Today, Jordan Rutter is here to talk with me about how her lifelong love of birds led her to research, professional science communication in a PR role, and activism within the bird community (check out Bird Names For Birds)! This episode's Paper in Focus is from Monique Pipkin and Amelia Juliette Demery. We talk about their paper on safe fieldwork strategies for at-risk individuals - trust me, you and everyone working in research should read and share this paper. Lastly, Jordan and I are joined by Paige Byerly and Samantha Hauser to talk about their brilliant scicomm initiative 46 Questions, as well as the broader importance of science communication. If you like this podcast, you'll love 46 Questions!
Hosted, as always, by me, Kirsty MacLeod. Drop me a line anytime: hello[at]theweepodcast.org
Links & Resources
You're listening to the Women in Ecology and Evolution podcast with me, Kirsty MacLeod. Even though the days are increasingly short and we're back into COVID lockdowns here in Europe, it feels that there are last some reasons to be cheerful! And I can guarantee that today's guests will put a smile on your face. Monique Pipkin is back with Amelia Juliette Demery to give us the lowdown on their new paper on field safety for at risk individuals, and we had a great conversation, not just about the paper, but the process of collaborating and the importance of celebrating. Today's group discussion is with the three founders of scicomm initiative “46 questions”, Samantha Hauser, Paige Byerly and Jordan Rutter, who I talked to first about her love of birds, transitioning to professional scicomm, and why bird names should just be about birds. That's coming up next on the WEE podcast.
INTERVEW WITH JORDAN RUTTER
Today's guest is Jordan Rutter, who many in the online science community will already know. And if you do, you will know that she is a passionate and lifelong member of the bird community, a trained ornithologist and now focusing professionally on science communication and sharing her love of birds with others. Jordan, it's wonderful to finally meet you, thank you so much for coming on the show!
JR: Oh, thank you for having me!
So how have you been?
JR: I have been, what I would say is zugenruhe, which is a German word that means migratory restlessness, it's an ornithological term used for birds as they are staging and preparing for migration, and it's just this restlessness feeling before they make their long journeys to their breeding or non breeding grounds. And I very much feel the same way, living in a one bedroom apartment where I don't have the ability to just walk outside to a garden or easily get to those natural areas anymore. So I definitely am missing my regular nature exposure therapy, etc.
So, anyone who knows you even the tiniest bit knows that you are passionate about birds. So let's go right back to the start. How and when did that start for you that love of birds?
JR: Yeah, so I started birding or being interested in birds since I was a toddler. I honestly don't remember not being interested in birds, and it was a family thing! My dad got a second part time job on the weekends as, he called it birdwalk facilitator. Normally it's birdwalk leader, birdwalk facilitator, this helping get people to parks, helping make sure that the walks were led and such, and I was so little that I got taken along. You know, and it kind of just went from there! I very early on in elementary school learned… Well, I didn't learn but I heard that you could make a career out of anything that you love. I wasn't really connecting with any of the other jobs or professions that were being presented to me but I was like, “well I love birds and I want to just do everything I can about birds.” So I started this parallel path, basically of birding as a hobby, and then ornithology and science research. I got my first bird job officially when I was 15 and kept doing birding events, then went to grad school and did bird research. I just always was encouraged - so shout out to my parents - to always ask questions, always learn, always investigate again personally or professionally, whatever inspires you and whatever you have questions about.
So you did your first degree at Oberlin, and that gave you some opportunities to participate in original research - was that for the first time?
JR: It wasn't the first time that I've helped with research - I actually being from the DC area worked at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre in high school - but at Oberlin, that was the first time that I was helping actually like lead the research. That's actually a really fun project to talk about, because I studied urogenital secretions. So the little gland near birds’ tails – it produces oil that they then will put on their feathers, and it's really great for birds because it helps make their feathers weather resistant, it's like hair conditioner so it helps strengthen their feathers. But what I was looking at, was the biocommunication aspect of it. Specifically with mosquitos. And so, we found out that it basically is natural bug repellent. And this is actually another great part of my story because it really was during this time when I started moving toward science communication! I realised that there's a way to talk about these really complex jargon-filled research projects in a way that anyone can understand. We can talk about coming to a common place of our knowledge and understanding on a topic and go from there. That was really key. And I also worked in a library, at the circulation desk, and I noticed that students were only coming and checking out journals when they had a project or were told they needed to find something and so how could Oberlin spend millions of dollars on these journals and they're not regularly used was baffling to me. And so I thought, in my downtime, while working, I would start reading the bird journals, and this was when Twitter was really starting to gain popularity. And so I took Twitter as a form of public note taking, it was a way for me to share with family back home, friends, even for myself, an interpretation to basically translate, like the abstract that I was reading to this platform where at that time, it was fewer characters, so like how do I make this concept understandable in one sentence. And that then made me realise I like talking about birds, I like sharing this really cool stuff about birds and realising that we can do research, forever and ever, but it's not going to make a difference today if it's just trapped inside the pages of these really expensive journals, full of jargon that other people outside of the field don't understand.
