Make the First Move: SciComm advice

Today I listened to a panel of Science Journalists at a COMPASS* science communication event.  There is such a thing as bad science journalism, which has created some distrust and fear on the part of some scientists regarding how their research might be translated for the masses. The panel put together 4 accomplished journalists to hear their perspective and to learn advice for how to make sure interactions with science writers turn out as successful as possible.

The fine print: The following are from my notes and don’t represent everything that was covered. Also, I didn’t write down which journalist said what, so these statements may not represent the experience or opinion of individuals on the panel.Those panelists were:

Moderator: Nancy Baron, COMPASS
Journalists:
Chris Joyce—National Public Radio
Ken Weiss – Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting
Erica Gies – Independent Journalist
Lauren Sommer – KQED/NPR

 

Some keys for communication with journalists:

  •             Be enthusiastic.
  •             Use short sentences and ditch the jargon.
  •             Provide the big picture/Context/Why it matters.
  •             Talk about how you got into it, why you are passionate about it.

A big message from the workshop was that researchers should be proactive in the process of getting their research out to journalists.

Even before contacting someone in the press, do some work ahead of time to be able to concisely discuss the context or rationale for the research, and to be able to do so in everyday language (no jargon). To me this sounds not too different from giving an elevator talk, which we should all be able to do anyway.

A contact email is more likely to succeed in tempting a journalist if it stands out. Make the email title catchy or provocative, not boring. Start with the problem or context before the research result. Provide hooks or links to other big stories (even outside of science).

It’s not just about the research. One thing (especially for radio/TV) is to see the discovery happening. Radio likes the sound of the environment, walking through the marsh. That can mean you shouldn’t wait until the paper is out- within reason- journalists don’t care as much about that, the peer-reviewed manuscript is only part of the story and usually not the most interesting part.

Don’t get too hung up on avoiding press because you are worried about scooping yourself with respect to journal embargoes. Obviously if you have research you think has a good shot for one of those top journals, be careful, but there are definitely ways to talk about your research without violating journal policy. Journalists should be willing to hold a story if an embargo does come into play. The opinion of the panel was that most writers would rather start on the story farther in advance anyway since they will have more time to get the story right. Also, on a hot paper, journalists know you will be fielding interviews from many news outlets, so they like to be able to get in before the crush.

How to help journalists get it right:

  •             Be patient! They are not experts in the field.
  •             If you don’t think they are asking the right questions, you can suggest to them what you think the right questions are.
  •             You can ask them to pause during an interview and recap to make sure they are getting the picture.
  •             A writer is more likely to agree to share a particular tricky part
  •             Analogies are great to help with complex topics.
  •             Provide names for other people they can talk with.

 

To deal with controversial topics, you can give them a heads up of people they will hear from with different view points, why they find your work problematic, and why you don’t think they are right.

For talking about uncertainty in science without killing the story, be prepared by determining limits of how far you are willing to go in terms of confidence in your conclusions. Journalists won’t publish a story if it is so filled with caveats there is no message or story. They would rather talk in bold confident terms (their editors even more so). If there is uncertainty, you can still talk about the stakes of knowing the answer, and why continuing to search for the answer is important.  Don’t lead with your caveats.

Final message:

“Journalists are not your partners, but they can be your tools”

 

*Mark Schwartz says: COMPASS is the group that coordinates Science Communication for (among others) the Leopold Fellows, The Smith Fellows, The Wilburforce Fellows and Liber Ero fellows (i.e., ALL  the major ecology/conservation fellows programs interested in fostering engaged science).

Patricelli Teaching Award

Congrats to Gail, who won the Faculty Teaching Award at UC Davis earlier this year (this comes on the heels of the Mentorship award she received several years ago). There’s a full write-up here. Many of the best undergrads in the lab first approached us for research because they took her Animal Communication course. Well deserved accolades, Gail!

 

Additionally, check out the new lab web page, which includes some other honors for lab members.

