#MySciComm: David Bowne on being an undisciplined professor

This week, Dr. David Bowne responds to the #MySciComm questions! 

Man on a step ladder, hanging artwork from the ceiling. Artwork looks like a mobile.

David Bowne installing a handmade algae paper mobile at the North Museum of Nature and Science in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (photo courtesy of Kristi Arnold)

David is an Associate Professor of Biology at Elizabethtown College, an ecologist, an author, and a happy husband and father of two. He has a Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences from the University of Virginia, a M.S. in Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development from the University of Georgia, and a B.S. in Natural Resource Management from Rutgers University. He augments his science courses with original works of fiction and creative nonfiction and collaborates with English professors, artists, and anyone else willing to break disciplinary boundaries.  His creative nonfiction piece “The Improbability of Me (and You)” was recently published in Hippocampus magazine. His collaborative art exhibit “Placida Paper: Turning algae into art” at the North Museum of Nature and Science in Lancaster, Pennsylvania runs through the end of December 2018. He has finished his first novel and is working on proposals for two books of creative nonfiction. Connect with him @dave_bowne and bowned@nulletown.edu.

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, David…

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

Stories are essential.

When I was in second grade, an illustrated nature book sparked my lifelong interest in science. The book was captivating, especially the two-page spread with a cut-away drawing of a beaver lodge, dam, and pond. From that moment on, I was hooked on nature, especially beavers. However, the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia didn’t offer a lot of obvious, quality outdoor experiences for a kid.

While my single-parent mom did take my two siblings and me camping and hiking, I mostly nurtured my interest with books and magazines. In the pages of a Ranger Rick magazine, I learned of Beaversprite, a beaver sanctuary in upstate New York. Its founder Dorothy Richards literally opened her home to beavers. I had to check it out.

My mom arranged for a family visit in the summer of 1985. The five-hour road trip was unforgettable. Our station wagon broke down twice on the way. My older brother joked that the 91-year-old Mrs. Richards was going to be dead by the time we got there. And she was. She died the day before we arrived. Beaversprite was closed. I never even saw a beaver.

I love this story. It is memorable. It is sad, but also funny. It also intertwines the personal with the scientific. I believe storytelling reveals the humanity in science and is an effective means to not only communicate science, but internalize it. I am doing exactly this through my writing of science-infused fiction and creative nonfiction.

Creativity is essential for scientists, artists, and teachers. Okay, maybe it’s essential for everyone.

I enjoyed creative writing in high school, but for twenty-odd years I only published scientific journal articles. No advisor ever told me to focus exclusively on traditional science publications, but it was an implicit assumption of my academic training. After all, the quality and quantity of peer-reviewed papers comprise the traditional chief metric of how a scientist is judged, especially if one wants an academic job.

I started writing short stories just for fun a couple years into college teaching. I found writing fiction allowed for greater creative freedom in the interplay of ideas than traditional science writing. Everything I wrote was still based in science, but through fiction I could more deeply explore how the science relates to an individual or society. It was not quite science fiction, but rather what I call science-informed fiction.

My wife, who is also a biology professor, suggested I use my stories in the classroom. That’s when the magic happened. My students really responded to them. One day, a student, a naturally enthusiastic young woman, burst into class declaring she lived the experience of the main character in my short story “Talking Turkey.” It’s about a first-year college student who declares at Thanksgiving that she is giving up meat for ecological reasons. Family conflict ensues in the story. Students were engaged by the characters and connected personally with abstract concepts of energy flow and food chain efficiencies. The story transformed these otherwise dry topics into ones to which the students could relate and debate. I knew I was onto something.

I expanded my approach by collaborating with Dr. Matt Skillen, an English education professor, to develop a course titled “Ecology in Short Fiction.” Each day, he and I would be in the front of the classroom simultaneously teaching creative writing and ecological science. On any given day, we’d discuss an ecological concept and how an assigned short story or television episode creatively used the concept. We also developed the students’ storytelling abilities through instruction and writing exercises. Students were challenged to ignore the traditional boundaries between the humanities and the sciences and instead use both perspectives to enhance their learning. The course culminated with each student creating an original work of ecological fiction.

From my students’ work, I learned that everyone has stories to tell. I realized that relationships, human or otherwise, are a key common denominator in creative writing and ecology. In our course, we simply provided a space where students could creatively explore their personal relationship with ecological science. What used to exist in two separate silos (to use the academic jargon), now mingled together.

Tearing down the silos, building connections

Ignoring the boundaries of academia and learning within, between, and perpendicular to many disciplines has been key to my success. To me, learning is learning regardless of labels used to circumscribe it. I think having interdisciplinary perspectives make me a better scientist, a better teacher, and a better writer. I have a broader lens through which to see the world.

I’ve been inspired by a line on the futility of protesting war in a Kurt Vonnegut novel to write an outlandish, economic-based conspiracy theory in which Henry Ford secretly recruited us all into his successful war on glaciers. This fictional tale on global climate change was featured on Citizens’ Climate Radio.

I have looked at a eutrophic lake and wondered if the excess macroscopic algae could make something useful. So I teamed up with visual artist Dr. Kristi Arnold and together we learned how to make paper from the harvested algae. Together our art and ecology students made art from the paper. An environmental problem was transformed into a successful student art show at the North Museum of Nature and Science in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. None of this would be possible if we had remained in our rigid disciplines. Our story wouldn’t exist if we didn’t collaborate.

Connections are the basis of ecology. They are also the basis of any good story. When I write a story, I can convey to an audience ecological and non-ecological relationships in a rich, entertaining, and hopefully enlightening manner. Finding the connections between audience and topic is a key component of science communication.

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

1. Be brave and resilient.

Science communication is a relatively young field. Success (however you define it) often means forging your own path. It also means a lot of rejection. And unlike rejection of peer-reviewed manuscripts, you rarely receive feedback. You are lucky to even hear a “no.” Get feedback from people you trust and keep at it!

2. Look for vacant niches and develop mutualisms.

People often do what everyone else is doing, thus increasing competition for resources or attention. Opportunities exist in under-explored areas, especially where fresh perspective is needed. Collaborating with others possessing different expertise on projects of mutual benefit is a great way to proceed. Being a little off-kilter can be spot on for success.

3. Try your hand at interpreting scientific articles for a more general audience.

It’s a great way to gain experience and a few by-lines. Two outlets that are looking for contributors are envirobites and Current Conservation.