My name is Chris Petranek and I study bumble bee physiology as a graduate student at the University of Wyoming.
Before I got here, my research was focused on conservation population biology of obscure bumble bee species in Mexico and Guatemala. Communicating the relevance of the science was not difficult, especially since it coincided with the popularity of “saving the bees”. While I think science motivated by an obvious benefit to society is fine, science for the sake of itself is incredibly important, as many game-changing discoveries were happenstance, e.g. penicillin, X-rays, and super glue. Research on creatures spanning the tree of life can provide apparently unlikely insight to myriad issues pressing mankind, even if the studies seem entirely trivial at face value.
Expensive studies on the eyelashes of mammals and insects conclude that these hairs deflect particles from being deposited on the surface of eyes and reduce evaporation from wet eyeballs. These studies have been denounced by legislators as “wasteful” spending of government money on science, yet the authors point out that solar panels worldwide could be made more efficient just by the addition of small hairs to their surfaces (1).
It is difficult to convey why apparently silly science experiments are worth the time and money, but I think to do so is an important part of effective science communication. Science can seem dry, uninteresting, and trivial but this isn’t the fault of the scientific endeavor at large. The responsibility of making science interesting again lies with scientists and science educators. Since I serve both of these roles, I am interested in being the best science communicator I can.
On an average day in the lab, I might be tying little weights to bumble bees, waxing bumble bees to remove their hair, or using expensive high-speed video equipment to film a bee flying in a plastic box. There is a chance this research could change the way we think about exercise physiology, insect locomotion, dispersal, and energy use, thermal dynamics, and/or aerodynamics in general. However, it is probably more likely it will simply tell us a few things we already knew about bumble bees. The prospect of monumental discovery portrays science as a noble and worthwhile endeavor, and the apparent uselessness of many experiments paints a picture of nerds wasting money. In reality, I think science can be both of these things but is most often a longstanding human occupation geared towards furthering our knowledge of the natural world, no matter how small those increments of information gain are.
Thus, science communication interests me because I can’t yet paint a picture of science (my work or in general) that inherently makes it seem interesting, dispels scrutiny, and doesn’t build it up so much as to instill disappointment. Even when discussing a basic research idea, I hope the audience I interact with at least is left with some appreciation for the virtue of finding things out.
Nobel prize winner Dr. Hu’s reflection on the wastefulness of his research (meta blogging?):
More u know pic:
Public art serves as many functions as it has forms: it can inspire awe, joy, and pride for place and history. It is often with these net-positive reactions in mind that communities commission public art. Antagonists inevitably object to the content, cost, or even the concept of public art itself. However, without intentional beautification budgets, public art will unavoidably arise, whether by paint canister or yarn.
In other cases, public art may be designed to discomfort and rankle. The motivations of artists who strive to provoke can be to educate or spark dialogue, or they may be intentionally inscrutable. Whatever the goal, an artist can consider their cause célèbre as a success provided it does generate controversy.
Science rarely reaches general audiences from the mouths of scientists themselves. More often than not, discoveries are communicated through media intermediaries like popular science periodicals and documentary series. This communication runs the gambit from articulate and faithful to unforgivable inaccuracy–much to the dismay of scientists and educators. Disney's erroneous and unethical portrayal of lemming migration as mass suicide in White Wilderness is an infamous example of this.
Even worse than having science misinterpreted, one's work can be simultaneously misrepresented and demeaned by political leaders, such as in Arizona Senator Jeff Flake's annual "Wastebook." These reports follow a simple formula: (1) focus on the peculiar minutiae of a study's methodology, (2) imply that the price tag for the entire study was for one outré method, and (3) overlook the broader impacts and actual results of the study. This generates nice bylines for the politician, and substantial hate mail for the featured scientist.
Nearly 50% of basic research in the United States is federally funded, with publicly-funded universities contributing another 20%. With taxpayers on the hook for the $50 billion+ budget devoted to pushing the boundaries of knowledge forward, we scientists should rightly expect to receive scrutiny and commentary regarding the value and validity of our work. But scientists should not feel helpless to preempt misrepresentation by regressive programming (e.g., Shark Week) or thinly-masked political theater.
It is up to scientists to bring their work to the public eye, expressing projects and intentions through mediums appropriate for a target audience. This is most important for scientists studying fields that are controversial, commonly misunderstood, and/or of great public consequence. Unfortunately, unlike divisive art, the intent of communicating controversial science cannot be to cause controversy, but rather to express evidence and consequence in the clearest, most relatable terms. This expression can and should come in many forms. The "Dance Your PhD" competition is a marvelous template for young scientists to express their doctoral research outside of academic journals in a creative and entertaining way.
