Tag Archives: communicating research


Learning to Tell a Story

Like Randall Hughes and David Kimbro, Dr. Randy Olson is a scientist who wants to make science understandable to a general audience.  Dr. Olson’s passion for communicating science led him to USC School of Cinema and a second career in film making.  He will be here next week to help bring the inner storyteller our of twelve graduate students, and he’s brought his latest film with him.  We hope you can join us.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Stories of high school football never grow old!

There’s nothing like lots of time with family over Thanksgiving to drive home the fact that some people are inherently better storytellers than others. How else could you stand to listen to the same story about the come-from-behind, last-minute win (that I witnessed first-hand) year in and year out? Or have someone recount something as mundane as a TV commercial and have you falling out of your seat laughing? Or watch an impersonation of a dog’s attempts to garner some attention that is funnier than the original video? My family is blessed with a number of good storytellers, and I’ll confess that I’m not one of them. So is there any hope for me?

If you’d asked me that question a few years ago, I would have answered with a resounding “No”. I’ve always considered storytelling as one of those innate gifts that some people have and others don’t, with me in the latter category. For one, I prefer to write things down, organizing and re-organizing my thoughts on the page until I get them just right. That way, if I forget the ‘punch line’, I can come back to it later, a strategy that definitely doesn’t work well when telling a joke aloud! Also, I’m much more comfortable coalescing others’ ideas into an organized fashion for a fact-based paper than creating a novel story from scratch (think English 101 vs. Creative Writing). But other than not being the most entertaining relative at family gatherings, does my inability to tell a good story really matter?

Early mornings in the field do wonders for sibling relationships!

This time, I’d have to answer “Yes”. Over the last several years, I’ve become more and more concerned about the disconnect between the scientific world and the “everyday” world. (The fact that it’s acceptable to suggest that science is somehow divorced from everyday life without raising lots of eyebrows is an indication of what I’m talking about.) And I think part of the responsibility for fixing this divide lies with scientists, in that we need to do a better job of explaining to our friends and family (for starters) why our work matters to them. But only the closest and most devoted of relatives (thank you, Mama Jennie!) will read my scientific publications, and only the most in need of a job (here’s looking at you, Jules!) will commit to working as my research assistant for a summer to learn the ins and outs of what I do. So we’re back to the need for me to tell a story, and a good story at that, to grab people’s interest and inspire them to want to know more.

Randall being interviewed by WFSU producer Rob Diaz de Villegas at the FSU Coastal & Marine Lab in July 2010.

Enter my collaboration with WFSU. Just prior to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, I had a meeting with Kim Kelling-Engstrom about the possibilities of a joint effort to communicate David’s and my research to a general audience with help from the professionals at WFSU. When the spill occurred, the impetus to document our research on the amazing coastal ecosystems of northern Florida became even more urgent, and we launched this blog. For someone who rarely agrees to having my picture taken, it was a big leap to regularly go in front of a camera and talk about what I do, and why I think it’s important. And it’s been a steep learning curve! But I’m beginning to realize (hope?) that telling a story is a lot like playing sports – some people start with a leg up in the talent department, but everyone gets better with practice.

So how do you learn to tell a convincing story? What are the tricks of the trade? To find out more, David and I have invited Dr. Randy Olson, the self-described scientist-turned-filmmaker, to come give a workshop at FSU this month on just this topic. The workshop is for science graduate students interested in learning how to better communicate their ideas and research to a general audience. Randy went to graduate school at Harvard and had a tenured faculty position in marine biology at the University of New Hampshire until he decided to leave his job and enroll in the University of Southern California School of Cinema. Since finishing film school, he’s directed several entertaining and thought-provoking films, as well as written a book about communicating science. So he’s rather uniquely qualified to speak about the particular pitfalls that plague scientists when it comes to telling a good story, as well as how to overcome them.

I’ll be listening in carefully during the workshop, and I’m sure I’ll have some useful tips to share with you (and implement) on this blog in the weeks following. We’re also excited that Randy has offered to do a screening of his movie Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy at the FSU Student Life Cinema at 7pm on Tuesday, December 11. The movie will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Dr. Olson and several FSU faculty members. The event is free and open to all who are interested, so come join us!

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In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by the National Science Foundation.

The circle is complete.  Randall was once the middle school student being led into a marsh for the first time, she now leads middle school girls in.

WFSU SciGirls “In the Grass,” Talking Science

Episode 2: Talkin’ Science

In September we’ll tour our coastal ecosystems and learn why we love them.  These next couple of weeks, we’ll get a fresh set of eyes on Randall and David’s world of research and ecology as the WFSU/ Mag Lab SciGirls visit the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab.

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Randall explains experiment to SciGirlsWhen you think of your summer vacations during middle school, what do you think of? The first thing that comes to my mind is HOT (it was south Georgia, after all), and the next thing is Duke. I realize that is somewhat sacrilegious for someone who went to UNC-Chapel Hill for undergrad (at least if you care anything about basketball). But I spent 4 summers as a student at the Duke University Talent Identification Program, better known as TIP, and my 3 weeks spent there each summer definitely stand out in my mind.

It sounds horrible to most people – 3 weeks during summer vacation spent taking an intensive course that would typically last a semester. Although we spent a lot of time in class and studying, in many ways it was like any other summer camp, with time spent goofing off with really interesting and fun classmates from all over the country. I even crossed paths with some of my fellow TIPsters in graduate school!

SciGirls trek into the marshSo what does this have to do with In the Grass, On the Reef? In many ways, nothing. But in some ways, everything. Because one of those summers I took Marine Biology at the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC, and it was there that I fell in love with doing research on coastal systems (and did my first experiment on fiddler crabs!). Admittedly, it still took me a while to figure out how to turn that into a career, but I’m not sure that I would be where I am today were it not for 3 weeks during the summer before 8th grade.

Enter the SciGirls. For the last 4 summers, I’ve been thrilled to participate in the SciGirls summer camp run by WFSU and the National High Magnet Field Laboratory (aka, the Mag Lab), aimed at introducing middle and high school girls to careers in science. Although the SciGirls program is structured differently from the TIP program that I participated in, it provides me an opportunity to share my love of field research with some really amazing girls, and hopefully to plant the seed in their minds that they can turn their love of science into a career too.

This year, in addition to explaining my research to the SciGirls and getting their help collecting data, we talked about the importance of being able to communicate what you’re doing to others. It turns out that explaining research to non-scientists is not something that scientists are trained to do, and it doesn’t always come easy.  So we decided to start early with the SciGirls and see what happens!   As you can see from the video, they quickly grasped what they needed to do and were quite comfortable with the camera. There were some discrepancies among the observations, but hey, that’s why we take lots of data – you can’t always see the overall pattern when you’re only looking at a subset of the information!

The circle is complete. Randall was once the middle school student being led into a marsh for the first time, she is now the one leading middle school girls in. Might this fiddler crab have inspired someone into a career in research?

After a lunch break and a look at the results of our data collection, we headed to the field. This part of the day is always my favorite – watching the girls explore, answering their excited questions, helping them pick up their first fiddler crab, assuring them their shoes / clothes will come clean.  Even a short rainstorm didn’t dampen their enthusiasm. I would venture a guess that when these girls look back on their middle school summer vacation, their memories of SciGirls will be front and center.

For more on the SciGirls’ day at FSUCML, check out their blog.  And check back next week for video of their experiences in the grass (and mud)!

Music in the video by grapes.  In the Grass, On the Reef theme music by Lydell Rawls.

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.