That’s such a good point because I actually remember, I was going through my degree, probably a few years before you but I also remember just realising all of the kind of gates to finding out about research. So as you said, these journals are not only ridiculously expensive for the university I mean honestly for an individual it’s completely out of the question that you're going to subscribe to a journal, but then also even if you're from a science background, accessing the content of that is still really difficult.
JR: Yeah, and that's a really great point too because it's about that accessibility, it's about meeting people where they're at. If you want someone to know about how great your science is you have to help them understand it! So, there's no need to be critical in
acknowledging that someone else doesn’t have the training and background, and knowledge. There's no reason to keep all of that great knowledge and work that you're doing for yourself.
So just going back to your bio, because I will never pass up an opportunity to talk about plovers... So, after your undergrad degree, you went to the University of Minnesota for a master's degree, working on piping plovers, could you tell me a bit about that project?
JR: Yeah, so I specifically focused on the Great Lakes population of piping plovers, the whole species is threatened but I focused on the endangered Great Lakes population. And the reason that's important is because when I was coming on as a master's student, it was about to be the 30th anniversary of them being listed as an endangered population, and for 30 years, they had - the recovery effort and the Fish and Wildlife Service and even my advisor at the University of Minnesota - had worked on doing all of this genetic testing and population monitoring, figuring out how to really focus on where the birds were and what contribution needed to happen. And they were looking into what's going to help the birds in the next 30 years. These birds nest on public beaches where people and their dogs go regularly and so it really is learning about how to share the beach and to raise awareness to get that public education and involvement to help the birds for the next 30 years. And so I went out to all of the beaches where these birds are nesting, were known to nest and then where they did nest - and I asked people, Do you know what a piping plover? is are you willing to help wildlife, if it means that certain areas of the beach are closed or that you need to keep your dog on a leash? and so on and so forth. And we found out that that's a huge area of work that really needs to be done and be expanded on. And I paired it then, another chapter of my thesis was looking at the impact of dogs on beach goers around the globe. And we found out that people and dogs are having an impact on birds, every day of the year, everywhere in the world, for every bird. It's not just an isolated situation. And so that really again comes back to whatever topic you're talking about - it's gonna really take that human dimensions aspect to make any positive progress.
So you've since made the move from academia to PR for a conservation organisation. How was that transition?
JR: It's definitely been finding that balance of, sometimes being too communicative for the science aspect, but being too sciencey for the communicative part and realising how to juggle that all. I like to think that I have somewhat of an advantage, because I can totally nerd out and get really sciencey. And then I also would like to think that I had an advantage because I understand about how you have to craft messages - it's been an interesting balance.
So as well as doing this for your job you're also just a great science communication star across all social media platforms. So I wanted to ask about a project that you started during lockdown with your partner, who's also a very passionate bird lover - reading kids’ bird books on YouTube, which I thought was so lovely. And they’re such charming and wonderful videos ,so how did that come about, was that true Cabin Fever needing an outlet?
JR: Yeah, partially. I think the initial shock of lockdown, especially for parents, was very obvious, and I am not a parent so I'm not speaking, I do not want to speak for them. But even for family and friends with young children it very much was like, Oh my gosh, I can't go help give you a break or babysit. How can I just do something? And I have all of these children's bird books on my bookshelf, from when I was a kid, and so we thought, hey, maybe we can help, you know, our friends that have young children, at least get like five minutes of a distraction. If we read them these books.
