Two weeks ago on Earth Day, I was honored to be part of a very special event. Dr. Steven Holzberg (a professor of biology at Folsom Lake College) and I finally saw our brainchild come to fruition: a free, public symposium on the ecological effects of global anthropogenic change.
Considering how difficult it can be to get the general public interested in science during their free time, I feel as though the event was a great success. Students, parents, emeritus professors, and other members of the general public came out to Folsom Lake College with open ears and open minds. Unlike most scientific presentations, there was no professional glory or payment of any kind for my fellow grad student presenters and me, but rather, the event was fueled by our desire to communicate science to a broad audience.
I must say I was surprised when every graduate student I initially asked to help with this event responded so positively. However, I was disappointed to be so surprised by their gung-ho attitudes because I would have expected quite the opposite. In my less-than-a-decade in science, I have noticed that oftentimes the more high-profile one's scientific research becomes, the less the researcher sees the need to communicate it to those outside his/her field. Basically, scientists frequently have trouble seeing the forest for the trees. Recently, I even shared these feelings with a UC Davis professor who responded with his/her hypothesis that “there is an inverse relationship between how big your name is in science circles and how well you present a talk.” I would have to agree, and that realization has been one of the most disheartening ones I've had in graduate school thus far.
That is not to say that there haven’t been some very effective and successful science communicators in recent history. Over the last half-century alone, I can think of a handful of scientists who made science communication as, if not more, important than their science itself.
For example, my childhood love for science was partially sculpted by watching Bill Nye the Science Guy on PBS. Harvard biologist, E.O. Wilson has won not one, but two Pulitzer Prizes for his non-technical science writing. Over the past three decades, Jane Goodall has written over twenty popular and children's science books about the great apes, our species’ closest living relatives. From BBC series such as The Life of Birds and Planet Earth, David Attenborough has become a household name. And fellow New York City native Neil DeGrasse Tyson continues to blow my mind every week with his re-working of Carl Sagan’s classic popular science TV series, Cosmos (watch every full episode here for free).
Considering all that, what does it mean to be a scientist anyway? In the modern age, where communication is instantaneous and necessary for transferring ideas, I feel as though part of being a great scientist should include being a superb (not just an "OK") communicator. Whether that's through writings, presentations, or both, communicating scientific discoveries to a broader audience (scientific and otherwise) is as critical as the discovery itself.
There's certainly a place in science for individuals who devise incredibly complicated laws and techniques, using these to generate discoveries within science, but all the while are totally helpless communicating their findings to anyone outside their highly-specialized sub-discipline. I think of those people as "brilliant" or "genius," and would say that those types don't even fit in to my holistic definition of what a scientist should be. In my view, a scientific genius can be a scientist, but s/he doesn't have to be. Said another way, a scientist can be brilliant, but s/he doesn't have to be. Being an effective communicator is an essential component of what a scientist is, in my mind.
And so, I feel it is fitting on National Teacher’s Day to make a charge to all my friends and colleagues working in science to embrace the teacher in you and display your science to the world. What’s the worst that can happen? You may even inspire a great future scientist in doing so.
Matthew Savoca holds a PhD in Ecology from the University of California, Davis. His research interests include sensory behavioral ecology, marine conservation biology, and seabird ecology.