Writing From the Trenches: My Writing Journey… So Far

I recently guest posted on Scientist Sees Squirrel, a great ecology blog run by Dr. Stephen B. Heard.  So far it was has been a two part roller-coaster-type of affair (as far as science writing can be a roller-coaster-type of affair). Below are the links for both posts on Scientist sees squirrel followed by a snippet of both posts.  Check them out and check out Stephen’s blog, it’s great!

Part 1

“This is a guest post by Joe Drake, a PhD student in the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  Joe’s own blog is The Secret Life of a Field Biologist, and you can email him at jdrake@umass.edu.

Part I:  In Which Our Hero Enters the Wilderness

Do you know what was one of the most stupid things I ever said I could do? Start and then finish an NSF proposal over the course of a winter break.  My advisor and I sat down the day before leaving and hammered out a wonderful conceptual model for our project and eventual proposal.  We created Google docs to work from.  We were excited. We had a great idea. I said that I’d have a draft in two weeks.  I was an idiot.

This isn’t the story of long-ago writing lessons.  This isn’t the story of how I learned to write.  This is the story of a couple of weeks ago and today.  This is the story of how I’m learning to write.  It’s a story full of failures.  Some have already happened; many are yet to happen.  Many readers may have already learned from their own versions of these, or maybe like me, they have just begun to encounter such challenges.  Maybe my mistakes can help you along your writer’s journey*.”

Continue here: http://wp.me/p5x2kS-Dc


Part 2

(Continued) From the trenches: How I’m learning to write (guest post)

Image:The PhD monomyth.  Compare with the monomyth narrative structure, the Hero’s Journey (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero’s_journey).   Adaptation by J. Drake.

This is Part II of a guest post by Joe Drake, a PhD student in the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  Part I is here.  Joe’s own blog is The Secret Life of a Field Biologist, and you can email him at jdrake@umass.edu.

 

Part II:  In which our hero returns…. “enlightened”?

Our story up to now: I am a student learning how to write (and to do science, which involves a batch of writing).  I haven’t been very good at it, and I’m still not that great, but through valiantly misguided (misguidedly valiant?) efforts, I’m here telling you how I’ve started to get better.  Perhaps this will help you too (for more details see part 1).

As a new grad student, I had just traded the world I had learned to know (as field biologist) for a brand new unknown.  I landed myself in the middle of nowhere: Lubbock, Texas.  Far from the areas I had done research.  Far from anything but dust storms, cotton fields, and BBQ (hey, it wasn’t all bad).

I had a very constructive and supportive environment in the Dr. Griffis-Kyle Lab, and thus a soft landing into this unknown.  My lab held writing group meetings and helped me develop good writing habitats alongside people willing to support them. They offered a helpful critique to enhance a well-executed bit or a hand when I fell flat on my face in failure.

My blog continued in bursts and fits and spurts. I tried (and still try, for that matter) to post regularly. I got into science outreach and communication and that lead me to try writing for even wider audiences.  Then I got to participate in different types of seminars that pushed my comfort zones and let me explore the literary side of ecological writing.  I got to present at the Sowell Conference and meet Barry Lopez and other great writers.  I started delving into authors like David Quammen, Rick Bass, Peter Matthiessen, John McPhee, Stephen Jay Gould, and Charles Bowden.  I was inspired and educated more deeply than I could have thought.”

Finish reading here: http://wp.me/p5x2kS-Dx

Thanks everyone and enjoy!

Books you should read before you ever pick up a SciComm book.

SciComm is huge right now.  Some people might even say tremendous.

[Sorry, inappropes, I know.]

There is a wealth of knowledge beginning to be produced and absorbed and applied about science communication.  And the discussion that all of this is producing is truly a forward and positive direction for science practitioners.  But, there’s a problem in the way many of my peers, other students, I have encountered are approaching it.  They approach science communication like it’s a science.  But it’s not*.  I argue, especially after attending an interactive seminar on science communication by Dr. Tim Miller of SpokenScience.com, that by in large, science communication is an art (Art? GASP!).

