This blog post is in response to all of the interest in the Twitter post I made about my student’s opinions regarding science communication on Twitter.
About my course
My course is called science-policy and it is focused on how to effectively engage as a scientist in the decision-making process. We spend the first third of the class discussing different philosophies behind engagement and the roles that scientists can play in the process. The middle third is a mix of case studies (e.g. Northwest Forest Plan, experimental flooding in the Grand Canyon, etc) and guest visits from congressional staffers. The final third is focused on effective communication. This involves writing research briefs, giving short presentations, and the elevator speech. I like to experiment with a different assignment each year and see how it works. I make them worth a very small fraction of the course grade in case they are a flop. I ask the students at the end what they thought of the assignment and it either evolves or is eliminated. This year I had them follow ten scientists on Twitter for the semester and report three things they thought worked well for communicating science and three things they thought did not work well.
I tweeted the common ones out because I thought they were interesting and the one-off ones that made me chuckle while grading. These are absolutely the opinions of my students. They did not get any more guidance than I stated above.
Stats on the scientists they followed
Total = 82 (20 female, 62 male, 17 early career)
The fields of expertise were diverse and ranged from psychology to neuroscience to space to climate to ecology and many more.
58 are at academic institutions and the balance is a mix of government, NGO, and independent
Location: US 65; UK 9, Canada 4, 1 each in Spain, Portugal, Germany, Australia
Stats on number of followers: Max 13M; Q3 77,400; Median 9,557; Q1 945; Min 195
Three of the early career (< Assistant Professor) had more followers than the median
Probably the thing that caused the most consternation within the twitterverse was that scientists are people too and many tweet personal stuff as well. Drum roll please…
Exactly 4 of the 58 had anything “personal” in their description and only 2 stated that this was their personal account.
Unpacking “politics not science”
Given the character limitation, I boiled down something nuanced to three words. Unfortunately, this yielded statements about my students being biased, privileged, and entitled. I found the privileged and entitled comment so preposterous that I shared it with my colleagues and we all got a laugh. No one has ever described students at our university as privileged and entitled.
What that three word summary represented was the fact that students who mentioned politics very much appreciated when scientists brought their expertise to the discussion about a politically hot-button topic such as climate change. They thought folks like Katharine Hayhoe did a fantastic job of communicating the science, addressing the policy context, and answering questions. What they found ineffective was when scientists mixed their political views on stuff unrelated to their research in with their tweets about science.
Note: Katharine Hayhoe was listed as an example of a top-notch science communicator by several students. This also happens to be my opinion.
The tweet summary represents the opinions of my students. I tweeted the common ones out because I found them interesting. The wonderful thing about the First Amendment is that if you are a US-based scientist you’re entitled to tweet out whatever you want. Non-science audiences are as diverse as the people who do science professionally. If you take anything away from this very limited survey of my students it should be this: If you want to effectively communicate your science, figure out what audience you are trying to reach and tailor your approach to that audience. You may turn some others off, but if you’re reaching your intended audience, who cares. I work on forests, fire, and climate change. My intended audience is policy-makers and natural resource managers. Some other folks, that don’t fall into those groups, appreciate the information I share. I dabble on Twitter, but that is not my primary tool for communicating science with my intended audience. I’m always happy to answer anyone’s questions, as long as they are respectful.
Take what you want from this and leave the rest. If you use a similar exercise and find something that improves on what I did, please share it. If you’re put off by my student’s opinions, I recommend you do some self-reflection to figure out why you are all twisted-up over the opinions of a group of young people you’ve never met who haven’t singled you out in some way. My personal opinion is that my expertise on feedbacks between forests, fire, and climate doesn’t make me an expert on any other topic. Thus, my opinion on another topic isn’t any more valid than anyone else’s.
Any comments require my approval and I am pretty bad about paying attention to the notifications.
