#MySciComm: Johanna Varner on the personal interactions that make a big difference

This week, Johanna “Pika Jo” Varner responds to the #MySciComm questions! We’re thrilled to share her story with you, not least because she was the originator and on-going inspiration for our annual #SketchYourScience activity at the C&E Section booth at annual meetings.

Smiling woman sitting on lichen-covered rocks; clearly in high-alpine environment (snow-covered mountain peaks visible in background)

Johanna Varner is an ecologist who studies how alpine mammals cope with changing climate conditions. She has developed several citizen science initiatives to engage the public in helping to monitor the status and distribution of pikas in both Utah and Oregon (photo courtesy of T. Walla)


Johanna Varner is an ecologist who studies how climate change affects pikas, small mammals closely related to rabbits. She is currently an assistant professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, CO, but her path to ecology was far from linear. Over the course of her transformation from a MIT bioengineer to an organic farmer to a pika ecologist, she became passionate about SciComm, teaching, and including citizen scientists in her research. One group of students nicknamed her “Pika Jo”, a name which she has embraced for her SciComm work. Along the way, she discovered that her personal obsession with pikas is actually ideal for engaging people in the local effects of climate change. She was recently honored for her diverse contributions to SciComm with the AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement in Science. Follow her on twitter @johannavarner.


Okay, Pika Jo…

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

I actually started out as a bioengineer.

I was trying to design better ways to culture neurons in tiny plastic chips called microfluidic devices. Aside from being a cool trick, the research also had applications for understanding neurodegenerative diseases and regenerating neurons that were lost or damaged. By the time I finished five years at MIT, I had produced a Master’s thesis, a patent, and a paper. I had also logged thousands of hours in cold, dark rooms by myself, and I wanted to run for the hills.

I needed a break from academics, problem sets, and the isolation of the microscope room.

After wrapping up my project, I moved home to Salt Lake City, where I spent a few months saving money by working for a local bakery and living with my folks. Then, I bought myself a ticket and boarded a plane to New Zealand. Once there, I explored the unique habitats on the islands, saved some money by working on organic farms, and learned about environmental issues related to sustainable agriculture. I was particularly interested by what I learned about the effects of climate change in natural and agricultural systems. I visited high mountains with glaciers, coastal areas with huge intertidal zones, and lush, fern-filled rainforests. I learned about conservation efforts to protect endemic birds and eradicate invasive predators. These delicate species-ecosystem interactions fascinated me.

But perhaps more importantly, I began to realize that science could be based outside.

Until this time, it had honestly never occurred to me that people study interactions between species and their environment, that it’s a whole discipline called ecology, and that I could be a different kind of biologist – one who worked outside in the mountains instead of inside a lab.

I also learned that people differed fundamentally in how they thought and felt about science.

Having recently been immersed in an academic community committed to solving the world’s problems through science and technology, I had never considered that reasonable people might not share my value system. So, I was totally taken aback when one organic farmer, upon discovering that I was a bioengineer, informed me that I was “misguided” and “into the bad stuff”. This fellow was something of a scientist himself: he was innately curious about the natural world and kept meticulous phenological records of all the plants and animals that he observed on his property. Yet, he sincerely believed that scientists generally meddled with nature and food with little regard for any unintended consequences or irreparable changes.

Although we didn’t exactly make fast friends, I worked hard in the next few weeks to find common ground with that farmer. By listening, asking questions, building trust, and getting to know each other over dinner or in the orchard, I came to celebrate his deep passion for living close to the earth and for growing organic heirloom fruits and vegetables. In turn, he came to see that scientists were by and large working to make the world a better place through understanding and preserving the natural world.

I now realize this interaction was a pivotal moment in my career path. I had just influenced someone’s perspective on the nature of science. And it felt good.

At the end of the year, I returned home to Utah feeling rejuvenated, ready to challenge myself intellectually, and excited about taking a fresh career path.

I knew that I wanted to do science outdoors, and that I wanted my work to have impacts outside of academia. I just wasn’t sure where to start.

That changed when I read a newspaper story about how climate change is affecting pikas, adorable alpine animals closely related to rabbits. I was already mildly obsessed with pikas from having grown up in the mountains and from a recent family trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. I was totally floored by the thought that I might be able to combine my passions for cute animals, mountain landscapes, and science in the context of an in important issue like climate change.

