P. Sean McDonald, Lecturer in the Program on the Environment

You can’t help but notice that P. Sean McDonald, lecturer in the College’s Program on the Environment, places a high value on science communication. Not only does he continuously try to build new communication skills for himself, but he encourages his students to do so as well through his course on environmental communication each winter. He even goes so far as emceeing monthly science events at local breweries. We sat down with McDonald recently to better understand why he values science communication, how it relates to his own work and how he helps others become better communicators as well.

You’re a marine ecologist – can you talk about the work that you do?

I’ve always had a love for the marine environment. I got my graduate degree here in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences focusing primarily on aquaculture and fisheries and also invasive species, and so most of my current research is in that vein. It has morphed a little bit over time, bringing in the human component and I really think now about socio-ecological systems. How do humans and the environment interact?

I’m on the Crab Team with Washington Sea Grant doing invasive green crab monitoring with community science. I also do some work in shellfish aquaculture and Dungeness crab fisheries in Puget Sound.  Additionally, I’m working on blue king crab in Alaska. That one is a really interesting system where we’re focusing a lot on management in remote Alaskan villages and how that impacts not only the ecosystem but also the social system.

People play a big role in your work. How does science communication fit in with what you do?

It is pretty integral. With the community science program for invasive green crab it is essential, and it’s two-way because we rely on the public to provide information that will allow us to monitor green crab abundance more broadly. We call it “eyes on the beach, boots in the mud”, and in order to keep people engaged and interested we are constantly in communication in some way, shape, or form. With that program, we’re doing blog posts, we’re doing newsletters, we’re doing public presentations. Facebook and Twitter, social media are really huge for us to make sure that we are providing information to people however they want to receive it.

You clearly have a passion for science communication. Where does that come from?

Most of my early work was perhaps on more esoteric topics. Like many other scientists, I published papers in journals and I might expect, if I’m lucky, maybe 50, 60 people have seen the work, and maybe if I presented it at conferences an equal number have seen it, and that’s great, but it just … it feels like we could be doing more, or at least I feel like I could be doing more.

So communicating more broadly and more generally I feel has opened up information to many different audiences. People are curious about the natural world, but I think more fundamentally if we don’t communicate with the public the science is lost or misconstrued.

How do you strengthen your own communication skills?

I’m always trying to come up with new tools and tricks to aid my students so I’m constantly trying different things. I do a lot of reading, I’ve gotten into improv a little bit, and I try to practice whenever I can. I think part of being a decent science communicator is being willing to just do it on a regular basis.

You work a lot with students. What are they looking for in terms of science communication?

Many of the students that I teach in my course – we call it environmental communication – wouldn’t self-identify as scientists. I think they would identify as people who want to bridge that communication gap [between science and the public at large]. So, part of what we do is build an understanding of how we communicate generally, how we communicate about environmental issues, and how we communicate about science specifically, all the while understanding that the language we use has power and meaning and purpose. We all come into every single interaction with a certain perception of reality, and understanding the perceptions of others is pretty critical for communicating.

When you are teaching your environmental communication course, what are some of your students’ “Aha!” moments?

In the course, we spend a fair amount of time analyzing media representations of the environment. I have the students bring in depictions of the environment and we dissect those. I think many of the students find that pretty enlightening when they see things like car ads or they see ads for products, relatively innocuous products, but then really look closely at how nature and the environment is portrayed. Often times, these depictions have much deeper meaning and there’s a lot going on there that’s below the surface.

Thinking about the course you offer, and the value that is placed on science communication now, where do you hope we’ll be in 10 years?

As a scientist doing SciComm, I’m hopeful that it becomes more commonplace for us to spend a good portion of our work time not only doing science but then communicating it to diverse audiences. I hope it becomes much more acceptable to do that, and that becomes something that is valued.

I also hope to see much more integration between scientists and people who are legitimately good communicators. I think that there’s a real niche for communication professionals to merge with science professionals and to work together and collaborate. Often times I think there’s a missed opportunity because not all scientists have the right tools to be good communicators…just like there’s a lot of communicators out there that don’t have the tools necessarily to do the science. So having those collaborations and making that a much more acceptable and easy process I think is a step in the right direction.

In terms of the public, my hope is that eventually that we give people the tools they need to understand science and to interpret information about the environment that they’re receiving from various sources. That’s what I hope for.