So they're really lovely and I'm sure I'm sure there have been many parents out there who have really appreciated them! So lastly I wanted to ask you about a slightly more serious project or campaign that you and your partner, Gabriel, have been working on this year, the bird names for birds campaign and website that you started. So, I’ll let you describe that if you'd like to…
JR: So Bird Names for Birds is a completely independent side project of mine and Gabriel's, has no affiliation. It's all volunteer. The social justice based events of 2020 were very much a rallying call, in my opinion, to take action and recognise the realities that we're facing right now, as a society, especially in the United States. We wanted to do something at home, in our bird community, and we realised that we had been using and had completely overlooked eponyms, which are human names, put on other things, it could be an invention, an inanimate object, or in this case, birds. And so we realised, why are we doing this, why, why is the bird community honouring these people who turned out to have really horrible pasts? and we could change them, right, words cost nothing, words only take willpower, so we could do something about that. And we can change the bird names for ourselves but that won't really have an impact. So we thought we should speak up, we should reach out to the bird community and say, let's commit to doing something about this. And so, Gabriel and I wrote a letter, we got 180 other co-signers, and we submitted that letter. We kept getting messages of people saying, did I miss signing the letter, I want to help so we turned it into a petition, and we're still waiting to see what happens next. It goes back to that gatekeeping I guess realising that if we want to be leaders, be inclusive, it can start with something as on paper simple as changing a bird name.
I think you've put together a really good website and I learned a lot. There's historical bios there about some of the people that these birds have named after, you know it was names that I hadn't thought about before, and yeah so I'm really grateful to you guys for pushing me to think more deeply about something that as you say seems quite simple but there's no reason why it should be just one more thing that keeps people away from enjoying things as wonderful as birds.
JR: I never thought about these names, and I was never impacted by them. But realising that I am a privileged white person that can go without asking or go without thinking about who actually is credited for discovering these birds - it's wrong, it's my own work that I need to do and so, focusing on the fact that we really are trying to acknowledge that aspect of it, acknowledge again that process part and say all eponyms need to be removed. It can't just be the most extreme. We just want to celebrate birds for birds and we want to make sure that everyone can do that.
Yeah, that's a great point. Please call bird something descriptive to help dummies like me who are terrible at ID-ing birds, just give me something that helps me like red footed floppy boy.
JR: I mean that that's the thing too, right, just focusing on eponyms, they don't give any information right?
Well we'd love to have you back for an update sometime in the future.
PAPER IN FOCUS – MONIQUE PIPKIN AND AMELIA JULIETTE DEMERY
We're back for our paper in focus segment where I do a deep dive into recent paper in conversation with the lead author. Today we have a special edition because I have not one but two great guests. I'm rejoined by my great friend and supporter of the podcast that you'll recognise from Episode One, Monique Pipkin. Welcome back, Monique.
MP: I am so happy to be back, how are you doing?
You're the first repeat guest!
MP: I feel very famous, very grateful to be in this prestigious position.
And it's also wonderful to meet Amelia Juliette Demery, also a grad student at Cornell.
AD: I'm very happy to be here and I was not aware that I'm in the midst of a celebrity! I should have put on some makeup for this Zoom!
So Amelia, we heard in episode one a bit Monique's research, would you like to give us a bit of an intro to who you are and what you work on?
AD: Yeah, I am a third year PhD student at Cornell, looking at the genetics behind beak coloration. Specifically, plasticity, how beaks can change across space and time focusing on European starlings. It's kind of like a mad scientist framework where like I go catch birds in the fields which in this case is not a romantic field setting, it's a cow barn, with a lot of poop and cows, and then bringing them into the lab, and then we change different parameters so in this case the amount of light to get them to change their beaks like they would in the wild. And from there, we sequence different tissues to see if you can kind of track the genetic expression patterns that results in that change. Monique's field season is way more pretty, way more like BBC Earth…
MP: I get to kayak in my field season.
AD: Yeah, I get to not trip in poop water, different levels.
So Monique when we last heard from you, you'd managed to get into the field and had been getting by with your trusty social distancing backpack chair. What's new with you? How have things been going?
MP: I have been teaching an evolution for non-majors course, which has been very fun, and I feel so grateful that I have a class who is super open at unmuting themselves and talking back because I know that's been a struggle for some teachers recently. Totally fantastic class.
So you're both here today to talk about your new paper in Nature Ecology and Evolution, which is called “Safe fieldwork strategies for at risk individuals, their supervisors and institutions”. So tell me a bit about the background, and the motivations for this paper.