I decided to contact the local scientist, Dr. Denise Dearing, interviewed in that newspaper story. In my email, I explained that I had an engineering degree from MIT, that I really loved pikas, and that it had recently come to my attention that people study them. I asked where I should start.

Unaccustomed to entertaining emails from enthusiastic but inexperienced would-be ecologists, she politely suggested that I take a course in Ecology & Evolution at University of Utah (which I did). After a few more meetings, she offered me a tech position in her lab. I spent the next year in her lab managing a project to study hantavirus transmission in deer mice, during which time I reveled in the opportunity to conduct research outside with animals (instead of inside with their cells). In 2010, she took me on as a graduate student, and because she knew I was interested in science communication and education, she helped me land a fellowship teaching in local K-12 classrooms to fund my first year of graduate school. Getting my PhD wasn’t easy, but I managed to rustle up some small grants to get my research off the ground.

I also immersed myself in learning about different ways to bring my research out of the university and into the community.

I read everything I could about the burgeoning field of citizen science, which sought to engage everyday people in data collection, and I set about trying to develop such programs for pikas. In addition to my field research on pikas in the Columbia Gorge, I worked with people from the Oregon Zoo and several local agencies to establish a citizen science program for monitoring this unique population in Oregon. I also collaborated with some outstanding teachers in Utah and Oregon. They helped me develop lesson plans and establish programs that meaningfully engaged middle schoolers in pika research in both states (monitoring a unique subspecies in Utah and a population recovering from a wildfire in Oregon). In each of these programs, I had an opportunity to take groups of people into the mountains to ask questions and collect observations. I was delighted when one group of students called me “Pika Jo,” and I have embraced the nickname ever since.

Woman (left) standing and explaining to group (right; on trail). Nearly all group members are wearing yellow hard hats. Group is in a forest, on a trail.

“Pika Jo” teaches citizen scientists how to identify and count pikas in the Columbia River Gorge. Their study focused on patterns of pika occupancy and abundance following a recent fire. (photo courtesy of S. Clark)

I relished taking people to the mountains, teaching them about pikas and alpine ecosystems, and enabling them to do science: not just blindly collect data, but generate questions, test hypotheses, and report the results of their inquiry.

Energized by these experiences, I set out to reach new audiences. I wanted to share pikas and research, not just with those that typically attend science outreach events, but with everyday people who might not otherwise get an opportunity to interact with a scientist. I signed up to give talks in places ranging from campgrounds and cafés to museums and ski resorts. I even presented at the county jail!

About a year before finishing my PhD, I learned about the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship when a then-fellow at the Oregonian in Portland called to interview me about Columbia Gorge pikas. (I later interviewed him back about his fellowship!) I eagerly applied for the fellowship the following year and was delighted to be placed as a science reporter at KQED, an NPR station in San Francisco shortly after defending my PhD. During this time, I challenged myself to reach a broader readership and worked on about 20 different stories for radio, web news or YouTube, on topics ranging from tiny swarming robots to the neuroscience of songbird learning. (I was also constantly humbled by the amount of work that goes into good public radio programming!)

I also went out in the community to talk to people in everyday, informal settings, not just through
planned and scheduled engagement events. And I trained my undergraduate students to do so too. (I actually used to buy my field crew dinner at an outdoor pub with big picnic tables on the condition that everybody sit at a different table and talk to people about pikas. I called it “pika-vangelism.”)

People were often surprised: I didn’t fit their preconceived notions of a scientist. I was young and blond and female. I didn’t wear a lab coat or glasses. I spoke in terms they could understand. I encouraged them to make observations about the world and invited them to participate in research by submitting their pika sightings via citizen science apps. And I kept in touch with many of them. Some of them wrote me cards or letters. A few shared their pika art or poetry with me. In these messages, people told me that they had come to see science as something they could be a part of. It was no longer a good-old-boys club locked away in an ivory tower. It was something they could do with their kids. It was fun. I keep many of these mementos on a bulletin board in my office to remind myself that these activities make a difference.

Bulletin board covered in thank you notes, drawings, etc.

