Closing the gap between science and the local community
The value of effective scientific work in undeniable. Things we never could have imagined are discovered from the depths of space to the depths of the ocean. Perspectives of the natural world and the forces that act upon it are shifted. Old concepts that have stood the test of time can be surpassed by new ideas, changing the future of our society. However, true change is not possible without connecting the scientific work with a larger community. Through my experiences while attending the University of South Carolina, I have recognized the importance of this connection, both for advancing the research and encouraging public involvement with conservation and science throughout my Research Pathway.
In the fall of 2020 of my sophomore year at USC, I took the class ENGL 282: Borders in Literature taught by Dr. Evren Ozselcuk to fulfill an Honors English requirement. I’ve always been a fan of fictional books, so I figured it would be an enjoyable class and an excuse to read books outside of my typical comfort zone. However, I did not expect one of the readings to inspire a dream I continue to pursue within my own field of marine science. We discussed the book “The Lives of Animals” by J.M. Coetzee, a work that is considered a metafictional novella that presented a moving discussion of animal rights. I’d never read a novel focused on sparking discussion of current humanitarian and ethical concerns before; reading “The Lives of Animals” opened my eyes to how valuable such writing can be. Coetzee presents an ethical argument through persuasive stories alongside factual information without an intense, condescending tone. One quote in particular spoke to me: “I want to find a way of speaking to fellow human beings that will be cool rather than heated, philosophical rather than polemical, that will bring enlightenment rather than seeking to divide us into the righteous and the sinners, the saved and the damned, the sheep and the goats.”
Figure 1. The cover of “The Lives of Animals”, a book discussed in ENGL 282: Borders in Literature. The writing style and use of facts along with narrative storytelling opened my eyes to the possibility of connecting science with the local community through writing.
This course and book taught me how creative writing can be used to address divides in a social and political aspect. Later in the fall, I realized I had developed a dream of writing my own metafictional novella regarding marine conservation. One day, I hope to write a compelling book that compiles the marine research I have been involved with, alongside those I have collaborated with, to raise awareness of marine life that is often overlooked by conservation policies but are equally important in the ecosystem. A book in this style would connect recent scientific work with a wider audience through compelling stories backed by peer-reviewed scientific work and a cumulation of data.
I first learned the value of outreach while volunteering at the Newport Aquarium in Newport, KY in my senior year of high school. I manned an educational station filled with shark teeth, shark jaws, and informational pamphlets. While guests walked through the tank watching the sand tiger sharks, I would invite them to learn more about sharks and hold shark teeth in their own hands. Through these informal conversations, I learned of how rare it is for people in my home of southern Ohio to see the ocean for themselves. For many, the only place they have ever seen ocean life is in aquariums. The outreach station I led provided an opportunity for them to create personal connections to the misunderstood creatures of the ocean by feeling the teeth and learning of the importance of conservation. Since then, I strive to find creative methods of connecting a wider public with current scientific work and important conservation topics. When I first arrived at USC, I found inspiration for doing so through a student-led organization, Students Engaged in Aquatic Sciences (SEAS).
Figure 2. Picture from an outreach event I organized through SEAS with the Dutch Fork Elementary School. We talked about marine conservation and did a mock oil spill using vegetable oil and different clean up materials!
In the fall of 2021, I became the Education Outreach Coordinator for SEAS. My role was to initiate, organize, and conduct educational events with local community groups to encourage conservation and fascination with aquatic sciences. I held his position until the spring of 2023, where I trained two well deserving undergraduate students with an interest of continuing the connection between the community and science to take over the position. During my time as officer, I organized volunteer events for SEAS members with the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, conducted 4 outreach events with 5th graders at the Dutch Fork Elementary School Academy of Environmental Sciences where we discussed marine life and did an interactive mock-oil spill activity, and held a microscopy workshop to teach basics of microscopy and observing microscopic organisms. Through this experience I learned of creative ways to connect science with the greater community, such as interactive presentations and artwork. Using a novel is another way of incorporating creative outreach with science, similar to how “The Lives of Animals” connected a wider public with the concerns of animal rights.
