SMS Open House: Lessons in Science Communication
By Raquel Wetzell
2019-2020 I2F Cohort Member
Former Intern at the Smithsonian Marine Station (SMS) at Fort Pierce
B.S. in Biology and Anthropology, Virginia Commonwealth University ’19
Raquel Wetzell’s Fellowship research was carried out at the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce where she focused on improving the efficacy of probiotic treatments to combat stony coral tissue loss disease.
Oftentimes in the world of scientific research, the most difficulty crops up – not in our experimental design or complicated results – but in communicating our work to the public. Though they should be given equal consideration, scientists are often left to choose between achieving their research goals and connecting with general audiences on why their research is valuable in the first place.
For the Smithsonian Institution, particularly the National Museum of Natural History, this struggle is made a little easier given its location on the National Mall in Washington, DC, which ensures it receives thousands of visitors on a daily basis to facilitate science communication. The same cannot be said for the Smithsonian Marine Station (SMS), a satellite station under NMNH in Fort Piece, FL, where the difficulty of successfully communicating the importance of the research is exponentially higher. The scientists at SMS know this is a challenge and host numerous events throughout the year to engage with the local community. The biggest event of the year is the Open House which aims to reach residents in the local area and make themselves a part of a larger conversation.
On February 20, hundreds of guests turned out to speak with scientists and learn more about the research conducted at this little-known facility. Their levels of scientific literacy varied – from children just getting their feet wet in the world (and on our docks) to other scientists from nearby college campuses looking to explore outside their field of expertise. For the Coral Health and Marine Probiotics (CHAMP) Lab, engaging with this broad audience meant some guests were interested in more than just a quick feeding demonstration. In some scenarios, this might have involved a one-on-one conversations in the corner of our crowded lab space to listen to their environmental concerns – however misguided – and attempt to forge that link between science and the public from scratch.
In the end, bringing awareness to our projects was the easy part. The urgency of coral reef health is a common topic that most audiences in Florida are familiar with. Among the problems plaguing these valuable ecosystems is Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), which appeared off the coast of Miami-Dade County in 2014 and has since spread rapidly along the Florida coast and into other areas in the Caribbean.
The hard part, then, comes with the following questions we had to keep in mind while giving subsequent mini presentations to every guest that visited our lab space: How can the audience link our work on SCTLD into a wider discussion about ocean health and climate change without disciplinary expertise? With confidence, how do you address unknown information and unanswerable questions about your research while securing public trust and support rather than hopeless panic or outright dismissal? And ultimately, what can the audience do to support our research?
The truth is, there are no straightforward answers. Entire careers have been built around science communication and it is increasingly taught as a stand-alone subject. Nonetheless, it is important that we scientists do not wait around for someone to highlight our research for us. We must be active participants in spreading the word about our own work and, little-by-little, remove the wall between science and public understanding.
To keep up with our work at the Smithsonian Marine Station and in the Coral Health and Marine Probiotics Lab, visit our lab Twitter @PolypProtectors.
Also checkout highlights of our work on the website of our own resident science writer, Michelle Donahue.
I2F Internships received Federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center.