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:
Scientist need to get back to interacting and communicating at the local level with informative and positive messaging and reattaching themselves as local figures. Connecting to the community increases the science networks that stimulate speculative conversations on science removing the obstacle of science does not influence me. A large issue on this disconnect appears to be product of poor fundamental education and not physically being able to see or touch some of the more abstract mechanisms in the world around us. This year one of the most witnessed events may have been the kick-start science communication needed.
The Great American Eclipse was one of the greatest results of science communication that I can ever recall. From seeing science teachers on the local news broadcasts using different size balls to explain the physics of the eclipse. How such a small object as the moon can block all of the light from the sun at 400 times the size. This was also great to see the interaction with the community submitting questions weeks before asking astronomy, physics, and basic science questions. This momentum of talking science with locals and non-scientist may be able to push the conversation to other sciences and other important findings.
Eclipse progression (Photo Created by Bryan Carnathan developed for NASA)
Last week the House Science Committee met to discuss, the value, impact, and preliminary results from the Great American Solar Eclipse in August. The testimony from scientist and science educators was a great opportunity for science communication. However, if you did not hear about the meeting or any of the testimony from scientist or science educators you are not alone. Little to no advertising was put forward to share the preliminary results of learning how the sun functions nor increasing STEM interest for thousands of elementary students. This opportunity should push scientist to think like marketing specialist on selling the science product to audiences. Bringing a brand to the intellectual ideas and style of science is an essential step for representing ones work on a global scale.
As some political positions attempt to discredit some scientific predictions, much of the underlying science remains credible without much resistance. Introducing novel approaches to science communication is going to result in some backlash as people see threats to current trends and lifestyles. Albeit, many of the people discrediting anthropogenic climate change are acting on the same data to protect their homes from flooding and fire. As statisticians predict the financial losses under the threat of increased natural disasters, companies will not offer insurance without mitigation. Climate scientists feel the threats from strongly opposing viewpoints as a danger to their life’s work. Thus, have been working on reducing misinterpretation of their data by releasing research synthesis papers for the public. This is the first step to engage the public, but abstract concepts and need to be explained at local community level producing memories and not factoids.
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!