The importance of outreach and good science communication skills and why I love this aspect of my job!

Doing research is an essential part of the scientific process. In the scientific community, the epitome of valid research is having it published in a peer-review journal. Unfortunately, this is as far as many scientists go.  But what about sharing your research with local communities, i.e., non-scientific audiences, that might be impacted by this research? What about connecting your research to a bigger picture?  For the public to be able to make intelligent decisions in many areas–how to allocate the communities’ budget, what fish to eat, personal choices on use of plastic and other trash—they must be able to understand what is at stake.

Me presenting a poster at Land Sea Symposium in Yachats OR, sharing my research with other scientist and coastal community members. Photo: Cyndy Leoro

However, many in the scientific community have spent decades seemingly separating themselves from the non-scientific community. Scientists use a whole different vocabulary than the average person in an attempt to explain natural phenomena. They use complex statistical analyses to prove their theories, and some may even pride themselves in knowing what is best for the disadvantaged communities that are in need of a scientist’s help. But this is where we have gone wrong. As scientists, we have at times alienated ourselves into a bubble, stopped listening to others without fancy degrees, or have acted arrogantly towards those outside of the scientific community. Furthermore, many scientists find themselves embattled in the publish or perish dilemma, and may not see it as part of their job or even understand the importance of sharing their research outside of the scientific community.

Before I started my PhD at Oregon State, I was unaware of the importance of outreach and good science communication. It was at a NOAA internship at the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries in the Education, Outreach and New Media Division, where I learned what outreach was and its importance. Outreach gave me an opportunity to share my love and passion for the ocean and tell audiences why sea critters are so cool and why ocean resources are worth protecting and why I was so much in love with the work I was doing. In this manner, I also learned to love outreach.

NOAA’s yearly community outreach event. I got to help out and tell the communities about Marine Protected Areas, like National Marine Sanctuaries, and why they are important for Ocean conservation.

Once at Oregon State, I took my first science communication class with COMPASS. After addressing the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) with a call for a “New Social Contract with Science”, Dr. Jane Lubchenco and other like-minded scientists founded COMPASS on the “premise that ocean scientists, in particular, had a wealth of knowledge that was not reflected in public understanding or policy and management practices.” (Lubchenco 1998; Smith et al. 2013). In this class, students are encouraged to use a tool they developed called a message box to hone in on their main message, get rid of the jargon and tell their story (develop story-telling skills). I learned that while I may find my research to be absolutely fascinating, other people might find it more interesting if I tell them my story. In telling my story, I can also tell them about my research. Developing these story-telling skills is crucial for humanizing scientists and making our research more relatable.  If you have ever been to a lecture in college or school, in which the professor drones on and on in a monotone voice on some obscure topic using vocabulary and examples that no one else but him seems to understand, then you have witnessed bad science communication. The difference with a teacher or professor with good science communication skills, is that you fell connected to the topic being discussed and want to learn more. The scientist or professor does not bog you down with jargon or all the nitty gritty details of the research. Rather the scientist or professor may tell you a story related to their research, or take you on a journey that gets the class intrigued on the subject. This skill is the hardest one to develop. Letting go of this jargon and the nitty gritty details of our research may at first seem impossible. As scientists, we are trained to be very cautious in the conclusion we read and specific in the language we use. However, when we communicate our science to general audiences we must learn to forgo that and get the main point across.

Having good science communication skills does not only mean being able to express yourself and explain your research eloquently, but having good listening skills as well. Too many times, scientists have alienated the communities which they wish to help or work with, by not listening to them. Going into a community with open ears and hearing what their concerns and research needs are and how you can help has been shown to result in much more successful collaboration, than going into a community with a mindset that I, the outsider scientist, know what is in the best research interest for you, the lay people.  Local knowledge and wisdom have too often been ignored by many scientists, when they should be complimentary/collaborative to our research.

Kids area always super exited when they get to see and touch marine critters












Combining outreach with good science communication skills can help scientists connect their research with communities that may be affected differently, get public support for their work, inform policy to make the best science-based decisions, increase collaboration opportunities, inspire a next generation of scientists, make a difference, and possibly even get more funding for this research.