Through all of these events, I learned the importance of crossing the border between the scientific and the local community and got a glimpse of how vast that divide can be. Even though I was no longer in Ohio, there are still many locals who have never seen the ocean first-hand. I pushed to help people who are not able to see marine life for themselves see a fraction of the beauty that lives in the ocean through educational activities with preserved marine life (shells, urchins, sea stars, and much more) and creative projects. I implemented narrative storytelling strategies from novels discussed in ENGL 282 in educational presentations to engage K-12 students in the topic and emphasize the importance of conservation. I also used the preserved items to give students hands-on experience with marine life to help build a personal connection with the ocean, whether they have felt sand beneath their feet or not.
Another avenue I have discovered that bridges the gap between scientific work and the wider community is art. Since I was a kid, I have enjoyed art in many forms. Drawing, painting, woodwork, I tried it all, though I never considered myself an artist because I never pursued it directly. Through my National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Ernest F. Hollings internship, I learned of how valuable art can be to connect research with the public. For an internship highlight segment through NOAA’s Office of Education, I created a digital watercolor painting of my study organism, the Caribbean spiny lobster. I knew that scientific illustration is a way of broadening research to an audience that is not in the scientific field, but I had not realized until the internship highlights how much awareness art can bring to a topic. Through the internship highlight, I explored creative bridges that can be used to connect scientific work with the community, such as artwork, alongside with narrative writing.
Figure 3. Digital painting of the Caribbean spiny lobster I created for the NOAA Ernest F. Hollings internship highlight. Through this work I learned the value of creative outreach, such as artwork and novels, towards conservation efforts.
When the painting was highlighted on NOAA’s page (link to the highlight here), friends in a variety of fields reached out to ask about my work. From finance to literature majors, I talked with friends about my research in a way that I had never been able to do before. It is easy to get dragged into the small, scientific details of research that make it confusing for anyone who doesn’t study that specific field. But when my art was involved in the conversation alongside narrative writing, people became more interested in learning about my work and the importance of the Caribbean spiny lobster. It also opened a potential connection to this research that will last; when they see a news article about the Caribbean spiny lobster or read about their conservation efforts, I hope they will remember my painting and have a personal connection to the current science. Similar to “The Lives of Animals”, artwork is a creative way of connecting the larger public with specific concerns and scientific work. Through ENGL 282 as well as my digital painting, I have become aware of the true value creative outreach has on closing the gap between science and the community.
Integrating narrative and factual stories with conservation topics and scientific work to my community engagement while at USC and in my future career relates to my pathway of Research due to my ability to expand the importance of research beyond the scientific community. I was able to spread appreciation and desire to learn of marine life to local K-12 schools as the Education Outreach Coordinator for SEAS. These outreach events would not have been as successful and impactful without the implementation of fun stories alongside interesting facts and concerning topics, a strategy I learned of in ENGL 282. Prior to being the Education Outreach Coordinator, I had not recognized the true importance of connecting research with the local community. Scientific work can only go so far without spreading knowledge and passion among people within the community, even if they do not pursue research as their career. From my Hollings internship creative highlight, I learned that narrative writing is not the only avenue for community engagement. Integrating art with narrative writing provided an impactful message of Caribbean spiny lobster research and conservation, opening my eyes to the creative strategies of community engagement with my research. This applies to my pathway of Research because I can implement more creative, engaging avenues of outreach with my research to encourage community interest and involvement. I have done so through my position as the Education Outreach Officer with SEAS, as well as my Hollings internship highlight. I plan to continue to do so in my graduate studies through interactive outreach events, participating in community engagement, and facilitating conversations between local people and scientists regarding the world around us. One day, I hope to cumulate all I have learned through research and public engagement into a metafictional novella to present a discussion of marine life that is often overlooked by conservation efforts. It is a privilege to pursue my dream of marine science.