By Sam Andrews
Sam is a marine conservation biologist and ecologist currently based in Newfoundland. When she is not engaged in marine science communication, she can be found studying fisheries management at The Marine Institute, and preparing for her upcoming PhD at Memorial University of Newfoundland looking at marine protected area network design for Atlantic Canada with a focus on connectivity. You can follow her work here.
I didn’t mean to become a marine science communicator. It all started in 2011 when, like all good students, I was procrastinating in front of my laptop. At some point I decided that my procrastination could at least be useful, so I decided to start popping marine science and conservation news stories up on the web. My first post was just a link to a story about a conference going on somewhere in America. I didn’t write anything myself, just posted the link. I carried on doing this on and off for a while, but gradually started adding my own short introduction, a couple of sentences on the link I was sharing here and there. It took another six months or so before I started adding any larger content to my post, but once I started writing a paragraph or two on a story or science paper, I started to get some engagement from the public—simple ‘likes’ and positive comments thanking me for the story at first, but then later people sharing my posts and some questions about the topics I was writing on. I started posting more and more, and with it engagement with the public grew. As far as I was concerned, this wasn’t science communication, this wasn’t working on ocean literacy (that’s for professionals, right?). Even when I was approached by an editor of a professional publication asking if I would be happy to have one of my posts appear in their next issue, I did not think what I was doing was science communication, so when I was commissioned to write my first piece by someone reading my posts for their industry-based magazine, I was a more than a little surprised. This contact lead to pieces being commissioned another publication, and another, and another. Today I’m lucky enough to have pieces commissioned from me on a regular basis.
I still use social media for science communication, though my postings have become much more involved and lengthy, typically focusing on a single paper, species, ecosystem or event. I also use Twitter for sharing papers and ocean-based news, though I do not use it for promoting my own work that much. I’ve also diversified away from purely written communication. I have delivered public presentations, run interactive workshops targeted at scuba divers and snorkelers in conjunction with NGOs, and I have even given a couple of lengthy radio interviews. I have worked alongside a youth service group looking to connect young people with the natural environment and foster greater stewardship, and helped launch a program aimed at bringing ocean literacy through citizen science into schools in my home island of Jersey. I am now contacted by scientists who think their work might make a good story for my audience, and a variety of other people—fishers, ocean users, and concerned citizens—looking for answers or advice on the things they have witnessed or heard about changing in the ocean.
I find public speaking really scary, but it’s a really good skill so I make myself do it. Photo credit: Rodolphe Devillers
I didn’t mean to become a marine science communicator, but looking back, I have. If I can do it, anyone can (yes—even you!). Have some doubts? Sure you do, but don’t let your doubts hold you back from doing what you want.
You think you aren’t a good writer
I’m not a great writer—and I’m a terrible proof-reader (even with the best of intentions). I have gotten better though, and so will you. I still make mistakes (I remember one huge editing mistake in particular), and you know what…that’s ok because we are human and people make mistakes all the time.
You don’t want to be a writer
Besides, who says you have to be a writer to communicate what you want to? There are lots of great ways to engage with people and improve ocean literacy—like helping or giving workshops, public presentations, going to a beach clean and talking to people about the litter they are picking up and why it is a problem, helping a school or nursery with some outdoor programs, starting with just connecting kids to the natural environment. You are a musician—make music. You are a sculptor—create your art. You want to make a short movie—you can start with your cell phone. The point is there isn’t one way to improve ocean literacy but many (apart from me singing—nobody should suffer that). We learn about the world through a variety of different experiences. Whatever you do, it will be very applicable to someone.
There are many different ways you can improve ocean literacy. ”Great Fish for a Change’ is a series of events run by Too Big To Ignore (TBTI) to facitiltate discussions about the value of fish for food security and nutrition over tasty fish (in this case, capelin). Photo credit: Samantha Andrews/The Hobo Scientist (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
You are afraid of being wrong
Carl Sagan once said, “in science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know, that’s a really good argument, my position is mistaken,’ and then they actually change their minds, and you never hear that old view from them again.” No person can have perfect knowledge and even if they did, we are all human and have our opinions. Sometimes you will be wrong and it’s ok to say that you are mistaken. If someone asks you something and you don’t know the answer, that’s ok too. It’s always better to admit you don’t know than make something up.
You are afraid of verbal attacks or harassment
This may very well happen—especially if you start talking about conservation or climate change on social media. By far the most ‘negative comments’ (this is different from constructive criticism) I receive occur when I write anything about climate change. The comments are rarely personal attacks, more climate denial. Ladies in particular may be worried about sexual harassment. Yes it can happen, but it can happen anywhere. Personally the only things close to harassment I have received are comments like ‘nice lady’ and so forth*, and to be honest these are so few especially when compared to the nicer forms of communication. How you handle these or any type of harassment or personal attacks is entirely dependent on you. Some politely ask the person to stop, some argue with the person concerned, some just flat out ignore such incidents. If you do ever feel threatened (and I think that this is rare) then don’t be afraid to ask for help in tackling the problem.
*personally I don’t feel that I have been sexually harassed, but others may feel otherwise. Ideally it would be nice to have all comments focusing on my posts rather than me personally.
You don’t have much time
No worries! Some people put a lot of time into science communication and some put in a little. It’s up to you how much and when you do it. The important thing as far as improving ocean literacy is that you do something. It doesn’t have to be big or flashy. All it needs to be is accurate to the best of your knowledge and fun for you to do.
You don’t know where to start
The answer to this is dependent on what you want to do. There are lots of great resources on the internet with people giving you tips to ‘get started’ on different approached for different methods so I won’t go into much detail here on that, but here are a few personal tips:
- Start—anywhere. It doesn’t need to be for public viewing at this stage. Just have fun, see where it ends up. Remember standing in front of the mirror singing into your hairbrush? Do that.
- Don’t be afraid to connect with people. Ask questions. Most people are super helpful, (though can be just a tad busy). Equally, don’t be afraid to offer help. Build a network and where possible, build a community around you. If you are part of CaNOE you already have some of this (if you aren’t part of CaNOE—join!).
- Create your own opportunities. This needs you to be a little brave. If you want to try your hand at public speaking, ask a local environment group if you can give a talk one evening. Want to get involved with school-aged education? Speak to a teacher at your local school (there may be some paperwork you need for this, but the school can help you with this). If you build it, they will come (especially if you bring cookies to the event).
- Whatever you choose to do, you will be public-facing in one way or another. If you are harsh with people for their opinions (no matter how ludicrous they seem) not only do you back that person into a corner, but you also present an air of negativity. Be polite, be calm, and be humble. You don’t have to take any nonsense if it arises, but always be nice.
Building a network and a community isn’t just important for helping you achieve your goals, but for improving ocean literacy. Photo credit Helpameout/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
I hope that this has helped some of you who have been thinking about getting more involved in ocean literacy to decide to take the leap. If you have any questions you want to ask me I’m happy to help! Feel free to contact me via email (s-andrews[at]live[dot]ca), Twitter (@HoboSci), or via my website. Just remember—have fun!