Leadership

Using Interdisciplinary Research for Community Outreach in the USVI.

Background

During my undergraduate career at the University of South Carolina, I have held leadership positions in collaborative and independent research projects as well as the club Students Engaged in Aquatic Sciences (SEAS). All of these experiences have contributed towards my GLD Pathway in Research and will continue to influence my career beyond my time as a Gamecock. Common threads throughout my academic, scientific, and personal pursuits are the gap between science and the local community and the tendency for less charismatic marine invertebrates to be overlooked by conservation efforts. Charismatic species are popular species that act as symbols and rallying points to promote conservation awareness and action.1 They are typically the larger, more colorful organisms such as sea turtles, dolphins, coral, whales, and sharks. Compared to charismatic species, marine invertebrates are often underrepresented in International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports and national conservation efforts despite representing over 92% of marine species.2 Marine invertebrates are incredibly diverse and play a variety of important roles contributing to ecosystem health, and yet they are generally overlooked by public awareness campaigns and conservation efforts.

One invertebrate that has captured my heart through snorkeling and diving are sea cucumbers. Despite their importance in sediment nutrient cycling, they are typically disregarded as blobs at the seafloor. With my GLD pathway in Research, I have gained knowledge and skills described in my key insight entries that have led me to address the problem of overlooked invertebrates and the divide between science and the public. For example, my Key Insight titled ‘Closing the gap between science and the local community’ described the scope of the gap between scientific work and the public and the importance of working towards bridging this barrier. I have learned of creative ways to bridge this gap throughout my WTC and BTC experiences, such as using metafictional novellas like The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee or interactive presentations I created as the SEAS Education Outreach Coordinator. Furthermore, my Key Insights titled ‘The value of ecology’ and ‘Interdisciplinary work within research’ described the true value of studying ecology in the world around us through using an interdisciplinary approach to form creative, effective, and important research. All these insights have contributed towards a proposed plan to connect the St. Thomas, USVI community with local sea cucumbers through interdisciplinary research, creative outreach programs, and a metafictional novella about underappreciated invertebrates.

Solution

The St. Thomas community highly values conservation of local marine ecosystems, especially considering the tourism and economical support a healthy coast provides. I witnessed this environmental concern firsthand by participating in the Great Mangrove Cleanup of 2022 organized by the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI). 97 volunteers worked together to clean up the St. Thomas mangroves, with a total of 4,450 lbs of trash removed along a half-mile of mangrove shoreline. From this event, it was clear the UVI students and members of the St. Thomas community care deeply about the health of the marine ecosystems they see every day. Considering the emphasis on conservation in the area, as well as the abundance of sea cucumbers across the Caribbean and the research conducted at UVI, the bridge between science and the public can be further built by highlighting the overlooked sea cucumbers.

I propose a three-tiered approach to continuing the connection between the local community and scientific work involving an interdisciplinary research project that: (1) incorporates citizen scientists; (2) hosting a community art workshop; and (3) works on metafictional novella. The scientific communication skills I learned through the ACS Style Guide explained in Key Insight titled ‘Closing the gap between science and the local community’, such as using the active voice during writing, as well as Insect Ecology through the NSF GRFP grant proposal assignment will assist with grant proposals and forming an effective interdisciplinary research project incorporating ecology, biology, and genetics of sea cucumbers. The creative outreach strategies I have learned through leading interactive presentations as SEAS Education Outreach Coordinator and my digital art of the Caribbean spiny lobster for NOAA’s Hollings internship highlight segment will help make the workshop fun, informative, and helpful for raising awareness of sea cucumbers. Finally, I will use what I have learned through informative, creative writings like “There’s a hair in my dirt!” by Gary Larson and “The Lives of Animals” by J.M. Coetzee to incorporate scientific writing with narrative fun writing in a style that helps raise public awareness of underappreciated marine life. While this proposal may seem outlandish, it is entirely possible due to the continued efforts of public outreach by UVI, the local interest in protecting the marine ecosystems they rely on, and the cumulation of skills I have gathered through my key insights in pursuit of the Research pathway.