MP: So, this kind of started after the advent of Black Birders Week, after Christian Cooper, who was a black birder in Central Park was birding, he had a white woman call the cops on him when he asked her to leash her dog, it kind of went viral, in the New York Times. And in response this group called BlackAFInSTEM organised this thing called Black Birders Week where Black birders on Twitter were just kind of tweeting for the day trying to increase and demonstrate representation in the field of birding and ornithology. And after that, coupled with all the other kind of civil unrest, all the other high profile deaths and murders by police that happened in society... It was really hard to just kind of exist in to be and I remember calling Amelia and I asked her like what do you do to be safe in the field and this is a question I've asked people throughout my entire life, women in particular, people of colour in particular, and I started thinking I kind of want to write something for my lab and then she's like oh I should have something for my lab, well maybe we should just write it together for a department, and then it quickly became something that people were really excited about and got a lot bigger.
AD: I think when we brought this paper idea to our advisors, my advisor was like, Oh, you should also like read this paper on sexual harassment, and that kind of got the ball rolling on this, like there are many different identities that are at increased risk in the field, and they probably have experienced the same stresses, and additional mitigations that they put on themselves. And so once we got more people on board it just had this snowball effect where we realised that this paper can have a much bigger impact and do much bigger service than we first expected to. A few people's life experiences just are not enough to really provide a voice for so many. There was a very clear realisation as we started going about this one that people had their own kind of checklists that they would do but there wasn't a lot of knowledge or proactivism, on behalf of the people who like send the researchers out, and that there are many papers that go into discussion and reflection like get the conversation started. But going beyond that to like what can we do, there is a big vacuum there. So, for the supervisors in the department, institutions, we wanted to really like drive home the fact that this is a systemic issue, so that people who are responsible for the researcher should also share the burden of ensuring that when science is carried out in the field it's conducted as safely as possible, and with support. And this paper gives them something to sink their teeth into to start thinking about diversity, equity & inclusion in a more tangible concrete way.
MP: From the strategies for the researcher side, it was really just trying to write down and have a concrete list of everything we've learned throughout the whisper network, about what can you do to stay safe in the field and it goes from doing things like, wear something so that I'm not an outsider in my community so I'll wear University apparel, or I will make sure I have any credentials I need, so people don't think you are doing anything that they consider shady or concerning. One of the big things we talked about is to one educate themselves and then not ask their researchers to explain their trauma to help them understand it. But including like hey maybe need to make a safety plan for all your established job sites or introduce your researchers to those connections when they go to build work so if anything happens because they Oh, I know who manages this field, I am supposed to be here. One of the big things you have for departments is you guys have to offer training, including general field safety training, emergency preparedness, how do you handle cold weather - and then also asking for these departments and institutions to have mechanisms in order to educate their faculty researchers.
Which of these strategies would you recommend that somebody like me can look at to help keep my lab mates safe?
AD: That's a good question. My first thought would be for your peers to initiate a discussion about existing lab safety, and then have the whole lab or grad students, you know, whatever, whatever space is safe as for those peers have just people chime in, like, oh, like you can do this. My rationale with that is to you know, show that maybe there is something that is being done that another person wouldn't have thought of, but then also make it a space so that people don't have to feel like they're reliving personal trauma, to just start with okay what do we have right now. And then, as a community, figure out ways to improve on it or mitigate the risk - every sort of experience is very different.
MP: Also if you have any types of undergrads or you’re teaching any field courses, all of these strategies are still really important to you because you are training other individuals to go out into the field, and you want to do that in a way that's as safe and equitable as possible. One big thing I really want to say is that if you are able to do so, make sure you don't go into the field alone. Go out in a pair simply because there's safety in numbers, if something happens to you and you have someone else to call. And anyone that does not have a field safety plan because I'm realising a lot of times people don't have any field safety plan and they don't know where to start, The University of California system has like a fill in field safety plans. And so if you're completely starting from nothing, they have some guidelines, you could take and alter and customise that to your personal experiences.
Yeah. And the paper really, It's such a great starting point for having that discussion within lab groups. I mean, I think it should just be recommended reading for anybody that has anybody in their group that's doing field work. I think everybody should really read this paper and ithere's a table there of additional resources for education, which also is very very useful. How was the experience of working together on this?
