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Watch Out World – A Group of Women is Coming to Straighten You Out

Three hundred women. Three hundred women fighting to save our world, our health, and our future. Fighting and sailing.

I had the unbelievable luck to join the ranks of these 300 planet warriors on part of their epic global journey. I never considered myself a fighter, but if fighting means standing up to the industries pumping us full of toxic plastic chemicals, or protecting the health of our children and the lives of ocean animals, then bring it on.

Three hundred women are sailing around the world over the course of two years on a yacht named S.V. TravelEdge, 10 women at a time spread across 30 Legs. Their combined goal? To sample every region of the world’s ocean for plastic pollution so that we can better understand the global distribution of plastic trash – how it circulates through the ocean, how it breaks down, and where it ultimately ends up. All the plastic samples gathered over these two years will be sent to scientists who will analyze the data that could provide unprecedented clarity on the fate of plastics in the ocean, their impacts, and where we should target action.

Finding solutions to plastic pollution is a key aim of this voyage, but it’s about much more than collecting plastic samples. The entire trip is designed and managed by eXXpedition, an organization that is on a mission to help solve the plastic pollution crisis by empowering multidisciplinary all-female crews on sailing expeditions around the world. Participants conduct scientific research, explore solutions and learn how their unique skillsets can intersect the issue. Each leg of the journey is led by a Mission Leader who guides, supports, and motivates the team to realize their internal strengths and articulate what skills and passions they can bring to solving the plastic pollution problem.

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Exploring Antigua

I joined Leg 3, which sailed for 4 days around the waters of Antigua, in the eastern Caribbean. Spending several days in a beautiful tropical setting was certainly special, but the real magic was in the team our Mission Leader Sally pulled together: ten women from five different countries, each with a unique and inspiring story that led them to eXXpedition – and every single one of them a powerhouse in their own way (read more about all of these impressive women on our Leg 3 page).

Take Lara for example: an architect and professor who teaches sustainable design and encourages her students to push boundaries of self-expression – even if it means illegally hanging posters about plastic pollution along one of the busiest streets in Los Angeles. Or Kirsten, a psychotherapist who helps rehabilitate some of the most abused and traumatized people in the world, yet still manages to radiate the most dazzling kindness and joy you can imagine. Oh, and she rescues animals, builds boats, and advocates for mental health policy in her spare time.

Every woman onboard had a similarly remarkable story. Among us were artists, novelists, scientists, sailors, teachers, entrepreneurs, and innovators. Most of us work full-time in addition to volunteering with organizations (or starting our own) and tackling issues we care about. But we all have one critical thing in common – we love the ocean and want to figure out how we can help rid her of plastic.

I would have never imagined how close I would become to nine other women in so few days. We immediately bonded and acted as one unit, a sisterhood held together by respect, enthusiasm, and grit. This bond only grew over the course of our trip. Some of us had no sailing experience, others years’ worth. We all worked together, and our impressive all-female crew (Anna, our captain, Maggie the first mate, and Sophie the deckhand and professional photographer) led us with poise, confidence, and patience.

Those women who were used to sailing on boats with men noted the massive difference in the energy onboard our all-women yacht. In an all-female environment, each of us felt safe to ask questions, we took care of each other, we felt nurtured. And there was always chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate. And laughs, and hugs. It was beautiful.

“Women learn and communicate differently than men; not better or worse, just different,” said Jeanne, who leads a women’s sailing team in Seattle. Her crew was the first all-female team to win the 750 mile Race to Alaska, with no motor, no showers, and no toilets – just a bucket. We all marveled at Jeanne’s harrowing stories of race mishaps and challenges. She was our ship ‘mom’ and sailing queen, teaching us sailing basics with strength and patience, her voice filled with encouragement. Fortunately, S.V. TravelEdge is equipped with two (mostly) functioning bathrooms, tiny but sufficient beds for each of us, and power to run an engine as well as charge all of our devices. But we still felt some of the thrill of being at sea for several days.

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Each evening we were assigned an hour of ‘anchor watch’ for one hour during the night, where we sat on deck with a partner and made sure everything was fine with the boat and that we weren’t drifting off into the open ocean. The night watch pair from the previous hour would wake the next pair up at the end of their shift. I’ll never forget the soft brush on my arm and Jeanne’s sweet, gentle voice whispering, “It’s time to wake up Kristen, the stars are beautiful!” Each of the three nights we were paired with a different team member, three peaceful hours under a tapestry of constellations, the time spent in soft conversation with another kindred spirit.

