#MySciComm: Annaliese Hettinger on loss, childhood, and finding meaning in scicomm

This week, ESA SciComm Section Secretary, Annaliese Hettinger, responds to the #MySciComm questions!

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Photo courtesy of Annaliese Hettinger

Annaliese Hettinger is a marine ecologist and science communicator based at Oregon State University. She holds a PhD in Ecology from the University of California, Davis. Annaliese serves as a Science Communication Fellow at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. She is also the Communications Officer for Oregon State University Women in Science and the Secretary for the Ecological Society of America’s Science Communication Section. Annaliese believes that science belongs to everyone, and uses storytelling to connect audiences with the pursuit of science. Connect with her online @A_Hettinger and here.

The #MySciComm series features a host of SciComm professionals. We’re looking for more contributors, so please get in touch if you’d like to write a post!


Okay, Annaliese…

1) How did you get into the kind of SciComm that you do?

My grandfather provided a place for me to engage deeply with nature as a child.

In the early 1950’s, he took his family on a grand adventure to explore an archipelago in Georgian Bay, Ontario, Canada. Soon after, he purchased his own “tiny rock” upon which he built a small cabin using hand tools. My mother, who became a biology professor, and then my brother and I, spent summers there as children. In a place without electricity or much access to the wider world, we all became well acquainted with and connected to our natural world.

I spent my school years in a small, south-central Texas town along the Guadalupe River, 140 miles upstream from the Gulf of Mexico, and my summers on the Bay. As soon as my mother submitted her students’ grades each May, we’d hit the road, with Grandma, Grandpa, and my brother, for the 2,000-mile trip north.

I grew up in a place defined by the shifting sounds, textures, and colors of water.

I came to feel those colors shift from silver to grey and black, from blue to green to aquamarine. The sound of wind across water and water against rock defined who I became.

Deciding to study aquatic ecosystems was no accident. 

Two months into my first semester as a biology undergrad at Southwestern University near Austin, TX, a rare combination of weather converged over our region. The remnants of a Pacific hurricane plus a cool front and moisture from the Gulf of Mexico generated an epic storm. Weather forecasts under-predicted its magnitude, and the resulting October 1998 flood caused over $1 billion in property damages and killed 31 people.

Twenty-four hours into the storm, I lost touch with my family as phone lines came down and power went out. I filled up my car with loaves of bread and jugs of clean water, and drove, terrified, through countless crossings filling with water – which is exactly how most of those 31 people died. I knew better, but needed to be in my community, with my family.

I made it home, but there wasn’t much I could do to help. I delivered the bread and water to the relief shelter – it didn’t go far. I tried to clean up the mud. Mostly, I drove around the neighborhoods where my friends’ houses washed out. Eventually, my grandfather, who’d lost my grandmother the previous January and everything he owned in the flood, intervened. He sent me back to college. He wanted me to get my PhD and become a professor like my mother.

My mother was a change-maker.

She inspired a generation of students to work hard and use their talents to make the world better in their own ways. I took my grandfather’s words to heart, because I wanted to make change too. I thought that as I scientist I would contribute to how we understand the world, and those discoveries would make a difference. I went back to school and found solace in my own love of science.

What followed was a decade of field and laboratory-based research, and a PhD in Ecology from the University of California, Davis.

During graduate school, my research caught the attention of the local and regional media. I was awarded research grants. I was on the front page of the county newspaper and featured on the evening news. I attended conferences. I published my research.

But, my work felt locked-up – like it was important, but didn’t really matter.

In the last year of my PhD, I lost my grandfather and my mother and birthed my son. I felt at once like the happiest and saddest person in the world.

When I finished my doctorate, more than ever I wanted to make a contribution to my community and the world. I wanted to seek solutions to some of the grand challenges society faced. I had great enthusiasm and was ready to work hard. I was also really confused. Yet I knew then, and believe now more than ever, that science does matter.

I accepted a postdoctoral research position, channeling my grandfather’s tenacity to remain focused on my goals.

Looking for a way to convey my belief that science matters for everyone, I also started working hard to develop my scicomm skills.

I participated in the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry Science Communication Fellowship, and in other training and engagement opportunities. As I practiced and engaged, I learned that when scientists are willing to tell personal stories about themselves, connections can be made that strengthen science-society bridges.

And, I learned a lot about myself, and how I can better serve the world.

I want to support other scientists to engage in their own scicomm. That’s why, among other things, I help curate the ESA SciComm Section’s blog, develop communication resources for scientists, and design workshops for scientists.

Scientific impact is so much more than citation indices and journal prestige yet we don’t tend to measure impact holistically. Science should be shared strategically, and in ways that make sense to our fellow citizens and policymakers, and this should be a part of our scientific impact.

2) What are your top 3 SciComm tips and/or resources?

1. Find your “Why?”

Ask yourself why you want to communicate science. Do you want to share timely research results? Or interesting scientific discoveries? Increase the impact of your own work and the work of your research group?

Sharing why science matters is important. And part of the why is connected to why scientists toil away at challenging questions, why we invest lifetimes learning, through the scientific process, to benefit society and our planet.

Knowing why you want to engage will help focus your goals and increase the effectiveness of your engagement, because you will be able to tailor your communication to your target audiences.

2. Know your interests and talents.

Do you love to write, give presentations, create multimedia storytelling projects, create art? What media is most effective for your preferred type of science communication? Narrowing in on how you want to share science will help you find the right opportunities and audiences.

3. Get training!

Like other #MySciComm contributors, I believe that training makes a big difference in your ability to communicate science. There are a lot of ways to get training and experience, and a growing number of resources available. Check out COMPASS and AAAS for starters.

Reach out. Practice. Let yourself be vulnerable. And, have fun!