MP: Really good. So, Amelia and I are very similar. Oftentimes at different points we’d be arguing the exact same thing but we weren't listening to each other, we didn't take a step back like no, we said the exact same thing. I was doing this during my field season and so we had a Google Doc going and then she would go and flesh out sections, I would go and flesh out sections. It was a really lovely working experience and I've never had a collaborative experience writing a paper like this before and I was, I was really chuffed by it all.
AD: And I would say that this collaboration kind of reaffirmed my like belief in like, Oh yeah, I like writing a paper, and it's just like the importance of how we just agree, teammates that like bounce off ideas. And I think that is really complimentary in ways that I think goes beyond this paper, like I definitely feel like I did a lot of professional growth, which is awesome because we're also really good friends. It just works. It just works so well. It works. MP: I would say write papers with your friends.
Have you managed to celebrate its publication together yet?
MP: multiple times.
AD: Yeah, multiple times. I don't know how people celebrate papers, this is like this is my first paper and I will say your first first authored paper?
MP: I was on a second authored paper, and this is my first first author paper.
AD: For it to be this type of paper and have this level of impact is like this is - I feel like I peaked! go to college, graduate it's not gonna get better than this.
MP: Also we definitely celebrated every stage of this, like we submitted it, we're like, Alright, we're gonna drink champagne! like oh it got accepted, we're gonna drink champagne!
I think you should also celebrate on the 10th of December, which is when Monique thought it was coming out because you didn't know that the dates were switched in the UK!
MP: I saw 12/10/2020 and I was like, well, I always heard, like papers take a long time to get out there!
Well, I was very excited to see it, and massive Congratulations, I think it's a really really important paper. Is there anything else you'd like to add about the paper before we finish up?
AD: I would make a plug for people who would like to discuss it in a professional setting. One thing that we've noticed is that there's kind of like a fork in the road every time where there are people who want to take time to talk about their personal experiences which is hard. And then there are people who want to apply it directly to the lab of the department, like the “what can we do” part, which is also equally hard. I just wanna say that both conversations are equally important and merit time, and careful consideration. So I would say for people who want to have a paper discussion on this, it is really really good to kind of take a little bit of time, a couple days before, to think about what you want to get out of it, and how you want to guide the conversation because the paper was meant to guide people in how to really make sure that everyone's walking away from it feeling fulfilled or like there, there's a place for them to move forward.
ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION WITH JORDAN RUTTER, SAMANTHA HAUSER & PAIGE BYERLY
Welcome back to the Women in Ecology & Evolution podcast, and to our roundtable segment where I'm joined by three other researchers to discuss our experiences in science and academia. I’m back with Jordan Rutter, ornithologist and science communicator, and we are joined by Dr Samantha Hauser, a postdoc studying conservation and landscape genetics at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and by Paige Byerly, a PhD candidate looking at wildlife population dynamics in the Leberg lab at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. It's so nice to finally be talking to you all. It really felt like, October 2020 was against us. I scheduled two interviews, and both times we had to reschedule because Paige was in the path of a hurricane! But you came out unscathed…
PB: Yeah I came out unscathed. Unfortunately this is looking to be the new normal on the Gulf Coast so it's not something that I'm enjoying personally.
Paige, do you want to just give us a brief overview of who you are and what you work on?
PB: Yeah, absolutely. So I'm a sixth year PhD candidate so I'm actually trying to wrap up my dissertation this month. So I've been locked in my office pretty much non stop! My research focus was on seabird conservation and evolution, so I work on a roseate turn which is a species that has a distribution throughout the Atlantic including a small population in the UK. And I'm using population genetics and camera monitoring and just a kind of a whole suite of tools to evaluate population declines and also relatedness among populations on the Atlantic.
Sam Do you want to give us a overview of your research as well?
Sure, so I'm at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, working on kind of concurrent projects, the first of which is looking at population dynamics in an endangered Seal, the Hawaiian monk seal. And the second is helping incorporation genomics into conservation breeding programmes run by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums which is the accreditation programme here in the states.
Sam and Paige, you have both had new papers out in the last couple of weeks! I always like to ask people, what's your paper celebration routine? because rejection’s kind of the rule in academia, so I always think it's cool to know how people celebrate those nice celebration moments.
