#MySciComm: Skylar Bayer on saying “yes, and…” to science storytelling on radio, national TV, and beyond

This week, Skylar Bayer responds to the #MySciComm questions! Click here to listen to an audio version, or scroll to keep reading.

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Skylar co-hosting a 2015 Story Collider show in Maine (Photo by Jesse Stuart)

A storyteller specializing in radio, Skylar Bayer holds a Ph.D. in marine ecology from the University of Maine. She is currently a postdoctoral associate at the Downeast Institute investigating population dynamics in mussels. Skylar has appeared on and produced for The Story Collider, and she recently collaborated with Ocean Science Radio to produce the Ocean Lovin podcast series. She has also appeared on Maine Public Broadcasting Network’s Maine Calling about storytelling and scallopsThe Colbert Report, TEDxPiscataquaRiver, and as a contributor for AGU’s The Plainspoken Scientist. Closer to home, she performers at The Corner, and she is currently on the board of Sound Bites. Skylar and her husband host their sometimes-monthly podcast, The Strictlyfishwrap Science Radio Hour, out of WRFR-LP in Rockland, Maine. Connect with Skylar @strctlyfishwrap and on her website.

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, Skylar…

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

Well, as these stories often do, it started off with a blog. And then a national TV show appearance!

I started my online science communication career in 2012, when I began my blog, Strictlyfishwrap . It has been an experimental platform for me. I enjoy writing blog posts, which I did to improve my writing and editing skills. The blog and posting on Twitter were easy to maintain and accessible SciComm options in the remote part of Maine where my Ph.D. program was based.

An incident involving a fisherman friend who accidentally placed a bucket of scallop gonads (from my research project) in the wrong car landed the project in the local paper. However, this story did not mention me or the fact that it was a bucket of shellfish sex organs (it was politely entitled “man loses guts”) so I decided to write a blog post about what really happened. Within 24 hours, a producer from The Colbert Report, Nicole Savini, stumbled across news articles about a fisherman losing his guts and then found my blog. My post was the only source that made a direct connection between me and the gonads, and explained the “scandalous” nature of the samples.

Nicole asked me if I would be interested in appearing on a Colbert Report segment on the incident.

While my university was not thrilled at the prospect, my co-stars Andy Mays (the fisherman) and Gail Garthwait (the professor who had the “wrong car”), and I were excited to appear on The Colbert Report so I enthusiastically said, “yes!”

Prior to the interview, I sought some advice from science reporter Ari Daniel, who would later become a very good friend of mine. A mutual friend of ours from my time at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution had suggested I email Ari and ask for help. Ari graciously offered his time and advice on how to go about preparing for this – asking for questions ahead of time, coming up with sound bites about my research that were true and understandable.

The interview went incredibly well: I spoke in full sentences, I didn’t make anyone at the university look badly, plus it was extraordinarily funny. Everyone at the university was surprised and happy. In my book, this went very, very well and gave me the confidence to take on other science communication challenges.

But, between taping my interview with The Colbert Report and when it aired, something terrible happened.

My dad, who has encouraged me since I was a little kid to become a scientist and thus has been very supportive of my career choices, had a stroke that nearly killed him. I was devastated, and I was looking for ways to cope with my feelings about my dad’s health while struggling with graduate school. I even considered leaving school if it could somehow help my parents.

Then I saw an email about a conference in Miami, ScienceOnline: Oceans, where the science storytelling group, The Story Collider, was holding a show. They wanted stories about the ocean. So I pitched a story about when I went in the submarine Alvin when I was an undergraduate. And they took it!

This experience was particularly important to me because I had been able to call my dad from the submarine while we were a mile and a half underwater. When I presented live, I wrapped up my story with my feelings about how important my relationship with my dad is in regards to science, my dive in Alvin and the trauma of his stroke.

The producers, Ben Lillie and Erin Barker, liked my performance in Miami enough to invite me back to a Boston show (where Ari Daniel was one of the producers!) to tell it again. That’s where it was recorded. Not all stories at these live shows make it to the podcast, but mine did. For me, this was a big deal and, yet again, a confidence booster to my SciComm self-esteem.

I asked The Story Collider if they’d consider hosting some shows in Maine because of all the interesting science stories I knew were hiding there. They countered by asking me to co-produce the shows.

I was a bit concerned – I had no idea what producing involved. But, I said yes. Producing a show involved arranging venues, recruiting storytellers, and coaching storytellers on how to best tell their stories. As I worked on this, I realized that I had a talent for storytelling. And that I really, really liked working with audio media.