Jo keeps all the thank-you notes, pika drawings, and pika post-cards that she has received from people with over the years. She displays much of this ‘fan-mail’ on a bulletin board above her desk. It, too, serves as a conversation starter with students and reminds her that her work is meaningful, particularly on days when she feels buried in grading, lecture writing, or service commitments (photo courtesy of J. Varner)

Although it is not a formal or “CV-worthy” activity, these small conversations can have big impacts.

As my thesis defense neared, I had to make some difficult choices. For the last few years of graduate school, I had been honing my skills, building a network, and laying plans to forge my own professional path in SciComm (and not in academia). Given my interest and skill sets, I had envisioned a job coordinating outreach and citizen science at a natural history museum or a science center. I was fortunate in that my advisor was generally supportive of her students seeking careers outside of academics. She did what she could to connect me with resources, but she also urged me to consider teaching.

When I saw a posting for a faculty job at Colorado Mesa University, an undergraduate-focused school in Grand Junction, I decided to apply. They were looking for a mammal biologist, I liked the faculty I knew there, and the timing was right. While my application focused on my teaching and research, I also emphasized my work with 7th graders in my job talk. I think that my diverse SciComm experiences made me a stronger and more unique applicant. When I landed the job, I decided to try it out. Although staying in academics had not been my plan, I figured that it wouldn’t set me back, and I might learn something new.

In fact, I learned that teaching at a university is essentially just applied SciComm!

I still engage people in the process of science and help them to discover how it relates to their daily lives; those people are undergraduate students. I am still involved in my citizen science programs in Utah and Oregon, and I work with undergraduate researchers through CMU. Through these activities, I still bring groups of people into the mountains as I did during my Ph.D. program. Now, I teach students about the charismatic and adorable pikas, and I encourage them to make observations about how climate change is affecting their local ecosystems. Although I teach in a university setting, I still reach non-traditional audiences who might otherwise have been overlooked by science outreach or education initiatives. Our university serves many students from rural western Colorado, nearly half of whom are the first in their families to attend college. My non-majors biology courses are full of students from ranching or oil drilling backgrounds who would never have come to an ecology lecture if it weren’t a requirement of their degrees. Now, in my classroom, they have an opportunity to see the connections between ecology and their everyday lives.

And most importantly, this setting affords me an opportunity to continue changing people’s paradigms about what a scientist looks like, what scientists do, and how science touches their lives. Lectures and field trips are important learning environments, but I think that the most important and rewarding changes occur in the same way they did with that farmer in New Zealand. I make the biggest difference by interacting with my students after class, in the hallways, or in the community, by listening and encouraging them, one conversation at a time.

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

1. Ask for advice!

Most people will cheerfully share stories about how they got where they are, offer helpful suggestions to help you get started, or even share feedback on your work – but only if you reach out first. Don’t be afraid of seeming naïve – most people will be flattered that you took the time to learn about their background and to contact them. Plus, we all started somewhere.

2. Reframe how you think about your skills.

Many of us realize that we’re more passionate about SciComm than science about halfway through graduate school, which usually coincides with a local minimum in self-confidence. You may feel like your skillset is limited to a handful of esoteric abilities that won’t get you anywhere outside of academics, like moving tiny volumes of liquid between tubes, impersonating 3 different pika dialects, or converting caffeine into p-values. But the truth is that you’ve probably also learned many useful skills relevant to a career in SciComm; you just need to reframe how you think about them. For example, you already know how to tailor a message to an audience: think about how you talk about your research to your committee vs. in grants vs. with your peers. You’ve probably also practiced explaining why your science matters outside of academia (like, in conversations with your family or friends). These skills are the foundations of a career in SciComm. Of course, you still need to seek formal practice, but you probably are better prepared than you may feel!

3. Don’t underestimate the impacts of personal conversations!

Some of the most meaningful public engagement interactions in which I’ve been involved have come from conversations about science with everyday folks in everyday places. Something as simple as a sticker on my coffee mug has served as a conversation starter. In general, I have found that people are excited to talk to a scientist. Plus, unless you’re a 60-something white guy who wears a lab coat and safety goggles to the grocery store, you’re probably also busting stereotypes. Formal SciComm outside of academia is important, but informal conversations about science are equally impactful!

This piece was edited by Skylar Bayer and Bethann Garramon Merkle.