SH: Well, I always try and plan something, I saw this online somebody essentially puts out wine bottles or champagne bottles and every time they get one of their papers published they open it, but I never had the forethought to actually do it because it's such a long process to get it accepted. And this last paper kind of surprised me, being accepted and then they put it out so quickly that I had no time to plan at all.
PB: So, this is only my second paper out so I don't think I've had time to develop the tradition but I have one that's been decision pending for six days now so my friend constantly checks. So I think this is time to either plan my celebration or morning.
It's not too late to put that bottle of wine on the shelf for this paper! Sam, I know you've been working on monk seals more recently but between the three of you, you have worked on a range of bird groups. So I want to start by setting the cat among the pigeons a bit, and asking for your thoughts on what is the best bird group. And I actually have even written in my notes, and why is it plovers - must have been really swayed by Jordan’s interview!
SH: I do have a really soft spot for shorebirds.
I think it’s because they look like little fluffy golf balls on legs when they're babies.
SH: Yeah. Adorable I also fell in love with birds doing banding on the beach of shorebirds so I have always have a really special place in my heart for them, but I don't think
anything really compares to the feistiness of vireos, because they're, like, eight grammes, they're really small but they think that they can take you on!
Paige, do you want to make a pitch for seabirds?
PB: Oh absolutely, and seabirds is such a huge field, I will go ahead and just narrow it down and say I love the Larids, the terns and gulls. They're not always the most popular group and terns aren’t very well known so I just kind of described them as pointy gulls to people that aren't as familiar! but yeah they're scrappy, they're so incredibly tenacious, they're beach nesters that face really difficult conditions. And I kind of love how they have this marriage of the land and the sea because I'm a huge marine person and I love being able to work with this group that kind of combines the two, sort of the terrestrial and marine element. So I'm a huge Larid fan and also they're kind of jerks and I like that.
There's something fun about working with birds that have a lot of have that kind of spunky personality. Does doing research on birds take away any pleasure from birding as a hobby or does it just add to it?
PB: I'm pretty biased towards the bird and shorebird group so that's where I really enjoy spending time and trying to identify challenging birds. So it hasn't really for me, no.
SH: I think fieldwork and doing ornithology has been really good for my birding because it’s an excuse to go to really cool places and places but the public doesn't have to go and to see birds that no-one really gets to see. Plus, then you can catch by netting. So, when you're mist-netting - at least the way I was doing, I got to catch a lot of birds, especially when I would put out like a screech owl call, I just call all these birds and get to see amazing things and they just come to you.
JR: I think it gives you a different perspective, I think a different appreciation, you know? it's one thing if you have a bird that you're just sitting and watching them do a special behaviour, but to actually have this really intimate one on one engagement with a bird it's just so different and realising bird size is a lot different than we perceive as birders, I think some birds are much more, more, chunky! Just having this again just like personal experience is, at least for me, who is a hardcore birder at least among this group, you know, it has given me so much more awe and appreciation for birds than just birding.
So our main discussion topic for today, I wanted to talk about science communication generally, because I think it's important. And I love hearing about how other people have integrated public engagement into their work and their lives, and it felt really obvious to ask you three to discuss this with me, not just because I followed all three of you social media for literally years so it really is lovely to talk to you in person, and you've all really been guiding lights for me in how to engage with people about science topics very positively and very kindly. But also because You three are the co founders of “46 Questions” which is one of my favourite science communication initiatives that really trying to highlight the people that do science and which was a real really big inspiration for this podcast. So, would you like to start by describing what 46 questions is?
SH: Sure! So, 46 questions is an attempt to humanise scientists, we're more than just our science, we’re people ingrained in society and we have our own interests and things outside of science. And we do this by asking 46 rapid fire questions to scientists in all different sorts of fields, different career paths and different stages. Our mission is to human scientists to the general public, but also to each other, right, we're more than just our work.
How did it actually come about?
SH: So it was actually kind of my idea. I had noticed this major mistrust in the general public, of science and scientists especially - there's a lot of harmful stereotypes. And if you think about media and TV and movies, there's this trope of the mad scientist who does science with evil intentions, so there's not a lot going for scientists. I wanted to kind of bridge that gap between the public and science, and I was watching interviews at that time on YouTube, and a lot of people were interviewing celebrities, authors and all these sorts of people with rapid fire questions to get to know them as people - so why can't we do this for scientists? So I basically roped in Paige and Jordan and was like, “hey what do you think?” I really trust their judgement and I didn't know if this is one of my crazy schemes or if it was a good idea. And we went, went forward with it and I'm really glad I roped them in.
