#MySciComm: Becky Barak on how Teaching High School and Loving Plants led to a Research Career

This week, Becky Barak responds to the #MySciComm questions! Becky is a co-founder of Plant Love Stories, which we will be featuring at the Communication and Engagement Section’s booth* during ESA 2018! Please visit us to share your Plant Love Story!

Smiling woman standing outdoors, in autumn (no leaves on the deciduous trees in the background)
Becky at the Chicago Botanic Garden, where she is a David H. Smith Postdoctoral Fellow (credit: Robin Carlson)

Becky is a David H. Smith Postdoctoral Fellow at Chicago Botanic Garden, with collaborations at Michigan State and Purdue, and a plant community and restoration ecologist studying biodiversity and restoration of the midwestern Tallgrass Prairie. She completed a PhD in Plant Biology and Conservation at Northwestern University. Becky’s current work focuses on seed mix design for prairie restoration from ecological and social science perspectives. Becky is a founder of the website Plant Love Stories.  Connect with Becky on her website and @BeckSamBar.

The #MySciComm series features a host of #SciComm and #SciEngage professionals. We welcome new contributors, so please get in touch if you’d like to write a post!

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Okay, Becky…

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

While I loved to feed the animals and take care of the plants in the science room as a kid, I also got kicked out of class pretty regularly for being too “chatty”.

But, I’ve come to realize that communication is one of my greatest strengths. And it’s not just that I like talking (though I do). I also love to hear other people’s stories and learn about their experiences and ways of seeing the world. Alongside my chattiness, I was always enamored by science and nature. For the fifth grade science fair, a friend and I played music to plants to see if that impacted their growth. If I remember correctly (and I definitely don’t), they loved Mariah Carey – it was the mid-90’s after all. I kept on loving animals and plants, but it wasn’t until AP Biology class in high school when I first learned that ecology – studying living things and the ways they interact with their environment – is a real science. In AP bio I was interested in learning about animal behavior, and I seemed to be a bit more excited than my classmates for the units on plants and fungi. Once I learned that ecology was a field of science, I knew I had found what I wanted to study.

Looking ahead to college, I decided to apply to universities that had a dedicated ecology program. For undergrad, I ended up majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton. I loved my coursework, learning about the woodlands of New Jersey, and the semester I spent studying tropical ecology in Panama. But, I didn’t always love my work in a bird physiology lab, and I didn’t think research was for me. When it was time to figure out my next step, it occurred to me that every summer job and volunteer position I’d ever held involved working with children, and in many cases I was teaching them about science and nature. The day I had that realization, I joined Princeton’s program in teacher preparation, and I got certified to teach high school science.

After student teaching, I got a job teaching chemistry, biology and occasionally environmental science at Niles West High School in Skokie, Illinois. My mentor teacher was my former high school AP bio teacher! I communicated science every day, and it was challenging and fun and exhausting. So exhausting that I often felt like I’d fall asleep in the middle of the hallway. I worked really hard to develop lessons and labs that were engaging to my students and allowed them to make discoveries on their own. One of my favorite lessons was working with a class of conceptual chemistry students to derive the formula for specific heat, by thinking though what they’d need to know about an object to heat it up. It started out as a discussion of flipping over a pillow to the cool side, and other similar experiences and ended up with deriving an equation. I think the opportunity to connect their experiences to this scientific concept helped it make sense. As I continued teaching, I learned that successful communication required me listening and learning as much as talking and teaching.

While teaching by day and working on continuing education credits at night, I took a class in restoration ecology. It blew my mind.

Restoration as a field is so applied and this really resonated with me. It turned out that I could love research when it was applied to real life problems. After four years of teaching, I got tenure as a high school teacher and became eligible to take an academic leave of absence. Many teachers get a master’s in curriculum and instruction, but I always knew I’d take the opportunity to study more science. I was lucky to find the Program in Plant Biology and Conservation, a joint program between Northwestern University and Chicago Botanic Garden, where I could study restoration.

My master’s work took me to Zion National Park, where I studied native plants that persist in habitats dominated by invasive cheatgrass – we were looking for potential restoration species. My scicomm during that time was developing curriculum based on BudBurst, a citizen science project based on biological timing in plants. Two years later, when it was time to return to my teaching job, I didn’t. I did my PhD in the same department, but in a habitat closer to home: prairie restoration and biodiversity in the Chicago area.

Now, as a David H Smith postdoctoral fellow, I study restoration from an ecological perspective (like I was trained to do), and from a (new to me) social-science perspective. I am studying how land managers make decisions for restoration. Currently, I am conducting interviews with managers to better understand their seed mix design process. Through these interviews, I get to use all my science communication skills in a new way. And, I am hearing incredible stories from the practitioners working to restore land. I am still working through the analyses of these data, so I won’t share the stories here. But, I’m excited to do that eventually.

