On communication

So my time in Malaysia ended with a brief but immensely enjoyable stay in the Hard Rock Hotel, Penang. We consumed delectable food, luxurious spa treatments, gorgeous and near constant live music, and sufficient Happy Hour margaritas in the swim up bar that the bartender named Darwin and who liked Pitbull greeted us by name and knew our order by heart.

…See? That wasn’t hard, was it? Apparently so. I mean it’s taken me a month to write that so, surely, we can infer that an awful lot of thought went into it.

Not so much. In fact, that delay originated from an incredibly stressful volume of thought going into other things. I returned back to my beloved university to a piece of coursework as heavily weighted as an exam and a side job writing for the university entertainment newspaper, in addition to having to settle back into required rhythms of student life (bravely facing alarms, tea consumption, and fighting the temptation of the amazing Greek place down the road).

I’m self aware enough to know my failings – I am deeply, damn near religiously committed to things I have been a) told to do, and b) that which would otherwise inconvenience people should I not do them. However to meet these deadlines, self imposed or otherwise, I tend to throw myself under the bus. My sleep cycle and general mental health suffers (I lasted three weeks into term before crying down the phone to my mum, that’s pretty good for me!) and things which I would otherwise do for myself, such as this blog, fall by the wayside.

I apologise for this. For someone who is passionate about discourse, about openness and conveying the important or the personal, this is pretty shameful. But it relates pretty nicely into what I’m going to write about today, so I am shamelessly going to use my personal experiences to give power to a broad, abstract concept. It’s going to be poetic, almost.

When Jess and I met with our supervisor for a post-Malaysia debrief and present exchange, we were keen to show him the value of the science we carried out, what we learnt. He was interested, definitely, although slightly less so than he was regarding the food that we tried and the cat that was named after us. And it was in contemplating, in trying to explain to both him and to friends and family back home, what the take away messages were from our trip that I truly discovered them myself.

Jess and I discovered a lot about ourselves in our time away. Not in a grand, character developing way (at least not that we’re aware of, and my character is perfectly well developed as it is, thank you very much) but rather in a way that highlighted what we are passionate about. Though they are fantastic, neither of us are – it turns out – particularly interested in cetaceans. I know, right?! What’s up with that? Dolphins are great. Whales are proportionally really, really great. I know, I don’t understand it either. Fantastic and slightly magical to observe, I just can’t say that they get my scientific blood pumping. That is an honour still reserved for bioturbation, ecological functioning and sea cows and, for Jess, her newly discovered intense passion for turtles.

Over our time in Terengganu, we spoke at length to Kirat regarding dugongs. Dugongs are sea cows, the slightly morphologically different Indo-Australian cousin of the manatee. An incredibly shy species, particularly in Malaysia, there is a huge amount of mystery and superstition surrounding these animals – they’re seen as holy or magic, good luck charms whose bodies can be broken down and consumed to cure all sorts of ailments. There is a persistent problem with illegal poaching and trading on dugong body parts, or the animals themselves – we heard a story about a man who accidentally caught an individual in his fishing net, and under the stilts of his house set up a net ‘cage’ for it, only releasing it when he was haunted by dreams of the creature’s mother coming for him. There is huge cultural significance and educational misunderstanding regarding these animals. Both boat and aerial studies are incredibly difficult and building a picture of abundance and distribution is a mammoth task. Dedicating herself to her thesis for nearly five years, she has yet to see more of one than a snuffly nose as it surfaces for a split second to take breath. Hence, other means have to be employed.

Kirat explained to me something I had never before heard of – interview surveys. Working alongside psychology researchers to treat people’s personal memories of sightings and opinions as quantitative, powerful and analysable data. She said that, particularly when dealing with species which are so rare and so important to protect, it is imperative to consider the opinions of every day people. Of the fishermen and women who come into contact with these animals most. She explained that publishing a journal article about the patterns of distribution and suggested conservation methods for dugongs would be all well and good, but that paper would just circulate within the scientific community. Unless it’s been commissioned by a government body who will actively employ her suggestions, the information will never reach any one who isn’t already sufficiently educated about the plight of these animals. The information needs to be disseminated down to the people on the ground who can change behaviour, who can help these animals in their day to day lives.

Scientific information has its greatest value outside of the scientific community.

The other week I attended a seminar on Science Communication & Journalism. The former is predominantly of the going into schools, enthusing about science, and encouraging women to stay in STEM fields sort. Science journalism, we were told by Nicole Skinner from UCL, is like any other specialisation in journalism in its simple goal to convey the facts to its readers.

At first thought you could consider academic study and journalism to be poles apart and consequently difficult to mesh. To quote Quentin Cooper of BBC Radio 4

Science values detail, precision, the impersonal, the technical, the lasting, facts, numbers and being right. Journalism values brevity, approximation, the personal, the colloquial, the immediate, stories, words and being right now.

However, the core of the thing remains the same. We gain vital information about current events in the world through the news,  and how to interact with other people and the world in light of and scientific discoveries with the potential to change our behaviour and the way we see the world should be no different. Understanding the world will let us – the general, news watching, every-man us – make smarter decisions to protect it, and I have a newfound passion to help people do just that.


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