So you three knew each other before?
SH: Yeah. So I actually did my PhD in Dr. Leberg's lab, and so we overlapped during grad school.
JR: but all three of us know each other from Twitter.
PB: Yeah. And then finally met at a bird conference and we all fell in love.
So how did you come up with the questions?
PB: It was a very long process. I think we all came up with an initial list right and then narrowed down the list and then spend a really long time talking about the questions and ran through them. It was really important for us to be really inclusive. So I think a good one is we had “What's your favourite Harry Potter house?” and then we realised that that's not necessarily speaking to all generations, to all people, maybe we want other countries to be able to participate, while we love Harry Potter not everyone else does!
Do you have a favourite from the list of questions that that you feel is really giving you great answers in interviews?
JR: So my role among the three of us is I actually do the processing of the interviews and then post them on the web pages. So that's a really tough question for me because I have really specific answers that pop out more than the entire interview as a whole. And I also have, the more of that back end metric correlation and patterns, and so it's fascinating to see - like overwhelmingly everyone's favourite sound is something about water, ocean waves, rain, babbling brooks, like, it is amazing at how that is THE answer. So it's been fascinating to see that come across too and one of the goals for three of us has to help show those commonalities as well.
So how many interviews Have you done so far?
SH: as of last week right i think we hit our 200th profile! so I think we're at 203 now.
And the process is that people can nominate themselves, or other people. I think I loved the idea so much that I nominated myself!
PB: Good for you! We want people to do that.
I really enjoyed it. So I encourage people to to definitely look at the interviews, and then
give it a go.
PB: Yes, we want people to nominate themselves. I think we spend a lot of time at the beginning, searching out scientists to invite because we're all biologists, and we mostly interact with biologists and we wanted to make sure we were showing people across the sciences. Now the nomination process has been really nice because now physicists can nominate other physicists or engineers can nominate other engineers. So we're able to sort of organically get coverage across other fields.
So as well as 46 questions, Sam you also run another scicomm project, #BirdQuiz on Twitter, can you tell tell us about that?
SH: Yeah so the name kind of gives it away, it's a weekly bird quiz. I post a picture of a bird in the morning here in the States, and then I get all day for people to answer what they think it is. And then in the evening I post the answer with an annotated picture to just illustrate how to ID that bird. And this kind of came about as I joined science Twitter, the big thing that stuck out to me was science communication quizzes right, there's Crow and no and tricky bird ID and and so on and so forth. But there wasn't a general bird quiz for beginner birders. So that's kind of where I found my place where I kind of contribute to scicomm.
So just thinking more about scicomm more broadly, and why we do it - we're obviously living through some interesting times at the moment. And, you know, we're at a kind of a tipping point in terms of climate change and species conservation. And it's obviously fairly important that people trust scientists, right now, especially in the middle of a pandemic. So what do you think that people working in ecology or evolution, need to be doing in terms of science communication, or what would you like to see more of?
SH: I feel like there's a lot that people can be doing. So even if we're just posting our articles online, a little blurb that is accessible and non jargony, that's scicomm in itself, being able to communicate your science in a concise and accessible way.
JR: I could talk about this for hours, probably, but some things to do, are small and are with yourself. Don't overlook communications. Don't dismiss it. Maybe you don't want to be a sciomm person or don't really see how communications connects to your science research, but support it and and acknowledge it and help validate the folks that do do this work, because, research shows that storytelling is truly the most effective way for non scientists to understand that research. Yeah, really my advice is just don't don't overlook it, you know, at least at least acknowledge that it has value and has a place in the work and conversation.
PB: Absolutely. I would just quickly say to like for me a lot of scicomm, as well as the communication aspect is really important, is that it should be two ways, so we're not just talking heads that are kind of shouting out into the void but we think about listening as well to what people want from us, what do they want to hear, what do they want communicated, what's important to them. And I think that's the way you really start building trust.
SH: I will add to that, doing scicomm has actually made me a better scientist as well.