After the series of Story Collider shows in Maine, I invested in science communication training and practice.

I got involved with a local storytelling group in Lewiston, Maine, called The Corner. There, I learned a lot more about telling. I practiced, and I developed relationships within the storytelling community both in Maine and throughout the northeast. For the uninitiated, the storytelling community is just that – people that tell stories. Some consider themselves professionals, some consider themselves amateurs, but once you tell a story, you are a minted storyteller. For those of you that listen to NPR, you’ve probably heard of The Moth Radio Hour, the most famous show about storytelling in the U.S.

To further my improvisational performance skillset, I sought out workshops that were relatively local.

And I started pursuing other science communication methods. Because I love audio, I looked into radio. The local volunteer-based community radio station in Rockland, Maine, WRFR-LP, required only a sponsor to start a radio station. The volunteer coordinator for the station asked me what my show would be about, asked me to pick an available slot and listened in to the first show to make sure it went well. My friend from roller derby owns and operates Hatchet Cove Farm and agreed to be my sponsor for my first six months (the fee is very small and gets the sponsor daily advertising on a local radio station). After those first six months, the Island Institute has sponsored my radio show.

With very little knowledge of what I was attempting, I began The Strictlyfishwrap Science Radio Hour.

I didn’t have recording equipment at home, so WRFR-LP allowed me to record my shows at the studio. I edited at home with the freeware Audacity (which I had learned about at the Science Online: Oceans meeting).

After a while, I bought my own microphone and portable audio recording device, because I wanted to start experimenting with field pieces. I “learned” how to do that by basically trying to emulate field report pieces by NPR reporters like Ari Shapiro. One thing I really like about NPR field report pieces is they often give you a sense of actually being there, in the middle of everything with background noises, and hearing the emotions of the interviewees very clearly. Because it is audio, there’s still an element left to your imagination to visualize the location.

I continue to experiment with audio as a hobby, but I put my radio show on hold this year while I defended my Ph.D. and started co-producing a new podcast – Ocean Lovin.

To make Ocean Lovin, I have been in an immensely rewarding collaboration with Andrew Kornblatt and Samantha Wishnak from Ocean Science Radio. We are making a podcast series all about reproduction in the ocean! We have one more episode to finish, but you can listen to the first five now.

Ocean Lovin was conceived (pun intended) after Andrew inquired about the audio I recorded during the 2016 International Marine Conservation Congress in Newfoundland. I had tweeted about my recordings, and Andrew was interested in the quality of the audio. We also discussed a possible episode interviewing me about my research. As we talked, we realized it would be more fun to do a whole series on how organisms in the ocean reproduce.

Now that I’ve finished my Ph.D., I am continuing both my research as a postdoc and science communication through podcasts and storytelling.

This year I am on the board of a Maine-based storytelling group called Sound Bites. Last weekend, my husband and I started up our radio show again (featuring some Ocean Lovin). We are heading to Brooklyn June 20th to tell the story of how we met for The Story Collider.

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

1. Learn something from improv comedy.

I am a big, big fan of Tina Fey’s Bossypants. Two of her rules in life are from improvisational comedy: a) say yes, and b) say “yes, and…” The “yes, and” part means taking an opportunity and adding to it – carrying it to another level and directing where it goes with the bit of momentum someone has given you. Experiment with science communication forms – not all of them might be for you, but you won’t know until you try.

2. If you want to communicate your science, you have to hang out with your audience.

Figure out who that is – or might be. That means possibly doing activities that do not strictly involve scientists. For example, I played roller derby, and I learned a lot about what interested that audience relative to my research. I also interacted with fishermen a fair amount. Doing so helped me learn about what they cared about, what mattered to them and how they viewed the world. This falls under the advice from the late Steve Schneider, “Know thy audience, know thyself, know thy stuff.”

3. In the world of audio, there are many, many different forms of telling stories. You have options.

There are interview formats, “field report” pieces, compilations, strict single-teller storytelling, multiple-hosts, sound effects – the list goes on. I was told by an NPR producer once that creating NPR segments is maybe half technique, but the other half is based on the creativity of the reporter/producer. So, I recommend figuring out what styles out there you like (do you love Radiolab? The Moth? The TED Radio Hour? On Point or Fresh Air? What about Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me or Car Talk?). Then emulate it a bit, and see if that’s a style that works for you.