COMMUNICATION

Have you seen the amazing video of Hans Rosling narrating the history of human population growth over the past 200 years? It's the one where he looks like he is physically grappling with his data. If you said "yes," you'll appreciate what I'm up to here. If you said "no," do yourself a favor and check it out (it's linked to the photo below).

I believe there is an important lesson for ecologists and environmental scientists here. And I'm working hard to make my case. I recently teamed up with some faculty from the VCU School of the Arts (one of the best arts schools in the country) to begin an interdisciplinary experiment in broad science communication training. I've dubbed this effort Ecological and Environmental Science Perception version 2.0 (eESP2.0) and it currently has three main objectives. First, I'm trying to identify specific technical skills - digital illustration, video documentary, etc. - that will be most useful to young scientists as they begin to establish their own voice. Second, I want to empower my students with the knowledge that they possess a novel and in-demand skill set. Third, I plan to distribute a complete record of this process.

 
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Richmond Rain Gardens

Richmond Rain Gardens

Tires + Tubes

Tires + Tubes

This project is off to a great start. I've had excellent buy-in and engagement from several Arts faculty. One of them is Local Legend Robert Meganck (Chair of Communication Arts at VCU), who recently taught the first round of a new course on digital illustration and infographic design to seven of the ecology grad students in my program. I'm also working extensively with designer and documentary film-maker Laura Chessin (Graphic Design). We've combined our senior Capstone courses in Environmental Studies and Graphic Design to create student-driven solutions to local environmental problems. Each of my Environmental Studies students gathers info and serves as the technical lead on a project while Laura's Design students create a "brand" or visual identity for the project and help communicate the storyline behind the problem and solution. Links are provided at left to two of the Fall 2014 projects that I was particularly impressed by - Richmond Rain Gardens and Tires + Tubes.

The future is really exciting here. I secured a University seed-money grant to fund the project for two years. And most recently, I led a team of talented, interdisciplinary scholars - half from the Life Sciences and half from the Arts - in preparing and submitting a proposal for a much larger graduate training grant to the National Science Foundation (National Research Traineeship program). This effort is also starting to gain attention beyond VCU. I've been invited to present the concept at several professional meetings, including the 2014 meeting of the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru). I was even invited to prepare a cover feature for Bulletin of the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO). In it, I was asked to re-envision an iconic image from the aquatic sciences for a broad, modern audience. I set my ace science/design student Chris Mason to the task and together, we redesigned Raymond Lindeman's (1941) classic illustration of the food-web in Cedar Bog Lake, Minnesota. A thumbnail of the new image is shown below. Click it to see it side-by-side with the original.