SH: I'm much better about communicating my science within academia and to my peers. It's made me better at teaching, and one thing, a professor once told me was science communication IS science right, so if we don't publish our paper, did you even do it? like does it even count and so that's one thing and us making our science as accessible, even to each other, is really important to help with equity and diversity and inclusion.
At times I felt like grants I've written have a little section that obviously wants you to say that you're going to do all this outreach, but ultimately I think the academic system doesn't necessarily reward time spent on those activities, or even just within universities I have felt in the past that, putting time into science communication has been sniffed at a little bit. Do you have any thoughts on that or have you come up against any, any sense that, that time hasn't been valued?
PB: Definitely that sense but I do think it's changing and pretty fast. Since I started my PhD this idea of science communication is really kind of taken off and this idea that we do have a responsibility, I believe, to the greater world, if I’m taking tax money for my research I should be able to tell people about it. And I've definitely seen that climate shifting a bit within academia to acknowledging the value of this work. And I think the last four years might have contributed to that, for sure.
JR: I think the next step is really going to be seeing that change though, in overall like intro undergrad as well as graduate study classes for researchers, you know actually taking taking a topic like having a curriculum that includes communication, how do you have a good presentation. How do you, you know, incorporate equity, diversity inclusion elements into how you talk about your science, whether it's with other scientists or not because even things that are incredibly overlooked, like the colours you use in your figures and charts are important and things that we don't talk about enough because of things like colour blindness. And so these little things all add up to make us again, better scientists better science communicators and better people.
So I thought it was only fair that I ended with a rapid fire questions round...
SH: We should have seen this coming!
So first, do you have any science themed home décor?
PB: Oh yeah. Oh my gosh. We have bones, and skulls, and a vintage microscope setup…
SH: I have a whole bunch of glassware that our University of Louisiana got rid of, giant beakers and I have them all on top of my kitchen cabinets.
JR: Gonna echo that, especially if it has a bird on it, I have probably gotten it as a gift or for myself, my dinner plates have birds on them, even like my duvet cover has birds on it…
PB: my tastes range to a little bit more of the morbid I guess, my step niece came to her house when she was seven and said, You guys are creepy!
Second question, if you got a plane ticket right now where would it go?
SH: One place I wanted to go which is a little bit off the beaten path for maybe us in the states is Iceland. I want to see the Northern Lights - and I know I'm in Wisconsin could potentially see them but … I don't! and Iceland seems like a really cool place to hang out and learn about the culture there, and the mythology is really cool.
PB: I'm obsessed with the tropics and I'm obsessed with tiny islands so I would go to the South Pacific and hop from tiny island to tiny island.
JR: I would take Gabriel who's my partner and go birding wherever we could get a plane ticket to, we have bird books for countries, ranging from the tropics, we've never been to South America to India to, you know, I mean the whole world is so wonderful, both in general and for birds so we'd go anywhere.
PB: Currently, if you gave me a plane ticket to go literally anywhere, a cornfield in Iowa.
SH: I know that's kind of what I was thinking!
Okay so last I'm going to add my own. If you could only see one bird, for the rest of this year, what would it be.
JR: Oh my gosh, it's an incredible question. Normally I can come up with an answer for anything.
SH: It’s like picking a favourite child!
PB: Well, I'll go because my dream bird or just an animal in general that I hope to see someday in the wild is a kiwi, ridiculous little potatoes.
SH: I think I will go with a common loon, which is more common than you think. But, it is my nemesis bird. So, if I can get that for the rest of the year I'd be happy.
JR: I'm gonna give you my gut reaction and you're gonna think I'm trying to avoid the question but I want to like comment on the bigger thing so. So I started birding with my family and especially my dad and he really instilled in me that birding is like winning the lottery. Every day, because it's totally random, you can go to the same place even your own backyard or outside your apartment window and it's different every day. So I kind of want to go in that vein and just be like, surprise me. Thinking about the pandemic and how I've been so homebound in my apartment, I've even taken a whole new appreciation for the birds that just come to my railing that I always overlooked, like European starlings and I have really have learned their moult cycle and how beautiful they are right now with their iridescent colours and their white spots. I'm happy to have starlings on my balcony! so if you want to give me an exotic bird, I will be thrilled, if you just tell me that I can still have a downy woodpecker come into my top floor suet feeder, I will be thrilled. I always want to be grateful for whatever birds you see because that’s special.