media cycle, there are more venues than ever for us to communicate our science to lay audiences. However, being willing to communicate isn’t enough. To quote a recent JCom article by van der Wurff and colleagues, “Scientists…supposedly aim for a serious and scientific style in which complex matters are unraveled and accurately explained, remaining uncertainties acknowledged, and ideas not too quickly taken for granted.” Does this sound familiar?  For many scientists, our natural inclination (or perhaps, our training) makes it difficult to step out of this “information transfer” mode to connect with our audience.  At its heart, communication is about connection.  How can scientists connect with lay audiences, so that our message is both heard and received? This article is for all scientists who want to speak to the public, advocate for their science, and build their skills so that they can connect effectively.

Know your audience (more…)

Dusky Sharks: Whale Killers

ecology, Natural Science, sharksMay 17, 2015

It’s generally thought that baleen whales are too large to be successfully attacked by most marine predators.  Orcas are typically considered the only real predatory threat to large whales, and even they have to use teamwork to take down a young whale.  Large sharks, which also sit near the top of the marine food web, are known to scavenge on whale carcasses as a nutritious and blubbery supplement to their usual diet of fishes and smaller marine mammals.  However, evidence has been found that white sharks actually take a proactive approach to increasing the whale carcass supply by attacking live northern right whale calves.  Now researchers in South Africa directly observed dusky sharks actively teaming up to bring down a humpback whale calf.


Fun Science FRIEDay – “A cold-water fish with a warm heart!”

biology, evolution, fisheries, Fun Science Friday, marine science, Natural Science, UncategorizedMay 15, 2015


Recently scientists at NOAA’s South West Fisheries Science Center made a stunning discovery, the worlds first known warm-blooded fish, the moonfish, opah  (Lampris guttatus). Until this recent discovery all fish were considered cold-blooded ectotherms – allowing their body temperature to fluctuate with the change in ambient ocean temperature. However, opah’s are different, in that these largely solitary fish regulate their internal body temperature above the ambient temperature of their environment like mammals and birds (other warm-blooded animals).

Opah off the coast of southern California. (Photo credit: Ralph Pace Photography)

Opah off the coast of southern California. (Photo credit: Ralph Pace Photography)


We built a beer-delivering underwater robot and sent it out to sea. You can probably guess what happened next.

Science LifeMay 13, 2015

Did Wyoming really just outlaw citizen science?

Citizen Science, policyMay 11, 2015

I first heard about the new Wyoming law #SF0012 through the Slate article summarizing it as a criminalization of citizen science. There’s a real danger that it could be interpreted and implemented that way, but let’s try and give Wyoming the benefit of the doubt for a minute. The text of the law only requires that scientists (citizen or otherwise) acquire written or verbal permission from landowners for collecting data on their land. It goes on to define what “data” means, including photographs in a fairly wide definition, and “collecting” as taking data with the intention of turning it over to a state or federal agency. It also defines trespassing and outlines the consequences for those who fail to receive permission. In short: the data collector could go to jail and their data will not be admissible in legal or policy proceedings.

At the core, the law re-hashes a fairly common definition of trespassing. The key part of the law that’s new is that the data won’t be admissible in court and the act of turning them over to federal or state agencies will make you an outlaw. Part of me thinks that data collectors, including citizen science groups, should be asking permission to go on someone’s land. This is both to keep ethics at the forefront of our scientific endeavors and for the personal safety of scientists (ranchers are known to carry shotguns, after all). (more…)

A huge thank you to all who helped make “Buy David Shiffman less ugly sunglasses” a success

BloggingMay 6, 2015

Last month we crowdfunded an initiative to buy everyone’s favorite shark conservation superstar a new, less ugly pair of sunglasses. We blew our initial goal out of the water, raising nearly $2500 from almost 100 people. Amazing! Rewards are going out over the next few weeks (I’m mailing all the big teeth today. The smaller teeth are still need to be printed).

Without further ado, thank you to everyone who contributed: Michael Rollins, Haxley J Gomez Vigil, Samuel Sturdivant, Mario Rups, Donald J Orth, Patrick M Goff, Janet D Stemwedel, Thomas L Clancy III, John D Holden, Cara Mollenkopf, Laura A Troutman, Marie Schambeck, Katherine Nieman, Matthew Masterson, Erin B Schuster, Renellys C Perez, Sandra Prow, Allison Coffin, Karyn Traphagen, Debra Flaherty, Diane Wyse, Ruth-Decker Chaney, Julie Weber-Roark, Alex Maki-Jokela, Eric T Edgeworth, Steve Swensen, S J Smedbol, Bethann Mclaughlin, Colin Schultz, Andrea Hamilton, Robin Marwick, Brianne Miller, Rachel Dearborn, Evan Donahue, Nicholas W Kantola, Brittany Finucci, Robert S Heittman, Sarah D Keartes, Alison Hansen, Cara Mollenkopf, Ian Ramjohn, Patricia E Kight, Dawn Williams, Sandra P Wooten, Dr R L Jefferson, Kimberly A Ventre, Osama Tariq Siddiqui, David Lang, Derek K Burnett, Rachel Holland, Joshua N Silberg, Prosanta Chakrabarty, Mary Frances Starr, Renellys C Perez, Anthony Davidson, Bethany Dixon, and Gabrielle Zuckerman.