The adaptation of language and simplification of figures can be sufficient to allow non-scientists to engage meaningfully with research findings. StoneyBrook University has partnered with actor and education advocate Alan Alda to train scientists in tailoring their communication to the public palate. Our Science Communication course is crafted in a similar spirit.
And on occasion, it may be required for scientists to put themselves in front of the camera and declaim empirically revealed truth. The words and visuals we provide must be carefully crafted in order to be successful, but can do wonders to broadcast and clarify the evidence good science provides. There are dozens of science advocates who excel at this, but perhaps the best known is Neil deGrasse Tyson. Who could forget the poise and power of his Round-Earth Sermon on the Nightly Show?
The author of this entry does not think scientists should aspire to celebrity in order to be heard and understood. That path leads too quickly to Scientism and the intellectual myopia that comes with it. But if our goals are for knowledge to be shared and for discoveries to understood, we are obliged to put research into the public space in a way that it can be explored, enjoyed, and–when appropriate–celebrated.
The Association for Public Art asserts that "in a diverse society, art cannot appeal to all people, nor should it be expected to do so." Professional scientists make up a tiny fraction of society. They are often cast as being dismissive of non-quantitive creative endeavors, and thus less likely to appreciate artistic works.
This may be true of some Ivory Tower silverbacks, but scientists have long appreciated the arts, and even utilized arts in their practice. For example, Galileo is thought to have relied on his musical training to measure time in his experiments.
This does not mean that scientists won't bring their own perspectives and preconceptions to public art. To explore tropes in public communication, our team was tasked with selecting a piece from the Laramie Mural Project and connecting it to our research. I was surprised how naturally and instinctively we chose our foci, and the number of links we identified. While none of the associations were likely intended by the artists, I think it's fun to consider how scientists may perceive and relate to public art.
During our discussion, it was quickly apparent how much we appreciated detailed representations of natural systems, and how this led to us breaking art into its component parts. For example, plant ecophysiologist Daniel Beverly selected Hollyhock Haven by Travis Ivey, enjoying the enlarged depiction of hollyhocks behind the plants themselves, while the movement of buzzing pollinators is conveyed through detailed shadowing. These interacting components parallels with his research's perspective of ecosystem health as dynamic process defined by interconnections.
Soil scientist Chelsea Duball was reminded of how art could illustrate a natural process usually taken for granted, and selected the mosaic "Rainfall to Resources." The flow of water is represented with handsome, mixed tiling along a gutter's steel slope. Chelsea's research centers on soils in wetlands, tracking the path of water into and out of these systems. She was inspired by how the contact between the gutter and the mosaic created an aesthetic highlight for a key but often overlooked process.
Art can also work as analogy for one's science. Astrophysicist Michelle Mason sees symmetry between Dan Toro's Growth and her study on the evolution of galaxies. Michelle described early galaxies as small and far apart–just like the trees on the right side of the mural–while current galaxies are large, complex participants in greater structures (clusters) like the trees on the left side of the mural.
Plant physiologist Heather Sneckman found that art reminded her of the moral motivation of her work. She admires the The Battle of Two Hearts, a statue of the 19th Century Shoshone leader Chief Washakie. Chief Washakie lived in times defined by transformative change and crisis, requiring skill and negotiation from many sides, with resolution coming at great cost. Heather is inspired by Chief Washakie's adaptation and negotiation through the challenges of his time, and believes that we must emulate those skills as we work to solve ecological, conservation, and humanitarian crises.
Lastly, one piece of art called to mind the act of doing science and the consequence of leaving mysteries unsolved. Amphibian ecologist Melanie Torres was drawn to Kristina Wiltse's Dino Discovery. Melanie studies the enigmatic and terrifying outbreak of Batrachochotrium dendrobatidis fungus (better known as Bd) in amphibian populations. Along with climate change, habitat change, and pollution, Bd is contributing to global declines of frog populations, which some scientists claim represents an extinction crisis. Much like paleontologists piecing together a picture of the Mesozoic world, herpetologists are striving to solve the puzzle as to why Bd is moving so quickly, and whether anything can be done to stop it. It is an arduous, complicated process, but of unprecedented importance.
Some of our interpretations may seem tenuous or tangental, but that is to be expected from eyes strained by long hours squinting through microscopes (or binoculars or telescopes or Bayesian simulations). Ultimately, I think we all enjoyed the opportunity to look at the art around us and find a bit of ourselves in it.
A blog and website by graduate students from science disciplines and departments throughout the University of Wyoming. We hope you connect with our science communication and engagement efforts. Please let us know what you think of the site!