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, 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.


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.


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


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.


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.

New Grad Student Advice and Resources I wish I would have known about…

As a new school year starts up and rears its ugly head of opportunity, I wanted to put out some info for new students that I wish I would have found earlier (or that someone else had pointed out to me). For now it is going to be a small list of resources already available. I might get into more specific resources and articles later that others might have found as useful as I have. But today we stick to the short list. Although there are multitudes of lists and resources out there for new graduate students, I feel like it is necessary to create another list. It is a meta-list of such lists.

And by no means is this list comprehensive, but it should be a good start for students looking for answers to common questions or just looking to fall through the rabbit hole and lose some time procrastinating while feeling like they are getting something done. This might get broken up into a couple posts where I will end up discussing not just these resources but more specific articles and books that students might benefit from reading. I am hoping this might end up a separate permanent page on my blog for easy update and reference.

Hope it helps some folks out there. I know the resources I present here have really helped me.

Part 1:

Here are some great resources from people that have already accumulated a wealth of resources:

Dr. Hall of Indiana University (where I attended undergrad) has a wonderful (and it’s pretty) lab webpage [] with resources on the following:

  • Advice on Being a graduate student
  • The transition to becoming a professional
  • Grant writing
  • Getting a job
  • Advice on writing
  • Poster and presentation advice
  • Thoughts on reviewing
  • Teaching advice
  • And lists of other websites of resources including:

The webpage of Dr. Baskett of U.C. Davis [] has an incredible amount of resources that you should check out, including stuff on:

  • Science writing
  • Authorship
  • Peer Review
  • Grant writing
  • Science careers
  • Presenting and assembling talks and posters
  • Teaching

There are a couple blogs with compilations of “How-To” or “Advice” posts that should be consulted for loads of info too:

Dynamic Ecology’s compilation – a project of Dr. Fox of the University of Calgary

eco-evolutionary dynamics – a collaborative blog about ecology and evolution and this is the latest (as of writing this) post in the their “How to” series:

Previous “How to” posts on this blog:
How to pick a study system
How to do statistics
How to write/present your science
How to choose a journal (+ part 2)
How to be a reviewer/editor
How to get into graduate school
How to succeed in graduate school (+ part 2)
How to respond to reviews

One of My PI’s, Dr. McIntyre of TTU has a good page [] with many resources on more specific subjects she is teaching, like:

Landscape ecology:
Community ecology:

But more importantly across these pages they have career link websites, citizen science info, and, other info that could be useful.

Like I said, I hope this helps some folks out there as school starts up and new students are wondering around looking for guidance. There are some great resources listed above. Just don’t go too far down the rabbit hole or you might end up being the one saying, “I’m late for a very important date!” (cheesy but it couldn’t be helped).

Telecoupling and the IALE World Congress Part 2: Tele-whating?

I had arrived at the IALE World Congress (International Association for Landscape Ecology; see my last post to know what that means) early on Sunday, July 5th.  I bustled into the conference room, slurping weak coffee made in that morning’s motel room.  I was desperately searching for more coffee as the other participants trickled in.  I gave up on finding any more coffee just as the meeting preceded to start.  Pulling out my pad and paper, I waited, surrounded by a room full of strangers brought together by one man:  Dr. Jianguo “Jack” Liu, the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at Michigan State University.   We all were here because we were attending a workshop called: Telecoupling Framework for Studying Cross-Border and Cross-Scale Interactions.

Most of the participants at this workshop were here because NASA (yes, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and Michigan State University had singled out the 17 or so of us as promising candidates to contribute to the field of landscape ecology (again, see my last post if you don’t know what landscape ecology is).  That being said, those two organizations had gambled on us by looking at previous work we had accomplished and deciding that we were among some of the best people to thrust a brand new scientific concept upon.  I can only say that I did not feel as if I belonged.  Surrounded by doctoral candidates, post-docs, and agency professionals, I was in the minority and one of the youngest in terms of academic careers.

I have to admit that I didn’t care if I belonged or not.  From childhood I could remember wanting to be somehow associated with NASA.  Seriously, didn’t everyone? I am sure I could look through pictures at my parents house and it wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes to find one that included a space/NASA theme. I was just excited to be participating.  But wait. In what was I participating again?  Being one of the NASA-MSU awardees, I was participating in a telecoupling workshop.  Tele-whating?