The explosive nature of the vegetation currently burning in the California wildfires is a direct result of high temperature and a prolonged period with no rain. Vegetation, or fuel as it is often referred to in fire science, contains water. Water has a high specific heat, which is the amount of energy required to raise an amount water by one degree Celsius. In the case of water it is 4.186 joules of energy per gram of water. To get vegetation to burn you need enough heat to boil off the water in the vegetation first. It takes 540 kcal to boil a kilogram of water. This is precisely why if you try and start a campfire with wet wood, you are going to be cold.
In the shrub or chaparral ecosystems that are currently burning in southern California, fuel moisture after the winter rainy season is over 100%. That means that for every kilogram of shrub there is a kilogram or more of water. This year, Chamise, a common shrub in southern California, peaked at 120% fuel moisture and is currently at 60% fuel moisture. This means half as much energy is required to get the shrubs to burn now as was required back in early June.
When you are trying to light a campfire, the best thing to do is to get your head down near the base and blow. This increases the amount of air and oxygen moving past the flame. A little flicker, some well place blowing, and viola, you’ve got a nice campfire. Now add Santa Ana winds to already dry fuel and an ignition source and the result is explosive fire conditions. As vegetation burns and generates heat, it pre-heats the vegetation in front of it, causing the water to boil off before the flame reaches the vegetation. This preconditions the vegetation to burn, similar to seasoning your fire wood.
How climate change makes it worse
Climate change is causing higher temperatures, both during the day and at night. When the atmosphere is warmer, it can hold more water. This causes ecosystems to dry out as water in the ecosystem evaporates and plants release more water as they photosynthesize. As a result, higher temperatures alone are enough to dry out vegetation. Next we add the longer dry season in California. The length of time between when the winter rains in one year stop and the rains the next year start has been increasing with ongoing climate change. These two factors, higher temperatures and a longer dry season, increase the length of time each year that these ecosystems are available to burn. The longer it has been since the last rain event, the drier the vegetation. This prolong dry period and drier vegetation during the Santa Ana wind period causes explosive fire growth during high wind events.
Assuming you’ve thought long and hard about why you want and advanced degree in ecology and what specific sub-discipline you’ve decided to pursue, below I provide some advice on how best to approach the grad school application process.
Do not just apply to a program without first contacting potential advisors. Every year I get 1-3 students that do this and list me as their potential advisor. If I’m taking students that year, I’ve already encouraged 2-3 students to apply and will not look at your application. You may think that is harsh, but here is why I do what I do: I don’t want students to spend the time and money required to apply to our program unless I think they will be a good fit in my lab and that I think I will be a good advisor for them.
Here is what you should do. Reach out to people whose work interests you 2-4 months before the application deadline. Hopefully you’ve identified these people based on their publications. Make sure that you check their website for materials that they request of potential applicants and provide them with your initial email. I ask for a CV, a one-page description of research interests, and unofficial transcripts. I’m not looking for a ground-breaking question that you want to pursue. I’m trying to evaluate if you’ve thought through what you want to research and if you can present it in a coherent manner.
Assuming you get some interest from the potential advisor, then you need to plan for your first interaction with them beyond email. I schedule a video call with potential students so that we can each learn more about how the other operates. You need to be prepared for questions relevant to the work we do in my lab. I often ask potential students which of my papers they found most interesting and why? Your answer will help me understand why you’re interested in the work we do and what specifically about forest ecology gets you excited.
After having interviewed several students, I’ll recommend that 2-3 formally apply to our program. Sometime following your application, it is important to schedule a visit. Many programs/advisors will support your travel to visit, but even if they don’t, this is a worthy investment. This is your opportunity to get a sense of the department and the program. Most importantly, this is your opportunity to meet with your potential advisor and lab. I schedule time for potential students to meet with my current lab without me present. You need to ask current students how your potential advisor operates, what kind of support they provide, and what their expectations are. This is your opportunity to gather data about how well you think the potential advisor’s approach will work for you. You should also feel free to contact students who have graduated from the lab. They have a complete picture of the process. To make this process effective, you need the self-awareness to know what you require to be successful. Make sure you give this some thought well in advance of this process.
Remember, this process is a two-way street. The potential advisor is interviewing you, but you also need to be interviewing them.