“I’m swimming along the reef on a beautiful sunny day—surrounded by shimmering blue water and one of the last bright orange corals left on this reef. I’m clutching my clipboard and datasheet, just a foot above the reef…concentrating carefully on any small movement that would mean a baby parrotfish is hiding in the seaweed. Suddenly, I feel something that makes the hairs on the back of my neck prickle…”
And so begins one of my absolute favorite stories to tell. I’ve told it many, many times—to co-workers, friends, neighbors. My two young daughters love this story and ask me to tell it again and again.
As a marine ecologist, when I tell someone what I do for my job they often have a lot of questions. What does it feel like to be under the ocean? Have you ever seen a shark? What’s all this I hear about [pollution/climate change/the oceans turning to acid]?
There are lots of ways to answer these questions. In my greener days, I might have rattled off a 5 minute description of the types of data I collect. Or a research study I had recently read about. I’ve even honed a 30-second “elevator speech” about my research. It wasn’t until recently that I thought about the power of telling a story.
At a meeting of science communicators in 2014, I had the great pleasure of watching a group of scientists tell stories in “stand-up” mode. Just them, a stage, and a microphone—not the typical scenario for those of us who spend the majority of our time staring through a microscope or counting fish. Their stories were funny, moving, and exciting. Each scientist connected with the audience on a personal level. The event, with science storytelling training by The Story Collider, was a hit.
As I boarded the plane home, I kept thinking about science stories. What if I started answering those questions I was always asked by telling a story? And what if that story was not only a cool anecdote about something I had seen, but a story with a message?
There are many others who are asking the same questions. People who are doing research on how your brain reacts when it hears a story. Who are asking how storytelling can build bridges and help us appreciate the “why?” of science.
These thoughts expanded as I talked with friends and colleagues at COMPASS and Smith Conservation Fellowship Program. Some of us do research that takes us into places where most people don’t go—like coral reefs. And some of us have seen changes. Changes we feel others should know about. We thought, what would happen if we developed a training that would help us and other scientists use storytelling to share our science messages? These were the seeds of a workshop that was held last summer at the International Marine Conservation Congress, a meeting of marine scientists who are working in a changing ocean.
A group of thirteen scientists, conservation professionals, and science communicators joined together for a two-day science storytelling boot camp. We talked about how to tell a good story and how to weave science into that story.
I’m now thrilled to share a website that hosts some of those stories. This is a small project, but one that I hope will grow. I hope more and more scientists will share what they’ve found through stories. And I hope we’ll continue to use this great tool to tell others—more than just other scientists—what we’ve seen.
As for my story? Ask me anytime to tell it to you. Let’s just say it’s an answer to “Have you ever seen a shark?”