We are trying to launch into it with methods and it just doesn’t do it justice. We need to know more of the theory behind it and more specifically, how communication feels. You can’t boil it down to an algorithm and as much as we want, we will never always get it right now matter how hard we try.  Communication is a dialogue that gets people intrigued with what you have to say by making them emotionally invested as well. Sometimes someone just doesn’t care either through apathy or just plain having a bad day. although there are ways to ensure success even in the face of an “mentally escaping audience.”

Dr. Miller pointed out that the most important transactions in our lives are still generally done face-to-face.  And I think this super important.  In light of a social media rant from one of my friends, most people don’t know a scientist, or at least the don’t know they know a scientist.  There is the #actuallivingscientist tag, but I think that the most effective way for scientists to make people more aware of science is through face-to-face contact.  In the street, in the bar, at the grocery store, at a panel event, wherever.  We should still do all those other things like blog posts and social media, and articles and interviews, but face-time is still the  .

Full disclosure, before I ended up in the trajectory I am in now, I was heavily involved in the theatre and got a dual degree in both Anthropology and Biology.  The theatre and anthro really helped me gain an appreciation for narrative and the importance of the emotional, random, improvisational, and chaotic nature of effective communication. There are some books I read before I ever picked up a science communication book. The lessons gleaned from these helped me understand and retain the lessons I am relearning for my newest journey.  Even if you have read every scicomm book there is, there is still reason to read these too.  It’ll only help you get better.

Here is a list of some of my favorite books on communication:

  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
    • My Dad, was a mechanic for the Air Force. But once he returned from Vietnam, basically decided to make his own schedule and from that point on has been successfully self-employed.  As I was about to leave for college he told me to read this book, because “No matter where you work or who you work for, you will always be selling YOU.  You must sell you in the interview, sell you in the day to day workplace, and sell you to your bosses, coworkers, and maybe eventually employees.”  Great advice from a great man (although I am a bit biased on that one).  If there is only time to read one book on this list, make it this one.
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
    • Like Star Wars? How about Lord of the Rings? Maybe you like murder mystery instead?  Well the thing they all have in common is the Hero’s Journey.  Campbell was a visionary that described the monomyth and the underlying narrative structure of much of human storytelling.
  • Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer
    • His manual for creative writing is mainly geared for scifi & fantasy, but it is so wonderfully illustrated and informative (with exercises!) that this is a great tool for storytelling.
  • On Writing by Stephen King
    • A more general memoir on the craft of narrative.  It’s kind of a classic.
  • Poetics by Aristotle
    • During the workshop, Tim mentioned that the idea of the realms of science and art being two separate worlds is a recently new phenomenon. But they didn’t necessarily start separated and don’t necessarily need to be now.  Some of the forefathers of science were also the forefathers of art. This is a great example of that notion.

I hope this short list** of texts pull you out of your comfort zone a little.  It will make you a better science writer to have these in the background and as resources. It will also give you some good context when you do start picking up scicomm books.  Remember, it all fits in with the intermediate disturbance hypothesis (ecology nerd joke alert).


* I think, however, that there is actually great benefit to be gained out of this pursuit.  We should study the idea and process scientifically***.  But it isn’t the end all be all approach; it won’t get us all the way there.  It can’t be truly understood through the process of science.  Using a formula to assemble parts that have been derived from studying communication will only get you part of the way.  It may work, but then again, it may fall flat on it’s head if the user can’t read an audience or hasn’t practiced or hasn’t….well you get the picture.

**I would also like to include The Elements of Style, Strunk ; On Writing Well, Zinsser; and Bird by Bird, Lamott, but you have to stop somewhere.

***After you have read the books in this list, I suggest using a great transitional book into science communication by Randy Olson named Houston, We Have a Narrative. Randy actually does wiggle out a fairly simple formula, and after I read this book, I found structuring my stories much easier.

hafoIXK.gifMy work here is done.