Plan

1. Interdisciplinary research project.

I will begin by creating an interdisciplinary research project studying the ecology of sea cucumbers in the Virgin Islands in collaboration with the University of the Virgin Islands. The project will involve multiple labs at UVI that focus on varying fields, including genetics and biology. Throughout the project, I will foster involvement from UVI students as well as St. Thomas citizens who would like to contribute to conservation of marine life. From what I experienced during the Great Mangrove Cleanup, there is a large portion of the St. Thomas community who respond and act upon calls for volunteers for conservation efforts. I will distribute advertisements throughout UVI and in popular St. Thomas areas detailing the project and how the community can get involved.

2. Community art workshop

Once the research project is completed, I will organize a community art workshop free to the public. It will be a painting event where everyone paints a sea cucumber within the ocean, and during the event I will share the information we learned during the research project. Participants will be able to ask questions about life in the ocean, helping to foster a general interest in ecology and marine science as a whole. I will also organize a similar workshop within the local middle school to encourage the kids to follow the pursuit of knowledge and always be curious of the world around them. To fund these events, I will work with the Virgin Islands Conservation Society, a nonprofit that directs and aids projects that promote the conservation and restoration of island ecosystems, sustainable development of islands, and awareness of conservation issues.

3. Metafictional novella

When the research project and community art project are all wrapped up, I will work on creating a metafictional novella about ocean life that is often overlooked with a focus on sea cucumbers. Using styles of writing I have seen through novellas such as “The Lives of Animals
 by J.M. Coetzee, I will create a unique story about the underappreciated life within the ocean. That book will eventually be published and available for everyone to read, no matter their background or study. Creating a piece of writing that anyone can absorb and comprehend regardless of their level of involvement in research is a vital part of bridging the gap between science and the public. Nearly all scientific work is peer-reviewed articles, filled with jargon and terms only professionals in the field fully understand. By creating a novel that is appropriate for both researchers and the public, every person can access the same information without the barrier of professional jargon. I will submit the novel to popular non-fiction publishers, such as W.W. Norton & Company and HarperCollins, who (upon acceptance) would distribute the book in stores across the United States.

Evaluation

To evaluate the effectiveness of the research project, I will work with experts in the various fields from a variety of universities during planning of the projects and throughout the process to ensure the research is conducted to the best of scientific knowledge. Requests for advice and evaluation of the project will be distributed at scientific conferences (Ecological Society for America, Benthic Ecology, etc.) as well as social media among active scientific discussions (Twitter and Facebook groups). Implementing advice and evaluation will help prevent mistakes in the methods or implementation of research which can ultimately cause research to be disregarded as inaccurate. To evaluate the effectiveness of the community art project, I will distribute a short survey before and after the workshop with questions related to the participant’s interest in marine invertebrates, their current level of understanding of sea cucumber ecology, and their interest in learning more about marine life. Finally, to evaluate the effectiveness of the novella, I will use reviews of the book on review websites such as GoodReads to assess if the book was impactful and helped open the readers’ eyes to the often-overlooked marine life.

Conclusion

With this three-tiered approach, important interdisciplinary research can be conducted among a community that values conservation and strives to learn more about marine life. This will help reduce the broad gap between scientific work and the public, as well as raise awareness of important marine invertebrates that are typically overlooked. Everything I have learned through my key insights in pursuit of the Research pathway have led to my recognition of the importance of bridging this gap and the ability to create a strategy to contribute to the solution.

References:

  1. Ducarme, F., Luque, G. M., & Courchamp, F. (2013). What are “charismatic species” for conservation biologists. BioSciences Master Reviews, 10, 1-8.
  2. Chen, E. Y. (August 2021). Often overlooked: understanding and meeting the current challenges of marine invertebrate conservation. Frontiers in Marine Science, 8. 10.3389/fmars.2021.690704

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