This week, Stacy Krueger-Hadfield responds to the #MySciComm questions!
Stacy Krueger-Hadfield is an evolutionary ecologist and science communicator based at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She holds a PhD in Diversité du Vivante (Biodiversity) from Université de Pierre et Marie Curie Sorbonne Universités and a PhD in Ecología (Ecology) from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at UAB and a regular contributor to the blog The Molecular Ecologist. She is developing #SciComm courses at UAB and building connections with other SciComm’rs around the world. Connect with Stacy online @quooddy and on her lab’s website.
1) How did you get into the kind of SciComm that you do?
As long as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer.
As a 5th generation Californian, I grew up steeped in Californian history and ecology. One of the family tales I remember fondly is the acquaintance of my great grandparents with Mary Austin, the author of The Land of Little Rain.
As a child, one of my favorite places to explore was the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The aquarium opened its doors the year I was born, so perhaps it was fate that I would become a marine scientist and a science writer. I vividly remember standing bathed in the undulating light of the Kelp Forest exhibit, and deciding that I would study and write about the ocean one day.
I took inspiration from nature and science writers, often discovered in the gift shops of aquaria or museums.
It was Diane Ackerman’s The Moon by Whale Light that most affirmed my desire for a career as a science writer. I was entranced by her prose and travels around the world. Ackerman showed me that you could travel to both zoos and wild places and set those sites, sounds and smells to paper.
When I was 17, I started volunteering at the Los Angeles Zoo. There, I learned a lot about animal husbandry, and had the opportunity to interact with the public. I was able to share my sense of wonderment with them.
Like most fledgling marine biologists, I was certain I would study marine mammals.
But, all that changed when I started working in a research lab as a freshman at California State University Northridge (CSUN). A grad student overheard my marine mammal predilections and responded dryly, “You’ll end up working on something squishy, like a hydroid.” I scoffed. I was going to work at an aquarium or zoological park and write about my experiences.
He was partially right. I was smitten with research as it satisfied my innate curiosity while providing ample opportunities to write. And yet, my undergrad phycology course settled the matter forever, placing seaweeds squarely in my future.
I am now an evolutionary ecologist specializing in algal life cycle and mating system evolution. Not quite a hydroid, but equally squishy.
As part of my course requirements as an MS student at CSUN, I had to take a science communication course. For the first time, I began to see how my disparate experiences communicating science were interwoven. My peers gave me feedback, and I learned more effective ways to communicate, whether using the right image or word.
Following the research path, I was offered a PhD position in the preeminent lab working on seaweed mating system evolution. This meant packing my bags, heading abroad and enrolling at two foreign universities with French and Chilean mentors. I spent my PhD in lingual confusion (English? French? Spanish?). But, I was able to satisfy my scientific and travel itches simultaneously, which made all the hard work and, at times, loneliness, worthwhile.
“Lost in translation” took on a whole new meaning and shaped my SciComm.
I remember my first tentative explanations of my dissertation in French. How could I explain why my research matters with very limited French? This forced me to get to the point, and quickly, without using any jargon!
I was fortunate along my path to a professorship. Not only did I have excellent preparation in the courses I took at CSUN, I’d also had lots of outreach experience crossing language and cultural barriers while I conducted my dissertation research in France and Chile, followed by field work across Europe and South Africa. Additionally, in 2014, I had become a regular contributor to the blog The Molecular Ecologist (my first paying writing gig!). While these experiences profoundly shaped me, I was aware they weren’t available to every student or scientist.
In 2016, I joined the faculty in the Department of Biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I’d noticed, as a post-doc at marine labs in the UK and the US, that there weren’t many specific courses for practice and feedback on SciComm.
With course carte blanche from UAB, I developed a SciComm course.
I rolled up all the different experiences I’d had into a semester long mélange of communication opportunities for grad students. The response from my students and fellow faculty was a bit overwhelming and certainly humbling.
I feel fortunate to be at a university that values my SciComm endeavors and treats them as an important investment of time and resources. My SciComm course is going to be incorporated into the grad student curriculum. Along with the Department Chair, we are launching a blog for all students, postdocs, and maybe even faculty to write about our research or teaching endeavors.
My first batch of students have gone on to write blog posts for The Molecular Ecologist as well as becoming regular blog contributors themselves. One student recently won the Ralph Lewin Award from the Phycological Society of America for her poster presentation. Two of the students were awarded Sigma Xi grant proposals, and another received an Antarctic Science Bursary. Their success was due to the opportunities the SciComm course provided to practice and receive peer feedback.
I sit back now and think how privileged I am to be able to explore and write about the natural wonders of our planet, like Austin and Ackerman before me. And yet, I don’t think I realized how much of an influence they’d have on me until I wrote this piece!
2) What are your top 3 SciComm tips and/or resources?
1. Join SciComm networks, like the FOJBIs.
Joe Palca, from NPR, was the UAB 2017 Darwin Day guest speaker. His visit and talk were a game changer for me and some of my students. There are so many folks out there interested in SciComm, but Joe noticed that they often felt alone. So, he’s changing that by creating FOJBI network, or Friend’s of Joe’s Big Idea! The network is growing and I am happy to be part of it. If you want more details, I interviewed Joe and Maddie Sofia for The Molecular Ecologist on the FOJBIs and SciComm. If you’re interested in becoming a FOJBI, send an email to Joe at email@example.com. If you know of other such groups, get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org)!
2. Contribute to SciComm blogs to become a better public speaker.
In 2014, I was selected as one of the new regular contributors to The Molecular Ecologist. I submitted a writing sample in response to an advertisement on EvolDir. Once I was selected, I panicked a little bit! I had to post weekly on a topic related to molecular ecology. The first few posts I wrote went agonizingly slow!
As I gained more experience blogging, the posts became easier to write. I read my fellow contributors’ posts. I read other blogs. I responded to the feedback people sent me about my posts.
Regular science writing to a more general audience also changed how I presented my science, particularly during outreach events, such as Cultivate in which science and art are merged together. Writing about the latest and greatest of molecular ecology made me think about take home message(s) in ways I hadn’t when writing traditional science papers. Why did I pick this paper to write about this week? How do I convince (in 500 words) my readers that this is a must-read paper? These types of questions apply to any form of communication, written or spoken!
Often my audiences are composed of a mix of colleagues and general public, the latter with little-to-no background in science. If you spin a good yarn, the whole audience will be enthralled. The science-types at Cultivate didn’t know much about the history of seaweeds as pieces of art. The general public didn’t know why they should worry about invasive seaweeds or kelp forest declines. I wove those tales into a talk that (I hope) seduced everyone!
3. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE (and some peer review)
Contributing to The Molecular Ecologist and doing outreach, such as Cultivate, has been incredible for my SciComm. Why? Because it’s forced me out of my comfort zone.
Until I started at UAB, I wrote a weekly post for The Molecular Ecologist. Writing other forms of SciComm, particularly, peer reviewed publications, was much easier when I wrote daily!
Practice applies to all forms of SciComm – talks for conferences or for the local pub. How I approach presentations or writing for the general public has been shaped by years of trying things out that worked well or not so great. Practice is what helped me see the skills that engage the audience.
Get feedback from your peers, both within and outside your discipline. Even friends that aren’t scientists. This is one of the main components of my SciComm course – peer review. It’s invaluable to learning the craft of storytelling. Students at UAB are forming writing clubs to get help from their peers and their productivity is increasing! Your peers can help fill in holes or gaps in your story, while simultaneously learning how to give constructive criticism!