(Dis)connected in the desert: New scientific paper published

Hi everyone, just wanted to get the word out that a paper I co-wrote with Dr. Kerry Griffis-Kyle and Dr. Nancy McIntyre has been published in the ESA journal Ecosphere.  I am really excited for this paper to get published, there is a lot of good info in here.  It studies connectivity in the Sonoran Desert focusing on the mule deer and invasive bullfrog as a counterpoint. Some of my experiences and insights from the field and a lot of my Master’s thesis went into this work.

Drake, J. C., K. Griffis-Kyle, and N. E. McIntyre. 2017. Using nested connectivity models to resolve management conflicts of isolated water networks in the Sonoran Desert. Ecosphere 8(1):e01647. 10.1002/ecs2.1652

20160708_143257

Field work studying water chemistry of some artificial and natural water sites.

Its main message is that species across a variety of taxa with experience decreasing ability to move across the Sonoran Desert into the future as climate change changes the landscape. Increases in temperature, changes in vegetation, and drastic shifts in precipitation will increase the resistance that landscape will pose to animal movement.  It will be harder for animals to travel in the desert, especially as fewer natural water locations such as seeps, springs, and rain fed waterholes dry up. The last point is crucial as these watery locations often hold a majority of biodiversity in the area and provide literal oases in the desert for local and migrating organisms.  This is a big deal for management.

If you will forgive me the following jargon filled sentences, there are some secondary information that was important to consider too. We used network analysis and least-cost path analyses, and circuit theory to study connectivity of the desert. During the analysis, we discovered that the scale in which the analyses occurred significantly impacted the results of the connectivity analyses (well duh, right? See figure below).  We developed a framework the suggests using structural analyses using network theory to identify areas inside of our full region connectivity analysis which to rerun all of the analyses over again on a more local scale, thus nesting a “local” scale analysis inside of the context of a region wide analysis.  We felt this was a good way to approach the study and an innovative look at the use of connectivity analyses.

capture2

From Drake et al 2016.

There are some surprising findings about which areas of the Sonoran Desert in the United States will provide refuge in the future too.  But you’ll just have to read it to find that out.  Check it out here (it’s open access so anyone can read it): http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ecs2.1652/full

Thanks for checking it out!

 

Look to art to engage in science…Aka “How does that make you feel?”

I believe in science.  I trust it’s facts, it’s ability to be replicated; it’s ability to be put to the test.

I also believe in art. I trust that it is sometimes unmistakably unknowable.  I know it makes me feel.

If we have learned something from recent world events, it is that the way we feel about a thing sometimes is more important than what we can observe as truth.

My point is science and conservation in this day and age needs to make people feel something.  They have to believe in it.

For example, what do you remember from remember BBC’s Planet Earth or Life documentaries? Do you remember many of the facts from them? ANY of the facts in them? I have watched them a couple times, and what I remember is the feeling the images evoked. The awe, the wonder, the excitement, and yes, even sadness.  Those documentaries were art; they made me feel – and that’s what I remember.

Photos, videos, presentations, popular books, other media, and getting people involved are useful tools that can help spur people to feel about science.  I know I am not writing anything new here.  However, sometimes we forget that our words (as they are interpreted via media outlets) make people feel things.

Much of climate change science suggests scary things: species extinction, economic collapse, disease spread, sea level rise, etc… From different fields associated with biological conservation,  we hear news reports of emerging diseases, biodiversity collapse, and disappearing species we love.  And don’t get me wrong, much of this is scary, with dire implications.  But that can’t be the only conversation we have (with the public), because if it is, no one will want to talk to us.

I understand the scary things make good headlines. But I think that there is good work being done that shows scientific results that make people feel wonder and happiness too.  I don’t expect every scientist to be able to do outreach let alone a BBC documentary, but I feel like there are things we could do that would help on a local scale.  Instead of aspiring to be a Neil deGrasse Tyson of your field and floundering with expectations, actually become the Neil deGrasse Tyson of your lab, department, or community.