Telecoupling is a new scientific concept that addresses the idea of the ever decreasing size of the world because of globalization and how human and natural systems are connected more and more – for better or worse.  And this new concept is the baby of Dr. Liu, the man who brought all of us together at this conference.  He brought us together to try and spread his new concept into different reaches of the scientific world.  And to do this, he had to make us understand what this concept really meant.

“Global Sustainability challenges, from maintaining biodiversity to providing clean air and water, are closely interconnected yet often separately studied and managed” (Liu et al. 2015).  This means biologists haven’t really talked to sociologists all that much and vice-verse.  And this is a problem because the world is becoming more and more connected through environmental and socioeconomic means.  What happens to the environment in one place has an impact to the economy of another.  Human health issues can be impacted by the agricultural or biodiversity changes in another.  These places do not have to be near each other either.  One of the major tenets of telecoupling that Dr. Liu described was that it brings together human-natural interactions across broad distances.

Telecoupling has 5 major interrelated parts: systems, agents, flows, causes, and effects. Systems are the stages in which the human and environment interact.  These could be habitats, countries, or some other abstract spatial, temporal, economic, or social entity.  The parties that act within the systems are the agents.  These would be the multinational corporations, governments, NGOs, your aunt, your dad, you and me.  These agents impact how the materials, services, and information move between systems, i.e. how they flowCauses are why the telecoupled things happen.  And you can not have a cause without an effect.  The effect is the socioeconomic and environmental fallout or benefit of a telecoupling system/event.

From: Liu, J., Hull, V., Batistella, M., deFries, R., Dietz, T., Fu, F., … Zhu, C. (2013). Framing sustainability in a telecoupled world. Ecology and Society, 18(2). doi:10.5751/ES-05873-180226

I have said before that I like examples.  So let us try to work one out using all of these different parts.  Let’s look at palm oil.  It is the worlds largest consumed edible oil.  Recently it has gone under higher scrutiny than it ever has before.  The palm oil industry has a long history that started out in West Africa and today is predominantly grown in SE Asia.  Depending on your perspective, the SE Asian countries and their producers are the sending system and the U.S. and other developed countries and their consumers are the receiving system.  The exchange of money and goods are the flows.  The agents are the governments, farmers, and environmental groups trying to manage different expectations and produce different outcomes.  The causes and effects are reciprocal but identifiable.  Recently, palm oil demand has increased but has been a major cause of deforestation. All those snacks you like to eat that have palm oil in them is helping cut down forests across the world.  That means loss of biodiversity, increase in carbon in the atmosphere, and mounds of other problems.  Because of this consumers have started to demand that business use palm oil that is more sustainably harvested.

I left out one key part.  And this is the part that I think has the most importance for the concept of telecoupling to have big impacts.  That was the spillover system, an idea not to many other scientific concepts incorporate.  In the palm oil example, I have one major example to show as a spillover.  Because of the demand for palm oil and the resulting tropical deforestation, American farmers could be losing a lot of money.  An article from the Economist, postulates that if palm oil producers (sending agent) were held accountable and rainforest conserving policies were enacted (spillover cause) based on these consumer demands (the receiving cause), American agricultural businesses (spillover agent) could expect to net up to $270 billion dollars more (spillover effect) than if nothing was done.

At our meeting we broke up into groups based on our research interests and Dr. Liu helped us start coming up with ideas for new research ideas in our particular areas of study using this telecoupling framework.  I am really excited to be included in this new field.  I think it has a lot to offer based off of its multi-disciplinary and holistic approach. Especially considering how telecoupling framework is adding the idea of the spillover system.  This might be the most important concept that is brought to the table by the telecoupling framework The world is getting smaller and the links that draw us together are getting stronger and stronger.  Telecoupling helps us identify the costs, the benefits, and unintended consequences of the globalization of the planet.  Through this it helps to reach for a more sustainable outcome for the future.

I will try to layout another example in Telecoupling and IALE World Congress Part 3: Avalanches and Watermelon Snow. Next time there will be many more pictures (I promise)!  Before I got to the landscape ecology conference, I spent several weeks backpacking and traveling across the west.  I tried to climb Mt. Shasta in Northern California.  I will try to layout the experience using a telecoupling framework to make it relevant.

I linked several good news articles, webpages, and journal articles throughout this post.  Please check them out for a more in-depth understanding of telecoupling.  Please feel free to email me too. And check back in later for new posts and updates.

