By Justine McMillan
Justine McMillan is a PhD candidate in oceanography at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She spends her work days thinking about 3T’s: tides, turbines and turbulence. She has dabbled in science communication in both the oral and written forms. Justine was Dalhousie’s winner of the Three Minute Thesis in 2015 where she motivated her research using airplanes and tequila (see for yourself here). She is also this year’s editor-in-chief of Current Tides, a research magazine produced entirely by graduate students (get your copy here).
I’ve been on a few first dates recently and the dreaded question, “So, what do you do for a living?” is guaranteed to arise within the first five minutes. The scientist in me wants to answer:
I am a physical oceanographer. I assess the turbulence levels in a high Reynolds number tidal channel using measurements from both acoustic Doppler current profilers and shear probes.
Accurate and succinct – perfect, right? Unfortunately – as I know from experience – scientific precision is definitely not the starting point for good conversation, especially on a date. Instead, it is usually followed by the statement: “Whoa. You must be really smart.” Then, awkward silence. How am I supposed to respond to that? Is that intended to be a compliment, or does he now think I am a total nerd? Ugh.. fail!
Perhaps, a better answer would be:
I am involved in a research project where we are trying to determine the best location for an underwater turbine in the Bay of Fundy. We go out and deploy instruments from a fishing boat which allows us to measure how fast the currents are at various locations.
Still accurate, yet vague. But – as I also know from experience – much more effective at initiating a conversation. The response is usually, “Wow, that sounds really cool. How did you get involved in that?” Or maybe, “Cool. I’ve read about those turbines in the news. Didn’t one of them get blown to bits?”
My foray into the dating world (among other life experiences) has taught me that good communication is all about knowing who your audience is. And let’s be honest – most of our day-to-day interactions are with non-experts, i.e. people who are intelligent, but who are not necessarily well-versed in the terminology and jargon that we, as scientists, typically use. As a grad student, I’ve written several peer-reviewed papers and delivered numerous conference presentations, but I have received very little training or experience in communicating my research to a broader, non-technical audience. Yet, the ability to summarize complex research ideas in an accessible way is crucial – and not only for the social acceptance of an awkward grad student like myself. Non-experts are often involved in the implementation of scientific policies and the distribution of funding, so if they don’t understand both what you do, and why it matters, then your bright ideas are likely going to remain just that – ideas.
It is this gap in the training of graduate students that a colleague – (now Dr.) Franziska Broell – attempted to bridge three years ago with the production of the inaugural issue of Current Tides. The 36-page magazine, which was written and edited entirely by graduate students, gave authors (including myself) an avenue to describe their cutting-edge research in a fun and engaging manner. The articles are written in a style that emulates “popular science” magazines like National Geographic. The text, which – trust me – was very challenging to write, is supported by plenty of vibrant illustrations and figures that make the content accessible to a broad audience, ranging from high-school students to graduate students, and also from the informed public to research scientists.
Did you know that the high tides in the Bay of Fundy can be compared to the sloshing motion in a bathtub? To find out more, check out my article in the first volume of Current Tides.
The second edition of Current Tides – of which I am the editor-in-chief – is now hot off the press (get your copy here). This year’s edition contains eight articles on topics that range from the classification of whales using underwater microphones to the use of a remotely operated vehicle to study deep sea corals. The articles also describe several ways in which oceanographers collect data: by going on research cruises, SCUBA diving in zero degree water or conducting seemingly endless experiments in a lab. The most significant findings of major research projects are emphasized, however, fundamental scientific concepts are also explained – including the debunking of the myth that toilets flush in the opposite direction south of the equator.
The second volume of Current Tides was released in December 2015. It features eight articles from all four sub-disciplines of oceanography – biological, chemical, geological and physical. In addition to the non-technical writing style, there are plenty of infographics, figures and pictures to help engage and inform the reader.
While the magazine is far from perfect, I am extremely proud of Current Tides as a whole. The articles are interesting, engaging and fun to read. The science is accurate and the graphics are elucidating. The magazine took over a year to produce and benefited greatly from the help of seven editors and the expertise of graphic designer, James Gaudet, of Tandem Creative. Now that Current Tides has been released, I am diving back into the jargon-filled world that encompasses my thesis. That being said, I plan to keep my learned communication skills close at hand so that I can avoid those awkward silences on all future first dates [and maybe even get asked out on a second one]!
A digital copy of Current Tides can be obtained by visiting currenttides.ocean.dal.ca. A hard copy can be acquired by contacting Justine McMillan (justine.mcmillan[at]dal.ca). Financial support for the magazine was obtained from the Department of Oceanography, the Faculty of Graduate Studies, the Dalhousie Student Union and the Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response Network (MEOPAR).