Neotropical Grassland Conservancy Work

Last time, I wrote about the process of transitioning into my new job and the motivations behind the work I am now doing.  This time, I’d like to share a bit about the most recent project I am working on: a promotional video for a conservation NGO called Neotropical Grassland Conservancy (NGC, www.conservegrassland.org).

Map

Neotropical Grasslands map

The NGC is a small organization that provides funding for students and researchers working in grassland ecosystems in the Neotropics (i.e., the southern part of the New World).  You might be wondering why Neotropical grasslands are so important and the answer lies in their importance for people and biodiversity. In addition to their importance in agriculture, neotropical grasslands offer critical habitat for numerous species (many are grassland specialists/endemics), play an important role in storing carbon (which is an important component of greenhouse gases), and provide essential ecosystem services such as water purification.  Worldwide, grasslands occupy a large extent of the earth’s surface, but they are often given lower priority in terms of conservation action because they don’t necessarily exhibit the high biodiversity of other ecosystems (such as tropical rainforests).

Logo for the Conservancy

Neotropical Grassland Conservancy

Now let’s go back to NCG… This organization funds many kinds of research, and these range from ecological studies of particular organisms, to large-scale valuations of ecosystem services, to projects dealing with sustainable agriculture.  There are only two requirements for a project to be funded: (1) the work must have some direct relevance to grassland conservation in the Neotropics, and (2) the applicant must be a citizen of a Neotropical country.  Both of these requirements are important, since researchers working in countries ‘south of the border’ have a more difficult time obtaining funding for their work than their North American counterparts.

NGC was founded by a colleague of mine (and fellow Cornellian!) about ten years ago.  Since then, I have periodically volunteered my time to the organization, mostly trying to promote it during my trips to Bolivia and reviewing student proposals.  A few months ago, NGC’s board of directors approached me about creating a video to step up their marketing and fundraising efforts.  I brought a few of my Habitat Seven teammates on board, and we are now in the process of creating a 2-minute video that highlights NGC’s successes and the importance of the work they do.  As the ‘scientific advisor’ to the project, I am working with our creative team to make sure that the video is not only visually engaging, but also scientifically and factually accurate.

Neotropical Grasslands Conservancy

Neotropical Grasslands Conservancy editing software

You might be surprised to hear that the NGC video will not have any actual video footage in it.  Since NGC is small and on a tight budget, they don’t have the funds to fly our videographer down to obtain footage in the field.  Instead, we will rely on NGC’s large library of photographs taken by board members and funded researchers throughout the years.  Our photography editor will animate the photos with color and movement, essentially ‘bringing them to life.’  We will also create our own motion graphic animations from scratch.

Hard at work!

Hard at work!

My role in all of this is to work closely with NGC staff so that we understand the specifics of the message they are trying to relay.  I work with them to come up with relevant examples of research projects to feature in the video, and try to come up with compelling and creative ways to portray the research in a way that most people would find interesting and engaging.  My training as a conservation ecologist is a huge help in this endeavor: I can quickly understand the research to be conveyed, and I can offer up suggestions of how to ‘frame’ the message in both a compelling and scientifically accurate manner.  Ultimately, our goal is to weave a story that not only inspires potential sponsors to donate to NGC’s efforts, but also inspires a new generation of scientists in the Neotropics.  For this reason, we will produce the video in four languages: English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French.

We are just getting started on the project, but once we have a video ready, maybe I’ll share it with you.  You could be our ‘litmus test’ of whether the video achieves its goals.  Making these videos is always a process that involves multiple trials until we get it right.  Feedback from many potential audiences is crucial.  Any interest in helping us get it right? If so, stay tuned for more!

My job @ Habitat Seven

Hello again!  Last time, I wrote a bit about some of the unexpected results of our flamingo experiment.  I’m still writing, and hope to be done with that chapter in the next two weeks.  For now, I wanted to write about my new job, and why I decided to start working before I completed my degree.

My desk at Habitat Seven

My desk at Habitat Seven

The company I am working for is called Habitat Seven (www.habitatseven.com).  It is a communications company specializing in creating innovative products in the areas of environment, health, and international development.  Specifically, these products can be split into three categories: online video, interactive web, and mobile apps.  I have been brought on to manage the company’s coverage of scientific topics (particularly those relating to environment) and help guide efforts to creatively communicate the results of compelling, yet often overlooked research.  The area of science communication has always been of interest to me (and one of the reasons I jumped on the opportunity to become involved with Crossing Boundaries!); I have been thrilled to meld my background in life science with my excitement for multimedia communications.

So, this is quite an unusual direction for a researcher to take!  But for me, it feels like a natural fit to my career as a scientist.  As I have mentioned before, what drives me as a scientist is the acknowledgement that sound science must inform the development of solutions to our world’s conservation crisis.  The role of science in policy decisions is critical.  As a graduate student, although I spent almost all my time conducting my research, I also grew to understand that in order for my research to have any hope of creating relevant solutions for flamingo conservation, I would have to learn to communicate the results of my work to broader audiences.  Being able to communicate to my colleagues and peers is certainly important, but being able to convey the importance of my kind of research to the broader public is indispensable.  Ultimately, the future of conservation science will be precarious without public support.

My philosophy on this point can pretty much be summed up by one of the most heralded and widely used quotes in the field of conservation.  It comes from a speech given in 1968 by Baba Dioum, a Senegalese environmentalist:

In the end we will conserve only what we love.

