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ScienceOnline Interviews: Amy Freitag, marine conservationist

Last year, I crowd-funded my attendance to ScienceOnline2012, an un-conference for people communicating about– and doing– science on the internet. In exchange, I offered to interview one attendee for every $100 I raised. In the lead-up to ScienceOnline2013, I’ll be sharing those interviews. Based on feedback from Twitter, I decided to interview student attendees in the sciences.

My first interviewee, Amy Freitag, is a PhD student in marine science and conservation at Duke University.  Amy tweets as @bgrassbluecrab and blogs at Southern Fried Science.


1) Your research, as you put it, seeks knowledge to “sustain nature and culture.” Can you tell me a little about your path, and how you ended up studying political ecology and human geography? Where do you see yourself in ten years?

I hadn’t actually heard of either political ecology or human geography until I got to grad school and found out my advisor considers herself such. I’m trained as both a systems ecologist and a sociologist. These morphed into my current path because it’s the easiest academic home for my diverse training. But in short, my early research experiences involved conservation in working forests (ah, the delicious maple syrup!) and mapping subsistence resources in interior Alaska for the Gwichin tribe in the wake of historic wildfires. Both of these experiences taught me that humans can and are a force of good in conservation, not just a source of “impact” (though that’s certainly true as well). In fact, you can’t have conservation without humans. You can lock nature away in parks, but that’s a particular kind of constructed nature that’s hard to enforce and unfair to the long-term and responsible residents of these areas. Alaska was a particularly poignant example, recovering from decades of fire suppression with the aim of preserving pristine nature in the vast federal lands. Turns out, fire is natural and necessary for the boreal forest and the Gwichin had been managing fire for thousands of years to prevent exactly what happened – 6 million acres of fire scarred lands at once, taking homes and parks with it. That work shook me from a course headed toward medicine towards what I do now, because – in a nutshell – medicine is secondary if the population is healthy to begin with. And that comes from having healthy lands and waters. In 10 years, who knows? I’m just finishing my PhD and would like to stay in academia, as I really like teaching. But given the job market and propensity for policy, there’s also a good chance I’ll end up in DC.

2) What advice do you have for first-time attendees of ScienceOnline2013?

Science Online is more about the networking than the talks. The best thinking happens at the bar. And everyone’s super friendly, so keep walking up to say hi to random groups of strangers.

3) There have been several scientist-versus-science communicator debates in the last couple of years (to grossly oversimplify the two categories). As someone who straddles both worlds, what do you think is a promising way forward for improving science communication and outreach?

Some scientists are good communicators and others are not. I think the first step is to stop forcing people into one side or the other, but let them do what they’re good at and comfortable with. People forget how much writing and communicating is needed to be a successful scientists in general, even if that’s restricted to grant proposals and academic papers – that skill translates well to outreach. At the same time, most scientists do outreach on the side of a full time plus job – so professional communicators are needed to produce outreach, especially high-value in-depth stuff like documentaries and books. On that note, it’d be nice to get financial or professional credit for participating in outreach and communication. Overall, I’m a little sick of the debate. There’s space and demand for both categories.

4) Many scientists approach conservation from the “nature” side. What interests you about the human aspects of conservation, and why do you think this approach is so valuable?

In the very short, conservation can’t happen without humans so it’s irresponsible to not include them in a picture of conservation. At a deeper level, the social sciences are a relatively new field (esp related to the environment), so we have some catch-up to do on the human dimension. There’s only so much genetics, ecological modeling, plant physiology, and other recent advances in ecology can do without the means to implement them and get the general public on board. Plus, I think our understanding of systems ecology is fundamentally flawed if we don’t include humans as part of that system – great examples include chemical contamination in uninhabited Antarctica, garbage/acidification/fishing and a long list of human impacts on ocean ecosystems, tourist impacts in national parks – we fundamentally change the biogeochemistry of the earth, even in places where the human footprint is relatively small.

5) What is the most exciting new innovation or future direction in science communication?

My research points directly at citizen science as a critical tool in conservation. I also think it’s the best way to get people to acquire scientific literacy – be involved in the process, even if it’s at the fringes. Lots of cybertools help extend the conversation outside the lab – from citizen science databases to conversations on twitter. Anything that helps a university seem less like another universe.

6) What developing conservation story are you following with interest?