Most scientists I have encountered are creative, curious people.  Otherwise they probably wouldn’t have become scientists, those are kinda prerequisites for the job.  I know that in my immediate lab, it contains a woodworker, silversmith, 3 different musicians, a graphic designer, and brewers (don’t judge me for thinking a good beer is art, because it is).

Having been steeped and surrounded in my field for so long, I can no longer remember what it is like to encounter my type of work for the first time.  I don’t know if someone would be engaged, encouraged, discouraged, scared, or what there impression would be.  I do know that I have participated in interdisciplinary art shows that engage audiences to think about the world around in a distinctly scientific mindset. And this was in Lubbock, Texas, so I may state it could be possible anywhere.  After listening to people in the exhibit hall, I heard things like, “I never really thought about that.”, “Oh, that’s pretty.”, “I like that.”  It wasn’t anything fancy, but it did demand that people interpret a rarely acknowledged resource in a new light.  It was instructional to hear people’s feelings about the science-come-art abstractions. It was insight into how they perceived the world around them, specifically the parts of the world I cared about too.

I guess what I want from people is to cross some boundaries (again, nothing new, but come on, when was the last time you did?).  Not just across the university or with another state agency or what not, get into some seriously new territory.  Work with the theatre department to have them teach communication and presentation skills to young scientists.  Reach out to your local art gallery and see if they would host  an installation by scientist/artists in your university.  Use your photography skills to make nature more accessible so that people care more about a local piece of land that protects species and ecological services that they never new existed. Publish a zine about fieldwork or local natural resources conservation issues in conjunction with an undergrad or high school English class and a local bookstore.  Have a second grade class help create a sculpture that can be put in said parcel of land, that also doubles as wildlife habitat (think funky birdhouse installation or whatever you can come up with), or artificial coral reef that they could go and snorkel to and count coral recruitment.  Meet with the local rotary, give a presentation, ask for venues to display work.  Contact local sportmans’ clubs and see if they have any projects that could benefit both parties (river clean up? Use the trash to create that art installation or figure out if they have land you can use for a research project in return).

If we have enough people start  reaching out and engaging locally, whether it is as simple as a social media post of cute wildlife or as complex as involving local NGOs and elementary schools in citizen science and restoration, we can start getting people to feel good about science.  When people start feeling good about science, when what they think about conservation isn’t scary world-ending, species-disappearing headlines, we can get them to care.  Otherwise a lot of people will just though up their hands and walk away.  Even if someone don’t understand a particular topic, we need them to linger, to believe, and to ultimately have trust, like we have, in this adorable monster we call science.

P6210005.JPG

Another adorable monster, look at it!!!!!

P.s. I may be completely wrong.  I often am.  But at least, I think we should try. I think it may just be worthwhile.

Giving thanks… and gifts even when you don’t feel like it.

As you are sitting around at home surrounded by family getting ready for the dreaded Thanksgiving Dinner conversation with extended family that may or may not share your world views, and you are thinking “What am I gonna do for holiday gifts?” or maybe not, but I think you should consider the following [toolongdon’twannareadspoilers: buy park passes and donate to conservation advocacy groups, see below for suggestions and links]….

As you are trying to find common ground across the stuffing this Thanksgiving, remember that most of the people sitting there care about the lands, lakes, and woods (or deserts or mountains).  They just may use different language to show their passion about the environment.  That Uncle of yours that voted a way you didn’t like (whether it was Hillary, Trump, or 3rd party; hey but at least he voted) has probably donated more to conservation this year through hunting license purchases and taxes on his recreational equipment than you have given your entire life.

Most people care about the environment; either you do in a preservation-stand-back-and-look-at-it-way or a conservation-get-your-hands-dirty-sometimes-mess-things-up-but-doing-something-way or a my-folks-have-been-here-doing-things-this-way-type or way.