On our first watch, Leah and I learned of our mutual background in coral reef science and conservation as well as environmental outreach. But I can only hope to achieve as much as Leah has in her life already. She has a master in coral reef ecology, and now teaches high school geography in her home country of Trinidad as well as running both her own ecotourism business and an environmental nonprofit organization. Oh, and she writes a Caribbean travel blog just for fun. Leah’s soft voice and poised demeaner belie the contagious joy and confidence she exudes. I loved spying her make little narrated videos of her experience throughout the voyage that she will no doubt share with her students as inspiration.

Chantal was another magical member of our team. She bounced around the boat like a sprite, every word rolling from her tongue a little gem of poetic truth. During our anchor watch together, I was drawn into her stories of spiritual, intellectual, and creative exploration. As an actor, director, writer, and all-around artist, Chantal’s lens of the world is always tinged with metaphor and symbol. Her ability to communicate these layered meanings to others is an unparalleled gift, one that allows people to connect more deeply with the world around them.

I shared by last anchor watch with Steph at the dark, still hour of 3am. Spending time with Steph is like sitting beside a gently flowing forest stream – she embodies a calming, quiet, yet welcoming nature that make everyone feel at ease. Originally from the Netherlands and now living in the south of France, Steph works in the yachting industry and leads sustainability campaigns in her company. Talking under the stars about our similar histories of pain, anxiety, and healing felt like dipping my feet in cool, rejuvenating water. Our conversation easily flowed from careers, to health, to spirituality. But Steph isn’t all demure; she’s a fiend on the dance floor and loves music! We had one gleeful giggly night of re-working lyrics to Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” into a song about ridding the oceans of plastic pollution. Our entire team ended up learning the song so we could sing it with the elementary school kids we visited at the end of the trip.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Sailboat

There are so few opportunities these days to spend concentrated time with a group of people, talking face to face without cell phones or emails or calls to distract us. Each day of our sailing journey we took time to sit in a circle around the galley table or up on deck, the sparkling turquoise Caribbean waters our backdrop as we learned about each other and from each other, and conspired together on ideas for reducing plastic pollution at several scales. I’ll cherish our shared laughs over Bobby the weird plastic toy we found on our beach cleanup, turning dish-washing into a 90s music dance marathon (pump up that jam!), and fanning each other in a conga line as we prepped meals over a stove in sweltering heat. Our Leg 3 mantra (and perhaps the mantra for the entire eXXpedition) became ‘sailing, science, and sisterhood.’

I didn’t step onboard S.V. TravelEdge expecting to gain 10 new soul sisters, but I left feeling I had. I grew up an only child, so the bond that so quickly grew between our team is all the more special to me, as it’s not something I easily find. Not only did each of the women on Leg 3 bring with them a valuable story and perspective, but we each contributed complementary traits that synergized our individual abilities, like a team of super heroes that combine into one giant, undefeatable foe. And that’s how we felt as we grew to know each other over the course of several days – like individual pieces of a greater whole that only combined could realize our full strength.

On day three we spent an hour sitting in a circle sharing the qualities we most appreciated about each of the others. I found myself sketching a diagram with four corners – air, earth, water, and fire. Within these four extremes I placed each of our team members, based on their dominant qualities.

Air is lightness, an innate joy that uplifts others. I put Kirsten and Leah in this category, along with Lisa, a luxury travel advisor from San Diego who’s enthusiasm is palpable. Any time the crew asked for volunteers to winch a sail, pull a line, or lower a manta trawl, Lisa was the first to jump in – always with a determined smile. She is gung-ho about everything and has a contagious delight for life and adventure.

Earth is grounded, solid, and supportive. I grouped Steph and Jeanne in this corner, as women who act as graceful, nurturing leaders to their peers.

Water is flexible, a far-reaching entity that connects disparate people. Here I placed the ever- flowing Chantal, as well as Jeanine, a multi-talented author, environmental consultant, and outdoor enthusiast. Jeanine is one of those amazing people that can fit in anywhere – she could just as easily hob-nob with top corporate CEOs as she could march on the frontlines with a group of environmental activists or captivate a group of elementary school children with her oratory skills. And she’s done all three!

Fire is strength, boldness, and leadership. There was no question that Lara fit in this category, as did Lindsey, a woman from D.C. who runs her own company that empowers young women and teaches them life skills. She also volunteers with animal rescues and works for a heavy metal festival every year. Lindsey is not afraid to flex her power to achieve her goals – but she does so with empathy and a deep concern for protecting the vulnerable.

Each of us contains some level of each of these qualities, of course, but I found it remarkable that the variety of personalities in our team covered the spectrum and complemented each other so harmoniously. It was nothing less than magic. By the end of our journey, we all felt stronger, more connected, more powerful, and more inspired to go out and take on the world’s problems. I can’t imagine how much more powerful we will feel after all 300 women have sailed. What an incredible network to span the globe.

It’s not ‘party done’ ladies, it’s party just beginning!

