#MySciComm: Sara Kuebbing on transitioning from management to research and scicomm about invasive plants

This week, Dr. Sara Kuebbing, of Plant Love Stories*, responds to the #MySciComm questions!

Sara tending her invasive plant seedlings during her dissertation research at the University of Tennessee (Photo by Katie Stuble)

Sara Kuebbing is a plant ecologist and conservation biologist who adores chickadees and mayapples. She is delighted to join the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Biological Sciences this fall as an Assistant Professor. Sara’s most recent #MySciComm adventure is propagating Plant Love Stories, a website devoted to curating and collecting people’s stories about how plants have shaped their lives. Sara runs PLS with a team of other fantastic SciCommers. Connect with her @SaraKuebbbing or via 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, Sara…

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

#MySciComm activities started out with more Comm than Sci.

Prior to my research career, I worked with conservation organizations who were grappling with decisions on how (and when) to manage nonnative, invasive species on their conservation lands. I gave presentations to garden clubs and local libraries to teach people about what invasive plants were and what were good non-invasive alternatives for people’s landscaping. A frequent question after my presentation was: “There are so many nonnative species. How will removing just one or two from my property keep others from coming back?” This was a hard question to answer, especially because, in my professional experience, I had witnessed the re-invasion of managed sites by new nonnative species. I realized from these interactions that I didn’t have the answer to this question.

When I turned to the scientific literature, it wasn’t particularly helpful in answering the question either. This was in large part because I didn’t have access to many of the scientific journals that might have given me some hints. But, it was also because researchers weren’t asking the questions that I, as a manager, thought were important. This realization compelled me to return to school. I researched these questions, and I also made sure that any answers I found would get back to folks like gardeners, landowners, and conservation managers (like myself).

Adding the Sci into SciComm

These experiences instilled in me an appreciation for the variety of ways people gather and embrace information. For my work as a conservation manager, I used peer-reviewed research papers to guide my decisions. But, I also needed outlets to disseminate these decisions to fellow land managers and gardeners.

Even after embarking on a research degree, I remained engaged with conservation managers. I joined the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Invasive Plant Council, a non-profit group dedicated to raising awareness and facilitating information about invasive plant issues in the state. One of my favorite SciComm activities sprouted from an unplanned opportunity during one of our board meetings. A fellow board member, a nurseryman and landscaper, complained that when he spoke to many of his horticultural colleagues, they were unconvinced about the ecological issues with invasive plants in the state. He felt that if we could put a dollar sign on the costs of invasive plants for the state, he might be able to convince his colleagues to care about not selling and planting invasive plants. Seizing on an opportunity to address this issue, I worked with the Board to raise funds to hire a researcher who could gather economic information on the cost of invasive plants in the state.

Our research found that, on average, public and private entities in the state of Tennessee annually spent over $2.6 million on the management of invasive plants in the state. We wanted to make sure that our message reached the largest possible number of people, so we opted to use multiple outlets to communicate our message. To that end, we wrote an article for the journal Wildland Weeds that detailed our methods and findings, and we presented our results at professional meetings. But, realizing that this would only reach so many people, we also designed and published a glossy information pamphlet for our Board member to share with his horticultural colleagues. We widely distributed the pamphlet around the state when we gave presentations or set up information booths at fairs. We even took our message to the Tennessee statehouse to share with representatives the costs of invasive plant management in the state.

This early experience shaped my opinion that a researcher can (and, in many instances, should) communicate their core message through multiple outlets. Although my PhD education trained me to disseminate research through peer-reviewed publications and conference presentations, these professional outlets are not the only way to communicate a message. If I want my science reaching people who don’t have jobs that pay for subscriptions to pricey academic journals or expensive professional conferences, then I need to look to other formats.

I think a great goal for any researcher completing a project is to write the peer-reviewed, scientific paper—serving as the bedrock for their message—and then follow-up with their favorite form of science communication. There are many ways to build out from this base, including a press release, a podcast, a tweet (or ten), a pitch to a magazine or news organization, a blog, or talking to your grandparents or the commuter sitting next to you on your morning bus ride. #MySciComm can take so many forms that I don’t ever feel (or want to feel) pigeonholed into focusing on a specific format.

As a researcher, I continue to do #MySciComm with many media outlets

I have participated in print, audio, and video SciComm pieces. Sometimes I am the driver of the SciComm, and sometimes I am a happy passenger. My past SciComm activities include popular press articles in print and online magazines, interviewing fellow conservationists for podcasts, being interviewed by print and radio journalists about current environmental issues, and giving public lectures. Most recently, I am collaborating with a team to launch the Plant Love Stories project. I dabble across all these media, because I rarely turn down an opportunity to talk about my research or issues that I think are important.

PLS logo by ecologist-artist Bonnie McGill

An unabashed pitch for Plant Love Stories!

Plant Love Stories is my first foray into a planned and long-term SciComm project. Valentine’s Day 2018, a team of conservation scientists (including me) launched a website dedicated to increasing plant awareness. Many (but not all!) of us love plants so much our jobs revolve around studying them. We felt that, in general, people tend to just “see green” and ignore the importance of plants in our lives.

But, from talking to our grandparents and our fellow commuters, we realized that so many people have a connection with a plant that was meaningful in their life. We are collecting and showcasing these stories on our new website, www.plantlovestories.com, to encourage people to think about all the ways plants infiltrate our lives. From our food to our vacations to our hobbies to our homes, plants are there!  Our goal is to publicize the prevalence of plants in our lives to build a broader appreciation for conserving places and protecting resources through people’s individual love stories.

Please visit the Plant Love Stories website to read some of the amazing stories we’ve collected. Even better, think about sharing your story and helping us grow a movement!

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

1. Just Do It!

There are so many avenues for communicating science that you can play to your strengths. Do you like talking to people? Find a Science Cafe or a local community group to present your ideas. Do you like social media? Start a Twitter or Instagram account. Do you like to write? Compose a blog or an article and submit it to your favorite website or magazine. Do you want to be interviewed? Write a press release or op-ed (see below) and submit to your favorite news outlet.

2. People are always looking for content.

Local senior centers, garden clubs, nature centers, and libraries LOVE to host speakers. Bloggers and podcasters are sometimes eager for contributions. Anyone can open a social media account and post to their heart’s content. Just don’t expect your first (or second, or fifth…) SciComm contribution to be a Washington Post Op-Ed, a TED talk, or a presentation to a packed auditorium of 1,000 cheering fans. We all start (and some of us remain) small, and it takes a lot of work and dedication to build your following.

3. Did you know that most institutions have Communication Offices?

I admit that “just doing it” can be daunting. I spend an embarrassing amount of time composing a single tweet (it is not my forte). Some SciComm can be done by a single professional scientist/amateur communicator (I include myself). Some SciComm is better off with professional scientists and communicators collaborating together. In particular, getting the attention of news media outlets is difficult. You can send out op-ed proposals or press releases ad nauseum but never get published. In these instances, I have found that all of my home institutions have talented staff who are TRAINED in communication, journalism, and reaching out to the press. I’ve had great experiences working with communication staff to compose a press release or op-ed pitch. These folks know how to streamline and simplify my science message into a compelling package. They also know how to disseminate and direct these pieces to the correct people. I highly recommend sleuthing out your institution’s communication office and getting in touch when you’re ready to share your science.



*Editor’s note: the Communication and Engagement Section will host a couple of sessions of Plant Love Stories at our booth during #ESA2018! Stay tuned for details about how you can connect with Sara and the other PLS co-founders and share your own plant love story in New Orleans this August!