Communicating Science: A Post-Internship Experience
Updated: Apr 16, 2021
Written by Carissa Cabrera
When I was around 19 years old, I was spending time in office hours with my undergraduate mentor and advisor, Dr. Katrina Mangin. With such a small marine science program, she taught nearly all of my classes. I was talking her ear off about what opportunity to pursue next, when she asked me a very straight-forward question, “what happens to the science if no one understands it?”
Fast forward five years and I had just finished my graduate program in Hawai’i. I was able to focus on marine mammals through management, research, and outreach and discovered an intersectional passion for all of these conservation avenues. Eager to gain more experience in software, I sent an inquiry email to the Marine Mammal Research Program and began an internship in the summer of 2018. I was fascinated with the applications of drones, outside of videography, and the fact that they could help answer questions about Mysticete bioenergetics made it even better. The strong foundation of the lab, paired with the welcoming mentorship from Dr. Bejder, allowed me to explore skills I hadn’t revisited in a long time.
I spent the next year measuring aerial images of baleen whales from a computer, alongside a team of enthusiastic colleagues. You can learn more about that project here. The lessons I took with me from my time at MMRP are still applicable in so many of the projects I work on today: save your work more often than you think, the cost of Dropbox is worth it, and never underestimate the power of a well-organized data sheet.
In the following years, I worked in protected species response, community-based conservation for marine mammals, marine debris removal, and media production. Among those, conservation education always remained a constant. Building bridges between the scientific community and everyone else seemed like a critical piece of the puzzle. I do admit that leading the education for Hawaiian monk seals on both O’ahu and Moloka’i was overwhelming at times. But even on those days, I loved figuring out how to tailor messaging to specific audiences – from tourists to retirement homes. I even found myself publishing a children’s book recently.
All of these experiences brought me to the project I’m working on now – Ocean Connections. With funding from National Geographic, my colleague and I are Principle Investigators for a grant project supporting educators during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ocean Connections is a 5-day curriculum for middle school students that can be taught through distance learning (or in person). With a goal of increasing ocean and climate literacy, each day features a video lesson, group discussion, and applied activity to get students involved in solving the problems our planet faces. The curriculum culminates with a presentation on their daily activities – from designing a social media post, to conducting a waste audit, to writing a letter to an elected official. The idea is not just to teach these hard hitting concepts in a fun way, but to provide a toolkit of skills that students can use forever. Doing that while battling the ever-shortening attention span of middle schoolers was just an added challenge.
On the day we cover mass extinction, students get to dive deep into endangered species and the organizations working to save them. It seemed natural (and completely full circle) to feature the work MMRP is doing to inform conservation management of marine mammals in Hawai’i – from the endangered Hawaiian monk seal (‘Ilio holo i kaua ua) to the humpback whale (koholā). Students get a chance to explore MMRP’s projects, their website, and hear from the graduate students themselves. Researchers at MMRP seek to answer questions about a variety of different species found in Hawaii, with projects studying migrations, acoustics, and gathering baseline information about population structure. The team simplifies their project scope so middle schoolers can better understand what it’s like to be in their shoes as marine biologists. The featured researchers provide students with tips for aspiring marine biologists, in case students watching want to follow in their footsteps. You can watch the video below.
Alongside Cascadia Research Collective, MMRP will be one of the two featured organizations in Ocean Connections. The value these real-world examples will give students cannot be understated.
As for next steps, Ocean Connections is just one product of this new direction towards online learning, working, and collaborating. Conservation education is a critical, and rapidly growing, field of work. I look forward to more collaboration opportunities to inspire ocean stewardship and curiosity around our blue planet in new and engaging ways.
Despite how much has changed in the last year, I still find myself leaning heavily on the relationships I’ve built and the lessons they’ve given me – MMRP included. When the opportunity arises, I hope to offer those same resources to future science communicators. Applying science to complex conservation problems becomes much harder without public understanding. I’m grateful for collaborators like MMRP that see the value in communicating that science, with the shared goal of raising awareness and support of informed management decisions.
Mahalo nui to MMRP for the opportunity to be part of your team, and continuing to be a resource to me for so many years. It was wonderful to share your dedicated work with students across Hawai’i.
If you’re interested in getting Ocean Connections in your classroom, or want to connect over a conservation media project, email firstname.lastname@example.org