A supposedly terrible thing that I might do again: turning outreach obligations into opportunities

November 25, 2015

By Ellen Hamann

So, you wrote a grant. 

Maybe it was a requirement, or maybe you were trying to make your project sound more fundable. Or maybe you’re genuinely interested in outreach. Whatever the reason, in the 11th hour, you tacked on a little paragraph at the end of the proposal about how you’d “publicize the project” and “educate the public” about the merits of your research. Either way, it worked, and suddenly that little afterthought means you’re on the hook to communicate your science. 

That’s pretty much what happened to us. 

A few years ago
, our research group came to a sad (and terrifying) realization: if you’re a migratory fish living in the Great Lakes Basin, you’re essentially trapped in a nightmare. 

In the popular version of the migratory fish versus obstacle story, the recognizable bad guy is a dam, and the protagonist is the iconic (and delicious) salmon. But in the Laurentian Great Lakes Basin, it turns out that the most widespread barrier for fish isn’t just thousands of dams, but hundreds of thousands of road crossings. And instead of the mighty salmon, our native fishes include the likes of the largely unloved and highly misunderstood suckers

Suckers. Image credit: Ellen Hamann

From a science communication perspective, it’s a pretty tall order: make people care about something they didn’t know was a problem, and then love (or at least appreciate) the unlovable. But that last section of our grant proposals meant we were required to try.

We decided to think about this requirement as an opportunity to bring awareness not just to our migratory fishes, but to the universal story of this phenomenal group of animals. We wanted to draw attention to the research being done here in the Laurentian Great Lakes, but also create content that could reach the widest audience possible. To do that, we attacked the problem with everything we knew how to do and many things we didn’t, and organized all those scattered tidbits under one big umbrella. 

That umbrella became a website that we called Fish on the Run.

There’s nothing especially novel about a website, I suppose, but it’s a platform that allowed us to be creative and specific and general all at once. And luckily these days, they’re incredibly easy to make (read: if you can push buttons and have a vague semblance of style, you’ll do just fine.) We used Weebly, but there are loads of alternatives.

The harder part is coming up with content. 

Each page of Fish on the Run is meant to target a different demographic, from kids to academics to educators, with some notable overlap. Some of the key sections of the site are:

Migratory Fish 101: Inspired by the likes of Asap SCIENCE and TED-Ed, we wanted to create video animations that simplify complicated topics. Moovly lets you do that, relatively easily. Pro tip: take the two minutes and walk through the tutorial because it will save you time in the long run. Keep in mind that people’s attention span is short, so creating these animations is  a good exercise in telling your story as simply and succinctly as possible. 

Using MoovyImage credit: Ellen Hamann

Notes from the Field: This page is the specific-to-our-project part that houses blog posts, university press releases, and news articles directly related to the research going on in our group. If you don’t have an in-house outreach professional to help promote your pursuits, it’s easy enough to write your own material. But, if you let your institution’s PR/communications office know what’s going on in your lab, they’ll often do their best to promote it. Let professionals do some of the leg work when you can.

This Just In: Since fish migrations are a worldwide phenomenon, this page is our attempt to consolidate stories from around the globe highlighting newsworthy events. A simple “migratory fish” Google Alert provides fodder.

Video: Our folks rarely go into the field without a GoPro in hand, and we’ve captured some great footage of the work being done above and below water. The video page allows people the chance to see the fishes and habitats up close, something they might not ever have the chance to do in person.

Meet the Fish: This section attempts to bring some much-needed PR to the lesser-known fish migrants in our part of the world. While this page is still in the early stages of development, the goal is to start with our local, Wisconsin fish and eventually branch out to migrants on other continents.

Scholarly Links: If you want to dive in deep, this page takes you to the peer-reviewed literature. It also links to the decision support tool that lets you visualize all the barriers in the Laurentian Great Lakes Basin and play around with budgets and removal scenarios.

And, my personal favorite:

Tools for Outreach
: This page gives everyone interested in fish migration and barriers the outreach tools necessary to avoid reinventing the proverbial wheel. In 2014, our lab group partnered with Shedd Aquarium to participate in the first-ever World Fish Migration Day. Since the event overlapped with Memorial Day that year, we had the unprecedented chance to tell 11,000 visitors to the Shedd Aquarium about the wonders of migratory fishes. Our principal investigators, post-docs, graduate and undergraduate students, staff, and close collaborators joined forces to create content and actively tell anyone who would listen about migratory fish. Among other things, we designed informational posters to cover the basics, developed a scavenger hunt passport game for kids to seek out these unique fishes, and made head cutouts so folks could “pose” with their very own migratory fish. All of these resources are available through the Fish on the Run website.

Connecting with future researchersImage credit: Ellen Hamann

In an age of conservation reliance, whether or not a species lives or dies depends on us. If you haven’t already heard of Jon Mooallem, read his book or watch this TED talk. But if you don’t have time, just remember this: “How we feel about an animal affects its survival more than anything that you read about in ecology textbooks.” 

Case in point: people won’t feel anything about a white sucker that can’t get home to spawn because there’s a culvert in the way. And if they don’t hear the story, these animals (and our other native migratory fishes) face an unfortunate fate.

Rather than being a burden, science communication is a way to make people feel something and (hopefully) act. And while people outside of the scientific community (i.e., voters, policymakers) may never see your conference presentation or read the manuscript you spent months (or years?!) preparing, they might watch a 2-minute animation or read a blog post or watch some GoPro footage. 

The point is that you don’t have to be a communications expert or possess a suite of specialized skills to create something that can make an impact; the tools you need are already out there and mostly free. If you didn’t already have a creative side, odds are you wouldn’t be a scientist in the first place. And those proposal promises to communicate your work are a way to channel creativity in new ways and get your research in the hands of people who need to hear it. 

Tell the story. Use the tools that are available to you to do it. Through communication and outreach you can bring your lab together and humanize your research, and most importantly, you might just come up with something that’s useful long after your project funding runs out.

This blog post is part of our Making Waves: The future of #scicomm in fisheries sciences series. For information on the series please read the introductory post. Connect with us on Twitter by using #MakingWaves.

Ellen Hamann is a Research Specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Limnology. When she’s not daydreaming about migratory fishes, she can often be found swimming with cichlids in Africa, angling piranhas on the Amazon, or playing with suckers in Wisconsin. You can read about Ellen’s field adventures on her blog, Ellen at Large. Ellen tweets as @ellen_at_large.

Filed Under: Science Communication Making Waves

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