Outreach is becoming a major part of the research experience. Whether you’re writing a DDIG, GRFP, STAR, or any major grant or fellowship, granting agencies want to see how you’re going to reach out and expose the general public to science. Now, most people I know bitch and moan about outreach; it’s treated as a chore, and I think that’s unfair.
Let me back up though…Not too long ago I was one of these people. “Outreach? What the heck is this?” So know that I’m coming from a place of experience. However, my views have recently changed and it’s because of my changing views on science as a whole.
If you read this with any consistency, you should be aware of my almost constant complaints about the academic system, primarily the viscous circle that is academics…working hard and researching as an undergrad, graduate, post doc, and then training students as an advisor to repeat this cycle, for what reason? While I obviously have a love/hate relationship with academics, one thing that is great is the encouragement to conduct scientific outreach.
It’s no secret that science is not a popular topic to non-scientific types. Just look at the current election run; the most popular topic is climate change and Romney is running around joking about it (and more frustrating, a good portion of the population agrees with him). So what do we do as scientists? Bitch. Take action you say? No, I’d rather just bitch. See, this is where outreach comes into play.
I want to take this opportunity to highlight a program organized and headed Dr. Jake Kerby of the University of South Dakota. In conjunction with the Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska, Dr. Kerby directs the Amphibian Conservation and Education Project*, a program dedicated to training citizen scientists on how to select and survey natural environments for the amphibian chytrid fungus (of course this project is close to my heart). Field kits (plastic bags and cotton swabs) are provided to individuals who then go out and swab amphibians. The swabs are sent to Dr. Kerby who tests them for chytrid vai qPCR. Every swab, positive or negative, is uploaded to an online database where anyone with a google account can track the spread of the disease. I personally think this is awesome, especially because I constantly get the “why should we care” question when talking about amphibian conservation. If we can get more people on the ground, perhaps it would become more evident that we shouldn’t necessarily need a reason other than “it’s the right thing to do.”
Especially here in the Memphis area, there are plenty of organizations that promote environmental stewardship and my research fits in with their oaks quite well. I’ve given presentations on anthropogenic perturbations and my amphibian research to high school students and at local colleges, worked with the Wolf River Conservancy Environmental Education program, and plan on working with numerous local and national groups this spring to establish my own Bd detection program. And to be clear, I’m still writing grants and manuscripts and performing research…and I love it. By broadening the scope of science to include the general public, we are changing the perception of science and scientists…and trust me…this is a good thing…