I really am truly excited to part of this new field of understanding how human and natural worlds are interwoven.

Telecoupling and the IALE World Congress Part 1: What is landscape ecology?

That title, if you aren’t a landscape ecologist, might appear to be a bunch of mixed up words and random letters.  I will get to telecoupling in a later post so bear with me while I explain what IALE is. It’s the International Association for Landscape Ecology.  This is a professional society that tries to further scientific study in the field of landscape ecology.  That’s now the third time I have mentioned that phrase.  Many of you out there might wonder what it is.  If you are thinking that it means the study of how to landscape stuff, you’re wrong.  But don’t worry, because it is exactly what everyone that I talk to on airplanes and at bars thinks it is too.

So what is landscape ecology? Well it’s a little hard to describe.  I kind of think it’s like art in the way that you “know it when you see it.”  Here is an attempt though from the professionals:  IALE describes landscape ecology as, “the study of spatial variation in landscapes at a variety of scales.”

Okay… so that did not help much.  You are sitting there on the plane next to me thinking, “This guy just said some key words that go together and it still sounds like fancy landscaping to me. I don’t really care anymore.”  And that is because I have not done my job properly.  Lets try again.

A biologist’s job is to study life.  There are microbiologists that study cells and bacteria and things like that.  There are wildlife biologists that study, well, wildlife.  There are geologists that study the nature of the planet itself: how it formed; how minerals and rocks are formed and behave; and things of this nature.  Botanists study plants.  Ecologists study how all of the communities of life (single-celled life, plants, animals and everything in between) interact with each other and how they interact with all the non-living stuff (water, air, soil, sunlight, temperatures, fire, etc…).

Landscape ecology is, if nothing else, interdisciplinary.  It takes all of those things you just read in the previous paragraph and tosses in a couple other things like urban planning, ecosystem services, geography, and even more.  Again from the IALE website, “The conceptual and theoretical core of landscape ecology links natural sciences with related human disciplines.”  To me landscape ecology mashes these things together to try and understand how the distribution of a specific thing across the landscape influences other things and processes.

Picture taken by Joe Drake.

This picture really captures the idea of scale, disturbance, and the effect of human processes on natural systems. These are all parts of landscape ecology.

I like examples to try and explain things.  The following are all examples of what could be covered by the concept of landscape ecology: trying to understand what causes the spatial pattern of different types of forests; trying to understand how the spread of city sprawl will influence agriculture or wildlands; and simply trying to understand why cities, forests, rivers, lakes, deserts, and the other features of the landscape are where they are.

Other areas that landscape ecology covers includes trying to understand how the patterns of living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) parts of ecosystems influence processes in the landscape.  Take this question for example, why are wild fires becoming more frequent and dangerous across the United States?  Related to these types of questions are another area of study under landscape ecology: trying to understand how humans are changing the patterns, processes, and natural systems of the landscape.  And what does it mean for the landscape (and some may argue more importantly what does it mean for us)?

One more big area of study within landscape ecology is trying to understand how scale and disturbance impact the landscapes and the players in that landscape.  Differences in the scale of a disturbance can make a big impact on natural systems. A little fire could be a good thing for a forest, but too much fire across too big an area might end up breaking down the natural systems that organisms rely on.  Sometimes, however, the findings are that you can get away with doing a lot of some activity without too many problems occurring.   Or landscape ecologists might find that even a little bit of another thing has serious and irreversible consequences for animals, plants, and people.  A good example of this type of thing is looking at the difference in ability for animals to inhabit a landscape that is being disturbed by different levels of logging.  Another example would be trying to figure out how the development of new suburbs are going to impact the ability for groups of animals to move between habitat patches?

This is just the most basic of intros.  Hopefully, if you were sitting on the plane next to me, you have not decided that risking death by falling to the earth via an escape through the exit row cabin door is better than listening to me any longer.  If you were at the bar listening to me and have not yet tried to drink enough to forget what I have been saying, there are some good places to find more info.  The webpage for IALE is here.  If you are interested in knowing more, I suggest the Wikipedia page on landscape ecology.  I don’t have time to go over the origin of the this discipline but it is interesting.  Some of the key players in the development of landscape ecology are Alexander von Humboldt, Carl TrollRobert MacArthur, E. O. Wilson, and John Wiens among many others too numerous to mention here.

Next time will be about me and telecoupling. So I guess it will be about you too.  So deal with it.