Summer 2016 Undergraduate Research Opportunities

I spend most of my time on this blog talking about the ups and downs of the field research we conduct in Wyoming. None of it would be worth the time and effort if it weren’t for the dedication of many great UC Davis undergraduates who have help advance the projects over the years. As in most years, we have new opportunities starting this summer to help collect behavioral data from the videos of lekking sage-grouse that we recorded in March and April. Note that we hope people will continue with us into the fall and beyond! Keep reading for more information.

If interested, please email me at ahkrakauer [at] ucdavis [dot] edu   and I can let you know when the next information sessions will be.

Our lab is conducting field studies near Lander, Wyoming, focused on the behavior of a threatened bird called the greater sage-grouse.  Our work investigates how females choose their mates, the importance skills and responsiveness during courtship interactions, and what factors (social, foraging) go into the decisions males make when courting females. These studies provide general insights into evolutionary biology, animal behavior, and ecology, and also inform conservation efforts. Specific questions may include determining male mating success, characterizing male and female behaviors and responsiveness during courtship, identifying and analyizing courtship sounds, and measuring how males court a robotic female during experimental trials. Most opportunities we are advertising involve collecting data from video.  Most students begin by collecting data to support one of these larger questions, and may move into more independent projects in the future.

see our websites for more information:
http://patricellilab.faculty.ucdavis.edu/gail-patricelli/
http://www.alankrakauer.org/

Answers to a few common questions I’ve received:

“I don’t have any experience- is that OK?”
**That’s fine. Everyone begins with a training set before collecting data, so no experience necessary. All we require is basic computer literacy (e.g. some familiarity with MS Excel), focus, and attention to detail.

“Can I get paid for this?”
**Unfortunately this is a volunteer opportunity, and not paid.  Course credit is available, however, and we can be flexible as to how it is assigned (for example, if you do not want to pay for research units over the summer, we can keep track of the hours and you can apply them to your research hours during the fall).  One (1) research credit is about equal to 5hr/week during a summer session or 3hr/week during a regular quarter. Transcript Notation requires 40 hours.

“How many hours per week do you need?”
**We ask for a commitment of between ~6 and 15 hours per week.  You will need to dedicate between 2 and 3 hours per session. These hours can be any time Storer Hall is open, which is about 7:30AM until 6PM M-F. Please ask if you anticiapte needing to come in outside of these times.

“What if I’m only here for the summer?”
**While we would prefer students who could join the lab for more than one quarter, you are welcome to contact us if you can only dedicate a single quarter (or summer) to research. Our ability to support this type of contribution will depend on project availability and the number of other students interested in joining the lab. Note that if you are interested in developing more independent projects with us, we do ask for more than one quarter of commitment.

“How do you choose among the applicants”
**So far we usually have been fortunate to accept everyone who was interested in working here; hopefully that will be true this year as well. Most of the positions we offer do not require previous experience. Interest in the subject matter, scheduling, and willingness to work for more than one quarter are all plusses.

“I would like to do a practicum/thesis/honors challenge. Can I do this here?”
**Possibly. We have had a number of fantastic students conduct capstone experiences here in the lab, some of which have led to scientific presentations and journal articles. Often students start on the more general projects and get their feet wet in the lab for one or more quarters before starting a more independent project. If we don’t already know you, then you’ll need to talk to Dr. Patricelli about a more advanced project first. We can not always guarantee that we have an appropriate project available.

We’d like to meet with interested students.  At this time we will give you more details about our overall research projects and where you might fit into this.   In the mean time, can you tell us more about yourself (you may have already told me in your initial email but this will help me organize everything).  Thanks!

Name
Phone Number
Email

Year in School
Major
Relevant Courses

Briefly describe any previous research experience

Briefly describe how this would fit into your long-term goals (grad school, etc)

Can you work both Summer Session 1 and 2?

How many hours/week would you want to work this fall?

Are you interested in continuing to work this winter/spring?

Given the choice, are you more interested in:
Evolution/Behavioral Ecology
Conservation Biology/Ecology

Further Adventures from Laketown

I’m sitting in our main trailer listening to the rain patter down. It is a rainy Sunday, and we are probably ½ of the way done with packing and clean up. Grouse season is over for us. Andre and Jessica have left for their next adventures, and we’ve literally pulled up stakes and folded our tents.