Thank you to all (including those who didn’t wish their names to be listed)! You’re contribution has made the world of shark conservation outreach one with slightly fewer ugly, ugly, just horrible, sunglasses.

David will update us on his new ocular acquisition as is happens.

A poster to remember

#SciComm, Life in the Lab, Science, Science LifeMay 2, 2015

Today I was at an undergraduate research event with our best and brightest presenting their research via posters – great science, but often dreadful posters.

Posters can be a great medium for getting your science over to an audience. They have the benefit that if you can draw people into your poster you can have a lot more intimate face to face discussion with your peers. But first you have to draw them in…

Increasingly poster sessions in conference are becoming large sprawling events, and your poster is going to have to compete for attention with hundreds if not thousands of other posters, with your audience having little time to browse, they may be distracted by friends and colleagues, they may be tired as poster sessions are often at the end of a long day of presentations, and possibly (probably) slightly to moderately drunk. Here are some simple tips for making a good poster that has impact.


Happy Fun Science FRIEDay – Glass Frogs

A Renewed Sense of Wonder, biodiversity, biology, Fun Science Friday, Natural ScienceMay 1, 2015

Raise your hand if you realized there were frogs so translucent you could see their innards? Ok if you actually raised your hand while reading this, kudos, but put it down now. Glass frogs are tiny green organisms whos organs are visible from their underside given the translucent nature of their bellies. There were 148 species of glass frogs, all of which reside in Central and South America.  Well make that 149 species of glass frogs now! Recently a new species of glass frog, Hyalinobatrachium dianae, was discovered in in the forested mountains of eastern Costa Rica.

A new species of glass frog named Hyalinobatrachium dianae. (Photo credit: Brian Kubicki)

A new species of glass frog named Hyalinobatrachium dianae. (Photo credit: Brian Kubicki)

The frog is nocturnal and stands out from other glass frogs because of its long, thin feet and black-and-white eyes. This new species also boasts a distinct call, which frogs produce to attract females. This frogs call is a long tiny whistle similar to the noise produced by insects, which helps explain why this frog went unidentified for so long.

Glass frogs are tanslucent, so their organs are visible. (Photo credit: Brian Kubicki)

Glass frogs are tanslucent, so their organs are visible.
(Photo credit: Brian Kubicki)

You can view this study in its entirety at the journal of Zootaxa.


Happy FSF!

Advice About Applying to Graduate School

UncategorizedApril 29, 2015

In 2013 a colleague and I were commissioned by Cambridge University Press to write a book about applying to graduate school in the sciences. A large part of the approach was to source knowledge from others with experience in this process (both from admissions offices and former applicants), and to use that information to drive the conclusions in our book. We conducted a national survey of hundreds of graduate admissions programs, and this solicitation is an attempt to gain a perspective from those on the applicant side. What follows is a quick survey (~5 min), and should you choose to help us in this endeavor please read the quick disclaimer below and access the survey link at the end of this article.

You are being invited to participate in a research study about graduate school application in the natural/physical and life sciences. This research project is being conducted by Dr. S. Kersey Sturdivant of Duke University and Dr. Noelle Relles of SUNY Cortland, and is funded by Cambridge University Press.  There are no known risks if you decide to participate in this survey, nor are there any costs for participating in the study. The goal of our project is to provide a comprehensive text for potential graduate school applicants in the sciences. We are conducting a survey of former and current graduate students for advice and “words of wisdom” to those undergoing the application process and are asking you to participate. We will incorporate responses to this survey in the advice we provide in our book, and directly quote some responses. If we use a quote from you it will be cited as anonymous, unless we contact you directly asking permission to quote you. We do feel that using direct quotes will make it more personable, but will only quote you after obtaining your permission legally.

You can access the survey here: GRADUATE SCHOOL ADVICE SURVEY

From Sea and Sky: Hacking the Chesapeake with #BayBots

#OceanOptimism, Conservation, ScienceApril 27, 2015

IMG_20150417_180905259 (2)Two years ago, I moved to San Francisco. It was… an experience. I had the opportunity to meet some incredible technologists, leaders in the emerging world of citizen exploration, and developers, coders, and makers using their skills and expertise to help save the environment. I met some amazing drone builders developing platforms and tools to measure the world. I also learned that West Coast living was not for me. The southern Atlantic coast called me back. But before I left, I led a small team across the Pacific to Papua New Guinea, where we taught undergraduates from the University of Papua New Guinea and the University of the South Pacific how to build and operate OpenROVs and incorporate them into marine ecology research.

The West Coast was good to me. It helped refine my vision for bringing low-cost, open-source technologies into the marine science and conservation world. Citizen science is becoming increasingly important, and the need for both democratizing and decolonizing science will drive much of the evolution of the scientific community in the 21st century. Tools that are effective, cheap, and open-source will play a major role in this transition. I returned east and began planning the next phase of this vision.

The Chesapeake Bay (San Franciscans take heed, you can keep your “Area” but “The Bay” will always be the Chesapeake) is the largest estuary in the United States, is economically important for shipping, fisheries, and tourism, and also happens to be the body of water that I grew up on. I learned to swim, fish, sail, and motor in one of the Bay’s many tributaries. It’s also home to more than a dozen research institutes, which work, sometimes in coordination and sometimes not, on studying and protecting the Bay.


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