Although I always enjoyed teaching others about science, I never really saw myself pursuing a career in education outside of becoming a professor in academia. However, participating in the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant Research Traineeship demonstrated that scientific education is so much more than simply lecturing at the K-12 or university levels. After receiving my B.S. from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, I knew that I wanted to continue my career in academia. I participated in a brief research opportunity in Ecuador, where I narrowed my interests to studying the effects of people on the environment. Following this passion, I arrived at Georgia Southern University, working with Professor Risa A. Cohen to investigate the responses of plankton to microplastic fiber pollution. I was then awarded the Georgia Sea Grant Research Traineeship, which allowed me to not only address my research questions in a more holistic manner, but also gain experience communicating scientific information to a variety of audiences.
Recently, I had the opportunity to host a booth at the Glynn County School’s 2023 STEAM Fest and Literacy Fair, where community members displayed exhibits about various STEAM disciplines. This event was catered towards younger participants, with most attendees in elementary school. One of the biggest challenges I faced in preparation for this opportunity was developing a way to communicate the implications of plastic waste disposal to an audience with limited biological knowledge. I learned quickly that simply presenting information would not be as successful as including hands-on demonstrations, so I incorporated several visual aids and activities to help viewers understand cause and effects of microplastic pollution. During the event, I was taken aback when I saw so many kids actively engaging in my activities and connecting the idea that the clothing they wear is made of plastic and its improper disposal can have environmental consequences. Throughout the event, I greatly improved my ability to communicate with younger audiences and help them make connections between these seemingly abstract ideas surrounding microplastics and their everyday lives.
In addition to discussing my research with a younger audience, I had the opportunity to communicate my thesis work in a more professional setting. In March, I attended the Southeastern Estuarine Research Society (SEERS) 2023 meeting, where I presented my thesis research to professionals working in estuarine research and management. While the STEAM event focused on broadly communicating the idea of microplastics and their environmental consequences, the SEERS meeting allowed me to discuss my research in a more formal and detailed manner.
Preparation for this event included several weeks of tweaking the presentation, analyzing my data, and practicing my delivery in front of an academic audience. However, nothing could prepare me for the excitement and anticipation I felt once I was actually at the venue. It was fascinating to see all of the estuarine research happening in the Southeast, and I loved the collaborative energy that the attendees displayed throughout the entire conference. My efforts to prepare for SEERS paid off, as I ended up winning best graduate student oral presentation.
These back-to-back opportunities to share my research in different settings gave me great insight into best practices for communicating science to diverse audiences. I feel a lot more confident in being able to tailor my messaging and anticipate questions or points of confusion among the different audiences I’m trying to reach.
The research traineeship has played an integral role in making both of these events come to fruition and helped me see that education at the university level is not the only outlet for science communication.