I’ve been following two aspects of marine conservation with equal voracity – the development of aquaculture/mariculture in the US and marine spatial planning. Of course, they’re related. I think it’s an interesting time because it’s like the world just woke up and realized that marine resources are just as limited as terrestrial resources and therefore need a management system to ensure we don’t overtax the system as a whole. I’m sure the process will occur in baby steps with many in the wrong direction, but the shift in philosophy is the hopeful one. The ocean’s not just there for the taking and now all sorts of users have to sit at the same table and talk about it – from “evil” oil barons to wind energy developers to fishers to marine mammal enthusiasts. It’s exciting governance at its best.

7) Who are your mentors? What writers or researchers do you look up to?

Academically, one of my heroes is Terry Chapin. I met him working in Alaska and we’ve stayed close through my grad school career. He’s pushed the ecological academic community towards stewardship and engagement in society and is one of few truly interdisciplinary scholars who can cavort legitimately at – as he did one recent year – at 11 or 12 different conferences. There are a few other writers/researchers I look up to for crossing the environment/justice boundary and fully engaging in society: Rachel Carson, Tyrone Hayes, Robert Bullard (the father of environmental justice). They’ve all caught significant flak from the scientific community for being advocates, but in many ways they’re just advocates for paying attention to good science.

8) What has been your experience as a woman in academia? Does it differ at all from your experience as a woman in science communication?

Contrary to what many say, I think academia is one of the most sensitive careers to women’s and family issues. Also, in the marine sciences, we make up a clear majority of younger scholars. We’ve had some very important trailblazers just ahead of us that have changed the culture of academia. In our department, our (female) department chair is adament about maternity/paternity leave, spousal hires, equal pay, etc. She changed a lot upon taking the helm, for the better. Not that those are female issues only, I might add. It will be interesting to see what that means for the demography of tenured professorships in the future. I never gave gender issues at work much thought until one of my students at the local community college told me she appreciated having a woman science faculty member, as she hadn’t yet in her (young) academic career. Apparently through high school, women were discouraged from entering the sciences. I don’t know the details, but that’s just sad. My experiences in science communication have been similarly welcoming. Gender only enters the picture when there’s not a bathroom on the boat 🙂

9) One of the things that I’m interested in is helping members of the public to learn what academics themselves are like. What does a typical day look like for you, both in terms of work and play?

I’m committed to fun times and take advantage of the flexibility academia offers in terms of scheduling. No two days really look the same – except for these days, when I’ve committed myself for the academic year to publishing 4 more papers to defend my dissertation. But a typical day for me, averaged across the time as a PhD student, involves some combination of: lots of writing (papers and grants), phone calls to research participants, planning for trips to the field (or going to trips in the field), teaching (usually one class a semester), prepping for teaching, and ends with fiddle playing, an art project, and running on the beach. Those last three are particularly important to my sanity and balance a lot of time sitting at a desk.

10) What’s the twitter-version of your PhD research?

I’m looking at the potential contributions of citizen science to water quality conservation in estuaries.

11) What’s one stereotype of scientists, social scientists, or science communicators (or all three) that you’d like to correct?

The easiest one is one of my biggest pet peeves – that social science is a “soft science”, qualitative research is not as rigorous as quantitative, and that anyone can do it. I’ve spent a lot of years in school and frequently encounter people who a) don’t understand what social science is, including the diversity amongst us, and b) think they can do it themselves rather than finding a professional as a collaborator.

12) You’ve gotten to travel to some pretty interesting places for your research. You must have some pretty interesting anecdotes from the field! Can you share a favorite one?

From one of my most recent trips, on a new research project looking at rural sustainability in Japan: Me and my two research collaborators set up an interview with an older kelp fisherman, who is very active in the fisheries cooperative in the area. Our translator informed us that he spoke “very old Japanese” and that she’d need help translating from someone older. So we approached the vice-mayor, who offered two of his staff members. They knew him from the coop management meetings and found an Ainu language scholar (the local indigenous language) to help us out. Between these 4 helpers, we did a three way translation: “old japanese”/ainu to new japanese to english. The fisher was also very verbose and wanted to tell us about the impacts of climate change he and his crew have notice and and attempted to adapt to. Some of the vocabulary needed for this discussion got super technical and people started pulling out electronic dictionaries. Despite the language barrier, though, we got great information from his stories that had never been documented before. He was a font of climate change information that even the government staff had not yet tapped into. It was one of those moments of both complete science fascination and celebration over fantastic data, but also making a useful “broader impact” for the community we were working in.

Categories: Academia Communication Conferences Women in Science

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Jacquelyn Gill

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