How to explain to scientists how to explain science

How will the rising sea level change the impact of storms? What can bird colonies tell us about the larger coastal ecosystem?

These are some of the questions Marc Albert is focused on answering. As a manager for the National Parks of Boston, Albert works with scientists to study, monitor, and protect the 34 islands and peninsulas that make up Boston Harbor Islands National Park and Recreation Area.

One important part of Albert’s job is explaining scientific studies underway at the parks to a general audience, including park visitors and volunteers. But this is no easy feat. The average citizen knows very little about coastal breeding birds, for example, and even less about the relationship between these birds and the health of the ecosystem.

Albert was one of about 45 scientists who convened at Northeastern last week to learn the fundamentals of explaining science to a lay audience.

“It’s really important that the public understand the value of science in society and how science works,” Albert said. “At the National Parks, we have a role in helping to translate that to the general public.”

The two-day course was hosted by Northeastern and the Boston Harbor Ecosystem Network, a collection of organizations and individuals dedicated to educating the public about coastal environments in the Boston metropolitan area. The workshop was facilitated by the Integration and Application Network at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, and was made possible by funds from the US EPA, MassDEP, and MassBays program.

“Everyone should understand science – not just scientific concepts, but how science works and how rigorous it needs to be in order to be accepted by peers,” said Carole McCauley, outreach program coordinator at the Marine Science Center in Nahant, who organized the workshop. “Equipping scientists with the tools to effectively communicate their work to diverse audiences ultimately benefits society.”

These tools for unpacking complex subjects can be as simple as the ABT rule, a tactic for making tricky concepts accessible by strategically placing the words “and,” “but,” and “therefore.”

Albert provided an example:

“The irreplaceable historic resources of the Boston Harbor Islands are threatened by sea level rise, and there is an increasing rate of sea level rise predicted. But it’s very difficult for us to get good data on the impacts of storms because they happen in the winter. Therefore, we are asking you, Boston Harbor boaters, to help us by going out after storms in the winter and taking photographs from designated locations,” he said.

Other tips shared at the conference were similarly straightforward. Sketching out several quick ideas before producing a full draft of an article or graphic is an easy step often overlooked by busy scientists, said Albert.

Participants also learned the value of symbols in quickly communicating complex ideas. For example, the classic stoplight scorecard is a visual element almost anyone in the world can understand—red means “hazard” or “stop” while green means “go.” A stoplight graphic could be used in parks to indicate protected areas where scientific studies are taking place.

“Something like a symbol of a bird or a symbol of a plant are universal. They can make your point really clearly without having to provide a lot of text,” Albert said.

Participants also learned about such free resources as an image library, symbols library, and video library.

“Now instead of reinventing the wheel every time I need to create a map, I can use something that’s already been done and make it better,” said Marta Ribera, a spatial ecologist for The Nature Conservancy, also attended the workshop.

Ribera said another lesson she learned from the workshop was the importance of knowing the intended audience before starting a project.Her job is to analyze data and create regional maps of coastal and oceans habitats so scientists and policy-makers can make informed decisions about the ways these habitats are used.

For example, some areas of the ocean are better for commercial fishing, while others are suited for wind energy farms. Some places are perfect for recreational fishing, while other areas should be protected from all activities.

“Something that stuck with me is that it’s not about what you want to tell your audience, it’s about what they need to learn,” Ribera said.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on May 25, 2018.

Northeastern divers combed Cozumel’s coral species

A massive Nassau grouper, four species of black corals, and a spotted drum fish were among the aquatic treasures Northeastern divers found on their expedition to Cozumel, Mexico. The drum fish was an especially lucky discovery—they are nocturnal feeders that rarely leave the protection of shelter during the day.

As researchers fan out from Northeastern’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusettes, they are spreading the word and scouting new locations to collect samples for Ocean Genome Legacy. This repository of more than 25,000 marine DNA samples was built to preserve species that may one day go extinct.

Dan Distel, research professor at the Marine Science Center and executive director of Ocean Genome Legacy, led the four-day trip to Cozumel’s coral reef. His mission was threefold: find out what sort of diversity exists in the surrounding ocean, meet with locals who could assist with research, and determine what permits are needed to collect samples in the Mexican-regulated waters. All of this lays the groundwork for Northeastern students and researchers to plan future expeditions to Cozumel.

