How I learned to relax and love outreach.

Guest Blog post by Molly Phillips

My first real exposure to the importance of science outreach was during the introductory lecture in my Human Dimensions of Natural Resource Management course at the University of Florida. Human dimensions is “the study of how people’s knowledge, values, and behaviors influence and are affected by the conservation of wildlife and management of natural resources.” The instructor told us the story of what led to her academic focus in human dimensions. She was somewhere tropical studying frogs and was waist deep in a river being bombarded by human refuse when she had her epiphany: “what did her research matter if the river was so degraded by pollution that all of the biodiversity she was so carefully documenting went extinct anyways?” Of course her research was important, but seeing that polluted river as a graduate student was what led her to changing her focus from ecology to human dimensions.

Her story, and the entire course, definitely had an impact on me. I always knew that the public’s understanding, appreciation, and support of science, biodiversity, and the environment were important, but I think that was the first time I realized that communicating this should be part of our jobs as biologists.

Well, I understood that it was really important, but I remained in the camp of “that is someone else’s job.” I did not focus on human dimensions during my undergraduate education. I figured leave the outreach and communication to the outreaching and communicative types. I was more interested in building my skills in research and, later, in natural history collections, and I thought I could leave the communicating to the folks more naturally endowed with “people” skills.

I moved on from my undergraduate degree to a series of field and lab jobs and eventually to my first gig in a research collection. After spending a few happy years as a collections technician, I decided to go back to school for a Masters in Biology to gain more experience and hopefully widen my career options. During my time in the workforce as well as my time as a graduate student, I still held on to the belief that we as scientists needed to be reaching out to our communities in theory, but I continued to hang out on the sidelines thinking someone else would do a better job than I would. I also began to notice many of my colleagues and mentors felt the same way I did about getting involved with education and outreach. Most agreed that it was an important aspect of a scientist’s role in society but, like me, most of them also made excuses as to why they kept away: they felt uncomfortable or inadequate, they lacked the time, it was not prioritized by their administration as valuable, or they were nervous about interacting with people outside of academic circles — especially the media.

This should be the point in the story where I tell you about my giant epiphany that made me reevaluate my life and switch careers to E&O, but it did not happen like that exactly. It was a gradual shift that began with that awareness in my undergrad years that slowly started to sink in and lead to some behavioral shifts. Being married to an elementary school teacher probably shaped me some. He pushed me to come talk to his classes, and encouraged me to talk to groups even though I did not think I was a very good public speaker. I started volunteering when emails went out asking for judges at science fairs or people to staff booths at outreach events. Also, working for the military helped. My job as a wildlife manager/ecologist on an Air Force base made me realize how vital it was to just be in the room as a scientist in an organization that does not normally have a lot of diversity of thought. If you don’t show up, then that point of view is just not represented. So, I just kept raising my hand even though I was not an “E&O person” and over time I became just that.

Now, there are many people that have formal backgrounds in education, human dimensions, and outreach and I don’t want to diminish their knowledge, expertise, and importance. After all, they are the ones that are conducting the research on how we can communicate, educate, and connect better with stakeholders; they are developing the standards and best practices on how to best work with the diverse communities a scientist may want to reach out to.

Ok, so my point is this. We all need to learn to relax and love outreach. We all know communicating is important, and I would argue it is now, in the era of alternative facts, more important than ever. We can no longer leave the E&O to the educators on staff, and the “people people.” We should be collaborating with educators. It is time we came out from behind our desks and out of the compactors.  All of us – curators, collection managers, collection technicians, and researchers—should look at education and outreach as part of our jobs. It does not have to be a big part, but I argue it should be more prominent than it currently is. Also, it goes both ways. There is a lot that biologists can learn from working with the public. Listening to members of your community and understanding their stance on issues can help you connect with people and make you a more effective educator. It can also make you a better biologist.

The more you practice the better you get, and working with the public and communicating to a general audience are valuable skills. Believe it or not, the public, especially children, can’t wait to learn all about natural history collections. So, look for professional development opportunities like workshops or certificate programs to improve your communication skills, look for educators to collaborate with at your institution or community, and start small, but get out there!

Left to right: Deborah Paul, Claudia Grant, Jillian Goodwin, Katelin Stanely, Randall Singer, Molly Phillips, and Larry Weru volunteer for Florida State University School’s STEAM Day.

Molly Phillips is the Education and Outreach Coordinator for iDigBio (Integrated Digitized Biocollections) at the University of Florida.