Stay tuned for more stories of science and sailing with eXXpedition in the days and weeks to come.

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7 Qualities of a Respectful SciComm Community

This was originally a guest blog I wrote for shareyoursci.com. They’re a great site for science communication resources, so you should go check them out!

The theme for the 2019 Science Talk Conference in Portland, Oregon, was ‘Community’, a fitting topic considering how quickly the field of science communication is growing and evolving.

Science communicators engage with both science and non-science communities, and must be adept at maneuvering between the two. But what about the SciComm community itself? How can we nurture a space where science communicators of all kinds can feel connected and supported in their efforts? The importance of building a strong SciComm community—one that welcomes diversity and practices inclusion—was the focus of much of Science Talk.

Many of this year’s presenters talked about the qualities that they feel define a strong community, and these same qualities were discussed in the workshop I led on the second day of the conference. I’ve distilled these qualities down to seven key components of a successful community, which just so happen to spell out the acronym R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

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1. Representation

Keynote speaker Maryam Zaringhalam addressed the question of who speaks for science head on. “Representation is a big problem in SciComm,” she said, encompassed by sexism, racism, and elitism.

Most people immediately think of Bill Nye when they hear the term ‘science communication’. Many of us have cringed at being called “the Bill Nye of…(fill in the blank)” or “the female Bill Nye”, as if this one well-known (white, male) person sets the standard for what a science communicator looks like and acts like. Nothing against Bill Nye—he’s done a lot for SciComm—but its problematic that other types of SciComm identities and perspectives may be considered less valid or visible in comparison.

Representation is important because we all need to be able to see ourselves in our community, be able to relate to others, and feel confident in our individual identities.

2. Empathy

This is a huge one for me. I believe that a lack of empathy is at the root of many of our societal problems, from political polarization to the detrimental “war on science.”

While as science communicators our goal to responsibly present science by being transparent, and often objective, we must also recognize that we are all driven by personal values. If we can’t acknowledge and respect the values of those we are communicating with, we will likely fail to reach them or build lasting relationships. We need to be able to empathize with others, even if they hold different values than our own.

As many presenters at Science Talk mentioned, being a successful science communicator means being a good listener. Listening to your target community is a big step toward making meaningful connections. Indeed, if you can connect with that community based on some shared values or goals, they are much more likely to be receptive to new ideas. This extends to our own SciComm community too; we should be able to respect that we each have valid experiences and perspectives.

3. Support

We all want to feel supported. How do we create a community where we can effectively support each other? Susanna Harris, founder of The PhDepression website and social media platform, spoke to this in her talk about creating online communities. According to Susanna, a successful community is a place (virtual or otherwise) where you gain something by participating, but also feel responsible for the wellbeing for other people in the community. It’s a place where we lift each other up and feel mutually supported, where we can celebrate our differences while recognizing what binds us together.

4. Protection

I’m not talking about Godfather-style mafia protection, but a strong community should create a ‘safe space’ where its members can be themselves without being judged or harassed. For science communicators, having a strong community means that your peers have got your back when you are attacked by trolls or abusive voices.

Building a community where members feel protected involves creating rules and guidelines for that community that establish a foundation of respect and inclusion. Panelist Sarah Myhre emphasized the importance of creating safer institutions where women, ethnic minorities, LBGTQ+ individuals, and others are free from abuse and prejudice. Without safe communities and institutions to support us, she argued, how can we focus on being successful communicators, scientists, etc.?

5. Equality

In a similar vein, equality is critical to maintaining a community where members feel like they can contribute effectively without bias or prejudice. Many Science Talk participants spoke about their experiences as minorities being blocked by gatekeepers to media, journals, institutional leadership, or other avenues of power controlled by non-minorities.

The tide is slowly turning in some institutions where leadership and participation is diversifying—but we still have a long way to go. Creating a strong SciComm community will require conscious effort toward supporting equality, diversity, and inclusivity; and as Francesca Bernardi and Katrina Morgan (founders of Girls Talk Math) mentioned in their presentation, this in turn will help diversify science more broadly.

6. Connection

A common thread among Science Talk presentations was the important role of storytelling in connecting with your audience. We all have personal stories, and sharing those stories helps us connect with others—whether they are part of “our” community or one we are reaching out to.

As one Science Talk audience member said to panelists, “I want to know your personal story, what got you here, what kept you going. I want you to go beyond reason, and into emotion.”

Hearing how others overcame obstacles (internal or external) to get where they are today helps inspire us and connect us to each other. Many presenters emphasized that a “successful” SciComm interaction means making a meaningful connection. This applies both within and between our communities.