We love only what we understand.

We understand only what we are taught.

Effective and creative communication is key to successful education.  Unfortunately, scientists have a reputation for being terrible communicators (cue in stereotypical awkward scientist here).  Sure, they are great at writing papers in scientific journals (which, to date, has been the ‘bread and butter’ of science communication), but those journals are of little interest to all but a small part of the population.  I have a deep belief that if scientists don’t step up their game in communicating to the public, support for science will dwindle.  In our digital age, ‘stepping up the game’ will inevitably involve getting up to speed with emerging technologies (such as online video, mobile apps, etc.) and leveraging new channels for sharing science.

I feel I have kind of come ‘full circle’ in taking my new job as a science communicator.  I am using all the skills and tools I learned in graduate school, but rather than use them to advance my own research, I am using them to help other researchers communicate the importance of their work.  I focus on projects that contribute to the development of solutions to widespread problems in conservation.  I work with researchers to come up with creative and compelling messages.  In this way, I believe I will make a difference (perhaps in a different way than if I focused solely on my research, but a difference nonetheless).

At Habitat Seven, our mission statement is to “help people who are helping the world.”  I’m glad to be part of that effort.

Thesis and research results

Writing my disertation

Writing my thesis

Hi! So I’ll pick up where I last left off… Despite my difficulties in writing my thesis, I am really excited about the results that we got, and I am looking forward to making our findings available to others who want to build on the work we started.  Interestingly, we didn’t get results exactly in line with what we expected.  Actually, that isn’t all that surprising, since it happens a lot in ecology.  When scientists do hypothesis-driven research, we offer up our ‘best guess’ at the patterns we expect to see (these guesses are based on what we know from previous research, patterns in similar systems, etc.).  But nature is complex and mysterious, and infinitely capable of pulling surprises. If you ask me, that is the most exciting part of ecology: the unpredictability of discovery, always – at least for me – cloaked in wonder.

Exclusion fences

Exclusion fences

To start, we found that when flamingos are removed from the lake (remember the fences we built to keep out flamingos?), big changes happen.  No big surprise there.  Algae grew/flourished when flamingos were fenced out, and after 1½ years of excluding flamingos, the amount of algae inside our fenced areas was over 5 times higher than the amount outside.  The interesting part is that the effect of excluding flamingos depended on the amount of time that had passed.  There seemed to be times when flamingo exclusion had a small effect on the amount of algae, and other times when it had a big effect.  It’s possible that patterns in the seasons accounted for this: for example, the winter months could have caused a decrease in the growth of algae (because of lower temperatures, less sunlight, etc.) whereas the warmer summer temperatures may have increased growth.  We’ll need to look into this further to find possible reasons why.  But that will have to wait for another field season.

Another interesting result has to do with the changes in the diversity of the algae species in the fenced in areas.  Before starting my fences experiment, I had predicted that algal diversity would increase in the fenced in areas that were flamingo-free. I thought that the diversity of algal species was held in check by flamingos (because of competition) and that areas without flamingos would have more algal diversity.  At first, we saw exactly this.  But after only 36 days, diversity began to drop in the flamingo-excluded areas and towards the end, these areas had, on average, 5 fewer species than the open areas.  That’s a big difference!  And in the opposite direction of what I expected! This means that losing flamingos in the lake also means losing other species like algae and possibly other species higher up the food chain (such as invertebrates and even other birds, etc.)… not a good situation.

Flamingos

Flamingos

So, I’m in the process of writing a chapter for my thesis that discusses these results.  I am trying to make the case that flamingos should be considered ‘keystone species’ in their aquatic habitats.  This means that, relative to their abundance, flamingos exert a disproportionately large impact on community and ecosystem structure.  (You may be familiar with other keystone species, such as sea otters, beavers, and elephants). If we can make the case that flamingos are keystone species , we may be able to protect a number of other species and processes as well that depend on the flamingo.  Being able to demonstrate the role of flamingos in this way (quantitatively) is important for making a case for their conservation.  We’re on our way…!

Long time, no see!

Hi everyone! Sorry I have been out of touch for a while.  Since we last connected, a lot has happened on my end.  To start, back in May, I was offered a job that pretty much fit into the ‘only in your dreams’ category.  I was in the thick of writing my PhD thesis (dissertation), and the timing was less than ideal since I would have to start straight away.  But after much consideration and many conversations with colleagues, mentors and friends, I decided the opportunity was too good to pass up, and took the job!  So, in June, I sold most of my furniture, packed up the rest of my stuff, drove across the country, and arrived in Seattle, Washington to start my new job (more on this soon!).

Ithaca, NY to Seattle, WA

Ithaca, NY to Seattle, WA. (Image adapted)

Luckily, I was able to finish all of my lab work at Cornell so all I needed to bring with me in order to keep writing my dissertation was my computer.  The fruits of many years of hard work in graduate school are all contained within that one little machine! I, of course, guard that thing with my life…

It has been tricky trying to balance my obligations at my new job with dissertation writing.  Quite honestly, for me, the writing process has turned out to be the most difficult aspect of doing research.  You would think that after having trudged through hip-high mud in lakes at 14,000 feet elevation, writing would be a piece of cake.  Not so in my case!  Some people relish the writing process – I don’t.  I agonize over every word.  Maybe some of you can relate?  To those of you who don’t: are any of you interested in writing a PhD thesis on flamingos? 🙂