Cozumel is a popular destination for tourist scuba divers, said Liz Magee, a program manager for the Three Seas Program and diving safety officer at the Marine Science Center. But even with dozens of boats in the marina and up to 100 eager divers in the water at once, the reef appeared to be incredibly healthy and rich.

A Grasby fish. Phot by Jaxon Derow.

“We did species identification surveys for fish, coral, macro algae, sponges, and invertebrates,” Magee said. “The number of species we found was really surprising.”

In one dive along part of the reef called the San Francisco Wall, the crew was treated to sightings of moray eels, king crabs, and a red spotted hogfish. The currents were quite strong, Distel said, which meant they could only engage in drift diving—a type of scuba diving where divers are carried along by the current, rather than being able to anchor at a specific point.

Back on land, the team met with local leaders to learn more about Mexico’s protected marine areas. Distel gave a presentation about Ocean Genome Legacy to a group of diving, animal care, and marine health experts, who, he said, expressed interest in supporting. Obtaining collection permits can be challenging, Distel said, because every country has different regulations. Getting help from the locals in navigating the system will be welcome, he said.

Magee and Distel were also joined by undergraduate marine biology major Jaxon Derow, who shot the underwater photos, and Ocean Genome Legacy board member Carol Horvitz, who sponsored the trip with her husband Jeffery. The crew plans to return for a pilot collection expedition in November.

Derow has been scuba diving for a decade, and taking photos of his dives for nearly as long. His ultimate goal is to become a conservation photographer.

“I want to use photography to advocate for policy change,” Derow said. “This was a really cool step in that direction.”

A Pink Vase Sponge. Photo by Jaxon Derow.

READ MORE: Dispatch from the field – OGL expedition to Cozumel, Part 1

Three Seas student studies large-scale geographic trends in consumption pressure

Jon Rodemann, an alumnus of the Three Seas program, has published a paper in Marine Ecology Progress Series. He carried out his research during his six-month Three Seas masters internship at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. The findings of this study show that predatory rates of fish close to shore are higher at low latitudes on the US east coast due to more species interactions.

Undersea Spectacular

Undergraduate student Tim Briggs (S’19) spent six weeks during the summer of 2017 combining his passion for marine science and underwater photography. The results are stunning. Briggs, who also completed the Three Seas Program where he received training in underwater research methods, is one of 15 winners from around the world who won a competition called #ThisFirst, launched by the skate, surf, and snowboarding apparel company Volcom. He is is pursuing a major in marine biology and a minor in photography. Check out some of Briggs’ incredible images here.


Alumni Career Paths

Students completing the Three Seas program have acquired the skill set needed to pursue exciting opportunities in marine research. Our alumni have gained admission to the best graduate schools and are now leaders in their field.

During the summer between the two Three Seas semesters, we have had huge success in placing our students in exciting co-op and internship positions and in assisting students choose complementary coursework. Over the past decade our students have been engaged in research efforts in Australia, the Bahamas, California, French Polynesia, Florida, the Galapagos Islands, Hawaii, Jamaica, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Rhode Island, Taiwan, and the United States Virgin Islands.

Within a few years of completing the program, many of our students are pursuing graduate degrees in marine science. Some alumni first work as technicians before entering school, while others use the Three Seas program as an immediate springboard into a graduate program. Alumni of Three Seas have joined the ranks of leading scientists in academia, state and federal government agencies, private consulting firms, and non-governmental organizations.

However, not all alumni choose a career in marine science. Many enter the program undecided between two or more career paths, or simply participate in the Three Seas program to gain a greater appreciation of marine life. The intense academic experience and group dynamic serves our students well no matter which path they choose. Our alumni have also pursued careers as doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, secondary school teachers, engineers, or in a variety of business pursuits.

Three Seas students spend the year in the company of graduate students, post-doctoral scientists, and scientists from both academia and the private sector, all of whom provide their personal perspective regarding their career. Students leave this program well informed of their career options and what lies ahead at each stage of the process. While some ultimately choose a career not directly related to marine science, all have gained a life-long appreciation of the field of marine biology.