7. Trust

Finally, any community must be built on mutual trust. We must be able to trust that we have each other’s best interests in mind, are willing to support each other, and that our communication is based on integrity. Just as we as individuals want to be considered as trustworthy sources of science information to our audiences, our community should reflect this same trustworthiness by upholding the values we feel are important for respectful scicomm.

Just A Little RESPECT

Feeling supported, connected, and heard are the things that lay the foundation for effective science communication (or effective anything). It was encouraging to hear such wide consensus among SciComm-ers of all kinds about the need for building a community based on mutual respect, where we can boost each other and in doing so boost ourselves and raise the bar for SciComm as a whole.

While the seven elements I outline above are relevant to any community, there are a few additional qualities identified at Science Talk that are particularly important for catalyzing our science communication community: namely, enthusiasm, creativity, and curiosity.

The youngest presenter at Science Talk this year was Parin Shaik, a freshman in high school who participates in the Science & Us SciComm program led by and for high school students. She described how entering the world of SciComm helped her overcome her fears about studying science, and opened up a world where “Sailor Moon and photosynthesis can co-exist!” In other words, SciComm allowed her to integrate her love of art and entertainment with her interest in science. She found her enthusiasm.

“Make your enthusiasm for science contagious.” Encouraged Dianna Cowern, YouTube’s “Physics Girl”, who gave the final keynote address. Her talk galvanized participants into celebrating their curiosity and making it ‘go viral’.

I think this is one of the things that I love most about our growing SciComm community—our common enthusiasm for and curiosity about the world around us, and our passion for sharing what we learn with others. In the workshop I led, participants described their aspirations for a strong SciComm community. You can review the list of aspirations and measurable results we came up with, and even contribute your own, on this google doc. I hope that the ideas captured in this document provide a basis for ongoing conversations about the qualities we want our SciComm community to embody into the future.

I hope we can use the elements of RESPECT to create a space where science and scicomm welcomes everyone. As Maryam said in her keynote, “the greatest asset we have is our community.”

How Can We Overcome SciComm Misconceptions?

What makes someone a science communicator? A science degree? Journalism credentials? A lab coat and penchant for cheesy science humor?

How can we make room for diverse voices and backgrounds to participate in scicomm and feel a part of the scicomm community?

This community has grown exponentially over the last several years, helping reinforce the importance of good scicomm for engaging non-scientists, increasing interest and trust in science, and applying science to societal issues. However, with the rise in scicomm, a number of concerns have popped up (particularly by scientists) about who has a “right” to communicate science, how they should communicate it, and whether science communication is having a positive or negative impact on public perception of science.

In this vein, I’ll be convening a workshop at this year’s Science Talk in Portland, where I hope to encourage reflection on how we can create a supportive and inclusive community while promoting transparent, trustworthy approaches to science communication.

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Do you need to be a scientist to be a science communicator? Can you be a serious scientist if you spend a lot of time communicating? Believe it or not, these are still ongoing scicomm debates.

As a PhD trained scientist who transitioned to a full-time scicomm career several years ago, I still sometimes struggle with feeling a part of the science communication community, and feeling like I have the “authority” to call myself a science communicator. I see others struggle with these things too–like for example, Allison Gasparini, who writes about the difficulty of having the “right” mix of science background and journalism training to compete for scicomm jobs.

On the other extreme, there are super confident non-scientist communicators out there who have no problem self-identifying as purveyors of science to the masses. Some of these folks are writers or journalists who do a great job of digesting and translating science into engaging and useful pieces of communication. Others (knowingly or unknowingly) misinterpret scientific findings, or worse share unverified or false scientific information that mislead the public–whether it be about nutrition, GMOs, vaccines, or what have you.

While most scicommers would agree that scicomm is a critical component of science, it is important to address the concerns of scientists and others about what makes responsible science communication (e.g., citing reliable/verifiable sources, disclosing any biases), and how we can support scicomm-ers in this endeavor.

In my workshop I plan to facilitate discussions around best practices of responsible and effective science communication–principles that anyone, no matter their background or training, can implement to reinforce a transparent approach to science communication. From there I hope to elicit some concrete recommendations on how the scicomm community can support us as individuals to do effective and engaging science communication. I’m excited to hear what misconceptions have most plagued others, and what strategies scicomm folks have for promoting an inclusive scicomm community that values transparency, accuracy, and respect.

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Pssst! What’s the secret to great science communication?

If you plan to attend Science Talk and want to be part of this conversation, I encourage you to join my workshop at 9am on Friday, April 5th. If you won’t be at the conference but want to participate in this conversation, I welcome your thoughts, feedback, and questions via email or social media!

This workshop will be just the beginning of a broad conversation about how to create a supportive, inclusive, and transparent scicomm community–and all voices are welcome. The objective of my workshop is to produce a working document of best practices that can continue to be honed and expanded upon as the field of scicomm evolves.