I had the great opportunity to teach kids about Marine Protected Areas with a game I created for them

I got to explain to kids what Marine Protected Areas are and why they help fisheries

Personally, I particularly love going to schools and telling kids about the ocean, seeing their face light up with fascination as I show them pictures of odd and beautiful sea creatures and answering their questions about the sea. I love answering questions from my friends about how to make smart choices when it comes to sustainable fisheries and about the health of our oceans’ marine resources. I love it when a stranger on a plane asks me what I do, and I get to tell them about all about some of the cool things I get to do for my research, like going fishing. My goal in life is to make a difference in conservation of ocean resources and ensure sustainable fishing practices so that we can continue to fish for generations to come. I hope that through the outreach work I do and the improved science communication skills I have acquired, I can inspire others to take care of our oceans whether by taking small steps such as helping in local cleanups or using less plastic, or by one day becoming scientists in this fascinating field.

Best part of doing outreach is that I get to have fun, work with amazing people that also love the ocean, share my knowledge, and its a great opportunity to be silly once and a while


Lubchenco, J. 1998. Entering the Century of the Environment: A New Social Contract for Science. Science 279(5350):491–497. American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Smith, B., N. Baron, C. English, H. Galindo, E. Goldman, K. McLeod, M. Miner, and E. Neeley. 2013. COMPASS: Navigating the Rules of Scientific Engagement. PLoS Biology 11(4):e1001552. Public Library of Science.

Week 5: Time Flies When You’re Having Fun!

Where has the time gone? Week five is completed, which means I’m halfway through my internship. This week was especially exceptional. Scott and I have continued our red rock crab surveys with much more success in capturing red rocks than in the past few weeks. I’ve also started on writing up a memo for the cockle experimental methods we’ve been developing and it’s awesome to finally put my scientific writing abilities to the test.

On Wednesday Dean Headlee invited me to come along with him to Hallmark, a fish processing plant. We intercepted two boats—the Apache and the Nel Ron Dic—as they brought in their trawl catches. It was our job to sample these fish (30-50 fish per sample by species). I was excited to handle so many species of fish such as green stripes, ling cod, Dover sole, English sole, big skates, long-nosed skates, yellowtail rockfish, and albacore tuna. We took the lengths (fork or total length, depending on the fish species), weight, sex and stage of sexual maturity, and we also pulled otoliths. After watching Dean pull several otoliths from the fish he let me give it a try and I was actually quite good at it!

Pulling otoliths from the trawl catch

Pulling otoliths, in my opinion, is an art form. If you don’t cut into the right place or know the right place to look you may never find them. However, Dean’s technical lesson of otolith pulling had me removing them like a pro in no time. The majority of the fish that we pulled otoliths from were flatfish. In order to pull an otolith from a flatfish you must first cut along the operculum (gill flap). This is where the art comes into play; you just have to know exactly where on the operculum to cut by doing it yourself and seeing what works, verbal instructions will only get you so far. Eventually, with practice, you just know where to cut into.

Once you’ve cut into the head you must find and remove the otoliths. Typically they sit on the right side of the cut (if you do it correctly). They are very small and in a fluid-filled pouch but once I had practiced on a few fish I could pull them blindly without even needing to see them. We put all the otoliths into individual slots in trays and assigned a number to them so we could age the fish later on.

Rockfish Otoliths (ear bones)

As it being week five, it was time for all the Sea Grant Summer Scholars to attend our mid-summer check-in. Catherine, a fellow scholar, and I drove up to Corvallis on Thursday evening. It was awesome to ride with her as the scholars are pretty spread out through Oregon and we don’t get to interact much with each other.

Friday was the mid-summer check-in. We started off the morning with a presentation about outreach, which was definitely an eye-opener. Our speaker, Shawn, spoke with us on the public’s perceptions of scientists and how the public uses those perceptions to draw conclusions and form ideas and opinions. We also did an activity that helped us to understand how to guide others to conclusions about scientific material so that the information is absorbed.

It was great to finally spend time with my fellow summer scholars. Sunday, before we all parted ways, a few of us grabbed tubes and floated the Willamette. I had never floated a river before and it was such a relaxing experience (though the water was a little chilly!). The backdrop of the mountains as we floated down the Willamette was simply gorgeous; I couldn’t have dreamed up more beautiful scenery myself!

Presenting my work in Coos Bay to the public during OSU’s DaVinci Days.

Picture Perfect!

Sea Grant

Spending time with my fellow scholars!

I was gone for a four day weekend and what do I come back to find on my desk waiting for me? Dead fish to be identified, a bag of shells, and a crab molt. Most people come back to desks piled with paperwork; I come back to dead animals. Life of a biologist, everyone! I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

This week I will be heading to Astoria with Steven Rumrill to do razor clam surveys and I am beyond thrilled! Until next time!