I haven’t been a classroom teacher in years, but my time teaching impacted me forever. What I learned about pedagogy and effective lesson planning impacts my writing and presentations. I also love any opportunity I get to interact with students, which I have done recently through Skype a Scientist, a partnership with a local high school, and outreach events at Chicago Botanic Garden, and mentoring high schoolers and undergrads in the field, where we survey plants at restored prairies, and in the labs at the botanic garden where we study seeds.

After working with teenagers every day for four years, I am pretty fearless when it comes to scicomm, and I’m getting braver by the day. My most recent scicomm adventure was collaborating with Chicago poets and performing science slam poetry as part of Experimental Words. I was presented with the opportunity to be part of the first-ever edition of the UK based Experimental Words in North America, and I just couldn’t say no. My partner, poet Melissa Castro Almandina and I wrote a piece where she was a plant, typing out seed-poems on her typewriter and dispersing them by throwing them out into the audience. I was a scientist describing her process with some real and some made-up facts. It was pretty “out there”.

PLS logo by ecologist-artist Bonnie McGill(Another)* unabashed plug for Plant Love Stories

Plant Love Stories is a place to collect and share stories about how plants impact our lives, and it’s where I spend much of my scicomm energy these days. My PLS co-founders and I officially launched the site on February 14th, 2018 (get it?). However, PLS started about six months earlier, while brainstorming group projects with our Smith Fellows cohort. We wanted to do something to get people thinking about plants, and maybe even plant conservation. But we wanted it to be based on stories, and wanted it to be fun. After a rapid-fire discussion that included the idea of getting Michelle Obama to submit her story (she hasn’t responded yet… but we hope she will!), Plant Love Stories was born.

I went out to dinner with some of my friends from my teaching days before the project went live. I told them about PLS, and to my surprise, each of my friends went around the table, sharing their story! Some were funny, some were sad, all highlighted the important role that plants play in our lives. Hearing their stories helped me see that PLS could disperse far outside the botany community.

Plant Love Stories are stories about plants – yes – but also about the places and people that we connect to through plants. I feel so honored that people have shared their stories – scientist origin stories, budding romances, stories of plants connecting people to their siblings, their parents, their grandparents, their kids, stories of monkeys and frogs, cardinals and cardinal flowers, how in a pinch, an alder twig can be used as a pencil and how black needlerushes are a pain in the ass. My first PLS, maybe not surprisingly by this point, was about the incredible teachers in my life that helped me develop an appreciation for plants.

We believe that everyone has a PLS – even if they don’t know they do, even if they don’t study plants, even if they don’t even eat plants! Each story invites us into someone’s life for a moment. Channeling my experiences in high school classrooms, we’ve started reaching out to teachers that might use PLS with their students. We are also working to develop a teacher resources section for the site. I hope we get some of those chatty (and not so chatty) kids thinking about plants.

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

1. Collaborate!

As a researcher, I sometimes feel like I have to be a jack-of-all trades. But, to design curriculum or do outreach in K12 schools, it’s a good idea to work with the professionals – the teachers themselves! You know your science best, and they know pedagogy best. They know what might work in their classrooms and what probably won’t. They know how to build lessons that fit with their learning objectives and that flow well with their current curriculum. Designing learning modules through collaboration with teachers increases the likelihood that your time and hard work will pay off and not languish unused in a binder on a shelf. How to find teacher collaborators? – attend a local teacher conference or workshop, post to an educator listserv or social media group, or send an email to science coordinators at nearby schools. There are even grants from NSF (Research Experiences for Teachers) where researchers can apply for summer funding to support teachers working in their labs for the summer – a great step to building these collaborations.

2. Relish the small successes.

Take time to reflect on your scicomm experiences. There is always room for improvement, but it’s also important to take a moment to acknowledge the successes. You aren’t likely to be presented a scicomm trophy, so it’s probably up to you to identify those successes. I recently gave a talk to high school sophomores for a Women in STEM event. Several students stayed after to ask me questions about plants, and about my path in science. I counted this as a win. I recently felt like Plant Love Stories wasn’t growing (ha!) as fast as I would like it to, and I worried about all the time and effort I was asking people to put into writing and sharing their stories. Later, I looked at our list of people that have visited the website and saw that they came from across the country and across the world. It’s not a trophy, but this too, I counted as a win.

3. Social media can expand your world.

Social media was a really important tool for me as I completed my PhD. I was in a small, newer PhD program, and I didn’t have many friends or family in academia as I began graduate school. Twitter expanded my view of graduate school, academia, and my field, far outside of my own program. I learned so much about diversity in STEM and followed fantastic scientists outside of the short lists of people that tend to get “name dropped” a lot. Twitter also helped me quickly find out about new research in my field, and make collaborations and friendship online and off. To get started, you might want to follow some rotating curator accounts – these have a different person running the account each week. Maybe you’ll eventually take one over for a week! Try @RealScientists, @BioTweeps, @Iamscicomm and @IAmSciArt.


*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!

**Becky Barak and Sara Keubbing are co-founders of Plant Love Stories (PLS), along with some of their fellow Smith Fellows. Sara wrote about her MySciComm back story for our series in June, and made the first ‘unabashed plug’ for PLS in her piece. Read the whole story here.