Instead of going out for Black Friday or buying things for your family likes socks and sweaters and knickknacks and other random stuff I have a couple of suggestions that can actually be liked by the people you are gifting them too, do the environment a solid, protect public access to public lands, and make you feel good.

Gift Suggestions:

  1. Get them a National Park Pass – common, everyone loves the parks.
  2. Get them a pass to their local state park.

 

  1. Ask them to take you fishing or hunting, offer to buy the next year’s license for that particular activity, and learn something from each other (please?). Seriously though, a lot of the funds for conservation programs and habitat restoration that happens in your state probably comes from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and those tax dollars I mentioned.  This goes for nongame species and habitat too!

 

So I hope this gives you some holiday ideas.  It means you can avoid Black Friday. It means you can put your money where your mouth is (a lot of these things aren’t that expensive), and it means you can have some impact for conservation.  It also means you have an opportunity to open a dialogue and become a part of the solution, instead of being part of a division. And here is the even sappier message: you might just learn something new too. Happy Thanksgiving people.  Hope you have safe travels and delicious food.

 

#FieldWorkFind(s)

Now, if you search on Twitter you can find some really cool ecological field work related posts using tags like #fieldworkfail and #fieldworkwin.  Tons of them actually.  But they capture the essence of a moment in time.  I wanted something that encompassed the essence of the thing you find in field work.  This developed from a a week on a the Lower Colorado helping a buddy of mine do some search and recovery of his data loggers after a big rain and flood event in Texas.  We found all types of crazy things thrown up on shore from the flood waters.  Everything from the ubiquitous plastic water bottle to stoves to fishing poles to old department store mannequins and styrofoam heads to entire kayaks and even a small boat in one particular spot.  So while on the water, completely disconnected from the digital world, I thought of the hashtag #fieldworkfind(s).  I thought I was so clever, but when we I hit the internet later that week, low and behold it already existed.

Now, to be fair, there are not that many uses of the singular or the plural.  And from here I would like to steal it for my own purposes.  I define #fieldworkfind to be a hashtag for those unexpected discoveries in the field.  Not necessarily actually pertaining to your field of study, but those odd ball finds out in the middle of the woods.  I know these things are supposed to develop on their own but, low hanging fruit!  For example: while out and about on the river we came across a styrofoam head, half eaten away by flood and boring insects. That bobbing along the water, in the middle of nowhere, is a field work find.  More examples: that ’49 Chevy skeleton with the wildflowers growing out of the engine block in the middle of a wilderness area; a license plate in the stomach contents of a shark; or a .  Another one of my favorites is the creepy half destroyed doll out where no child should be able to make it, like halfway up a sheer cliff.

So calling all field work finds of the wondrous, creepy, exciting, weird, and just plain out-of-place things we see out there in the hinterlands.  Because sometimes science is just plain weird.

P6200731.JPG

Because sometimes we just need someone to talk to on the river. #fieldworkfind

 

New Paper!

Exciting news for me, a new study I am a coauthor on is in press!

It is titled, “A connectivity and wildlife management conflict in isolated desert waters” and is really interesting!  Seriously!  I am excited because it helps shed some light on little known landscape features and how they impact connectivity for wildlife.  It is also a teaser to more work that I am preparing for publication right now.  Check back for updates on that.

Capture

 

Get it electronically at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jwmg.1059/abstract

or check out my research gate profile to request it if you don’t have access to the journal.

And if you are at this year’s IALE conference in Asheville, NC, come find me!  I will be giving a talk related to this paper at 10:40 on Tuesday in the connectivity section.  Hope to see you there!

 

 

 

 

George Orwell’s Rules on Writing

As I buckle down to several writing projects (including my thesis…GAAH!) its always helpful to go back and read some simple, but effective advice:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to
seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of
an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.