 

It was a fun and productive last week. We got a few days’ respite from precipitation and were able to squeeze in some last experiments for Ryane’s project. The crew also finished their last vegetation sampling day- against all odds they actually completed samples at all eight of our target leks. Gail and Holly Copeland continued their Sisyphean struggle to get useful noise regulations for sage-grouse habitat in place, and spent a day with some Red Desert Audubon folks teaching 4th graders about birds and what it’s like being a sage-grouse biologist.

Castle Garden Eaglet

On the fun side, we watched the sun set from the 360 panoramic view at Nine Mile Hill, made the annual pilgrimage to the petroglyph area at Castle Gardens in the Gas Hills, and watched The Sagebrush Sea on Stan’s giant TV while eating moose burgers and ice cream. It was an epic week for eating, as we also worked in a salmon chowder from Jessica’s cache of Alaskan salmon, dinner at Cowfish thanks to Ryane’s mother Patti (thanks Patti!), and the end-of-season ‘thank you’ dinner from Gail at Svilar’s in Hudson. And one last pan of my famous buttermilk biscuits too!

Cool folks in a cool room on a hot day

 

Cottontail remained an adventure until the end. Experiments on the left (west) side of the lek remained impossible due to the high water level. Even if we could rig Salt and Peppa to be amphibious, the birds in those areas were all forced from their territories. Many of them simply moved away from the water, and we found them squabbling for new territories above the water line. Others disappeared, and one banded male even showed up on the upper lek.

Sage-grouse contemplating his flooded territory

We got GPS points for the stakes we could get to, and even retrieving the stakes was a bit of an adventure!

Ryane wading out into the mucky water to retrieve our grid stakes and signs

 

The high water did lead to some interesting photo opportunities though!

Trailcams are blowing my mind!

Sunset, another time when the grouse may be courting!

I LOVE that I can still be surprised by the sage-grouse even after 10 years out here. Sometimes it is just a matter of luck, as in having a particularly wet spring and seeing Cottontail lek disappear under the rising waters of the reservoir at the far end of the valley.

Sometimes the surprise comes from a change in our perspective– in the tools we use to observe the birds and the questions we are asking. For example, we just watch birds on the lek in the morning. We know the birds typically arrive just as the eastern sky is starting to brighten, and hang out on the lek for some length of time depending on weather, number of females, etc. Then they go foraging. Our assumption was that very occasionally the birds come in at dusk, and we know that typically around the full moon males will congregate on the lek at night and potentially be displaying for much of the night (they often leave earlier in the morning at that time as if they’ve been working hard under the light of the moon). That pretty much sums up our somewhat naive understanding of the timing of sage-grouse lekking activity.

Trailcams allow monitoring around the clock in all kinds of weather

Thanks to five trailcams on loan from Tim Vosburgh, a biologist with the BLM office in Lander, we are now getting a much more systematic view of when males are present on the lek. We will need some time to go through all the thousands of photos we are getting, but we’ve found a few surprising things already:

Two males at Monument Lek already in a territorial dispute at 6PM

1)   Evening lek attendance can begin a lot earlier than we thought. We thought based on a couple of encounters with birds at dusk that males would not come in until well after the sun went down. Not so! We’ve had some really cloudy afternoons and have had males on before 6PM.

Almost all leks had displaying males after 8PM

2)   Evening lek attendance is very common. I just looked through a sample from about a week of activity from three leks, and I think males were present in the PM pretty much every day on each lek.

3)   (Pending more data) Evening lek activity seems pretty synchronized across leks. My suspicion before was that it might be driven by random attendance of a few males that would then spur more males to join. I was expecting to find patterns where one lek would be active and another would be empty. Based on my quick scan through the photos, I think males on leks may be pretty consistent in how they respond to environmental cues such as precipitation, wind, and cloud cover.

This is a very limited sample of leks right now, and mostly around the full moon. Hopefully next year we can start monitoring more leks and start at the beginning of the season.

And for fun, a couple of other lek visitors: