#MySciComm: Ariana Sutton-Grier’s Confessions of a Not- Quite-Broadway Scientist

This week, Ariana Sutton-Grier responds to the #MySciComm questions!

Ariana Sutton-Grier photo

Ariana Sutton-Grier leading a field trip to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s “Global Change Research Wetland” site (Photo by Karen Richardson)

Ariana is an Associate Research Professor at University Maryland. She holds a PhD in Ecology from Duke University where she studied how soil modifications and plant biodiversity impact nitrogen removal from restored wetlands. Until recently she was the Ecosystem Science Adviser for the National Ocean Service at NOAA where she worked to connect science to policy in order to solve environmental problems and promote ecosystem conservation. Her research interests include the relationships between nature/biodiversity and human health, coastal blue carbon, and natural and nature-based coastal resilience strategies. She is transitioning to a new position as Director of Science for the MD/DC chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Connect with her at @arianasg1 and suttongrier.org.

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, Ariana…

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

I know that middle school is supposed to be an awkward and terrible time in everyone’s life. But that was not the case for me.

The first reason I loved middle school was THE SPRING MUSICAL! In 6th grade it was Peter Pan, and I was Slightly Soiled, one of the Lost Boys. In 7th grade, I was Meg in Brigadoon. And, in 8th grade I played Rosie in Bye-Bye Birdie. This was a very important time in my life: I realized I really liked public performing, being on stage, and having a lead role.

The second reason I loved middle school was, for the first time, I had lots of science classes to choose from. I remember specifically one class called “Water Works.” In it, we investigated all sorts of hydrological properties including bubbles and how to design boats that would hold a lot of (paperclip) weight.

I was hooked, on performance and science.

And, I pursued science. I did an undergrad degree in Environmental Science and graduate school in Ecology. I loved learning about how the natural world worked. I was also very concerned about threats to the health of the planet, including biodiversity loss and climate change. I learned key skills to be a good scientist, but I didn’t feel as if the research I was doing was going to make a difference. I realized I needed to find a way to make my science more relevant to helping solve, or at least ameliorate, the critical global environmental challenges I was studying.

I loved the science. But, I didn’t feel I was connecting with people or that what I was doing mattered.

Through all this education, I knew I wasn’t leveraging my whole skill set. I didn’t feel fully satisfied with my life in science. Then, late in graduate school, I took a workshop on how to give an effective science presentation and things clicked. The presenter (I wish I could remember his name to give him credit!) explained that I had to think about my presentation as telling a story. He said I had to get the details of my study down to the bare minimum needed to tell a good story. The only slides I should include were those that were part of the story or absolutely necessary for communicating my story to my audience.

The rest of the tips in that workshop reminded me of my dramatic training. In essence, they were: 1) Start by connecting, on a personal note. This will bring the audience into your talk and make them want to know more. 2) Practice transitions (particularly the first few!) so that the whole talk comes off seamlessly. Both of these techniques, the presenter said, help your audience relax – they know you are going to take good care of them.

A light went off in my head! I could use my musical theatre tools to do scientific story-telling.

I immediately went home and overhauled a conference talk I was preparing. At the conference several weeks later, I won a student presentation award. More importantly, I enjoyed giving that scientific talk. I finally felt I was in command of my talk.

I never looked back.

Now, I think of every presentation as telling a story. When I get up in front of an audience, it is as if I am the star of the new hit musical: “Ariana’s Awesome Science!” Okay, so I don’t get to sing and dance. But the energy and excitement I bring to every presentation is similar to what I used to feel when performing in musicals or dance recitals. My audience seems to appreciate this. I get a lot of feedback that my energy is infectious.

Additionally, I end many of my talks by connecting the science back to the broader world. And, if possible, I tie the science into audience’s lives, so they see can see how it matters to them.  I also suggest actions they can take to make a difference based on the science.

Because of this combo of enthusiasm, personal relevance, and actionable ideas, people say they are inspired and hopeful after they hear me talk. This response holds true even when I talk about difficult topics like coastal flooding and other climate change impacts.

Developing my science communication skills is now a life-long pursuit.

For example, a few years ago, I took an “On Camera” training class so that I would be more comfortable answering questions on the fly with media, doing podcasts, etc.

I invest significant time in developing analogies for communicating some of the complex science ideas I often talk about. When I talk about natural carbon sinks (like coastal wetlands), I draw the parallel between a person’s bank account, with monthly or annual inputs and a long-term savings account. I link this financial comparison to annual carbon sequestration and long-term storage of carbon in ecosystems. This story-based approach seems to help people understand both components of the carbon dynamics relevant to carbon sinks.

How do I assess that my storytelling method is working?

I have several indications of the effectiveness.

First, I have asked people to observe the audience carefully during my shorter science talks and report back to me on the behavior. Unlike in many science talks, people do not check their email or get distracted. Observers reported that the audience paid attention during my whole talk, focusing on me.

A second indication is that I always get good questions after my talk. By “good” questions, I mean ones where it is clear (based on the question) that people listened, connected my material to something they care about, and had the desire to ask a question to follow-up. All are signs that my presentation was effective in getting them to listen and think more deeply about the topic.

Finally, after my talks, I typically get a number of emails asking for more info on my research. Even more importantly, I get invitations to give more talks. I have been invited to present at scientific conferences, of course, but also in classrooms, on Capitol Hill, to regional governors in the Eastern U.S., in many different webinars, on the radio, and to federal, regional, and local decision-makers. And then, people in the audience invite me to help communicate to their specific audience about topics like the important role coastal wetlands play in climate mitigation and adaptation.

In all of these settings, I keep in mind that, to some degree, I am a performer.

In framing my science story with the human element in mind, I am able to make it very clear how my science is societally relevant. For example, I aim to help answer questions that are needed to make good policy or management decisions. And, I help my audience think about how my results are relevant to their own lives and decisions. This human framing comes from my desire to make my research useful, to help find solutions to some of our most pressing environmental challenges. But it also means that I can connect my science story to things that people care about. That combo helps make my messages “stick” with people.

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

Well, I have four.

1. Every talk or communication opportunity is a new audience. And, you want your audience to be comfortable, because they will listen more to your story.

Refresh your talk and design it with each audience in mind. Customize the language you are going to use. For example, I can talk about the importance of coastal ecosystems to reduce flood and erosion risk and never use the words climate change.

Keeping the audience listening to you and your story at all times means using few words on your slides. That way, the audience is not trying to read and listen simultaneously (which no one is good at).

It may sound obvious, but like any performance, practice what you are going to say. And make sure to have eaten and (if possible) slept well beforehand, so you are at your best.

End your presentation on a strong note, but make it clear you are done and ready for questions. For me, this is usually something simple such as, “Thank you. I am happy to take questions.” And then I give them a big, friendly smile.

2. Consider taking a training in science communication.

There are lots of opportunities: COMPASS has science communication training available (https://www.compassscicomm.org/) as does the Alan Alda Science Communication Center (http://www.aldakavlilearningcenter.org/). Both specifically help scientists learn to improve how they communicate.

3. Read everything you can on science communication.

For example, read Randy Olson’s Don’t Be Such a Scientist and Cornelia Dean’s Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking with the Media.  I really enjoyed both of these, but take their advice and make it your own as you develop your own storytelling style. What works for one person may or may not work for another.

4. It takes time and practice to develop your own science storytelling style.

So, be patient, have fun, and experiment with what works for you!