These rules come from George Orwell’s essay: Politics and the English Language. These hold true if you are writing political essays to scientific articles.  His suggestion for figuring out how to follow these rules:

“A scrupulous
writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
1. Could I put it more shortly?
2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”

I know I have a hard time writing while following these rules; but to break a bad habit such as bad writing, one must practice.  I suggest reading the full article.  It’s floating around the internet.  Find it and read it to help save yourself and the English language from bad writing.  I know I am trying to save you from my bad writing. Thank me later

 

P.s.  IF you don’t know who George Orwell is or isn’t, then check out his info.  These writing rules actually come from an article that rails against misused language for political rhetoric.  As the political season starts to warm up, it might be a good read for a consumer of writing and political discourse as well as any writer.

P.s.s Here’s the link to an online version of his article. And then go and read 1984.

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Memories of field work fade as writing takes it grip on the unsuspecting grad student.  Goodbye sweet field work.

Memories of field work fade as writing takes it grip on the unsuspecting grad student. Goodbye for now, sweet field work.

Now that you have your current position, its time for you to look for your next job!

So now you are graduated, or an intern at some park, or maybe you landed a coveted paid position, or dun dun dun…. your are finishing your graduate degree (like me).  Now what?  Unless you have a permanent position its time to start looking for a new position. Seriously.  Hopefully I will be able to help you out.  Below will be a list of some of my favorite resources.

But I just started you say? I have five months you say? I can find something later you say?

Too bad. So sad.  Start looking now. That awesome thing you got going now is gonna run out and you better know what happens next. There are only a couple options and I have tried most of them.  It’s either get more education, find a new job, or get out of the game.  I assume most of you don’t want to move on and get a desk job or flip burgers after all that hard work, so that leaves the options of jobs, internships, and more school.  And as you progress in your career some of these really don’t work either (but that is a subject for a later post).

I am going to break it down the resources into three categories: 1) My Favorites, 2) Gov’mnt, and 3) Other Good Stuff.  If I miss your favorite or great resource, I would love to know where you look for jobs.  Leave the links in the comments so everyone benefits!


My Favorites

  • First and foremost for me is: Texas A&M Job Board.  This place has it all, from unpaid internships to tenure professorships.  I got my first job from a listing here. And my third, and fourth. I assume my next position too.  I got the chance to work overseas and across the west.  It is updated frequently.
  • Ecolog: the best list-serv I know about.  It has a lot of stuff from internships, jobs, grad positions, and random other ecology related posts.  This is a great resource, just make sure that if you subscribe, sign up for a daily or weekly digest, otherwise your inbox will get bombarded.
  • The Society of Conservation Biology job board is another great place for every level of jobs in conservation biology.  It has had a facelift since the last time I used it and the interface looks great.
  • OSNA job board or the Ornithological Societies of North America job board.  Even if you aren’t into birds (yet) it is a great place to find opportunities. I originally started as a marine biologist but I got a lot more call backs (and offers) about jobs working with birds.

 Gov’mnt

  • USAJOBS of course.
  • But for us mere mortals (myself included) that have a hard time navigating government applications there is: go government. It is a nonprofit that helps people navigate USAJOBS.  Worth looking at.  From my first impression it has great resources that help you create a federal resume, find agencies hiring students, veterans, and persons with disabilities. Caveat: I haven’t had to use it yet, but plan on using some of its tips in the very near future as I myself start applying for the next round of employment.
  • Many wildlife refuges, parks, national forests, and other agencies will post internship positions on their respective pages.  So if you have an area you are interested in troll the web for there individual job pages.  Its often worth the work since most people are lazy and won’t do the extra effort like you are going to do.  Because you are going to do the extra effort right? RIGHT

Other Good Stuff


I hope this helps someone out there and like I said, leave other job boards and links in the comments so everyone can benefit!  That way people can find there way to jobs and degrees they love.  And end up getting to play and work in a place that makes you happy.

Happiness is working and playing somewhere you love.

The author happy as a clam near 9000 ft. in elevation during an old field season.