Story and Backstory: Why we commit to research and science communication

I’ll start this off by saying we have some rather large news to share. If you are in a rush, then feel free to skip to the bottom of this post and watch a really beautiful film preview that came out today. I can take no credit for the beauty, but it is an exciting short watch, and rather personal to Sound Science and myself.

That being said, I want to offer some context. 2020 may well be regarded as the year that nature regained the global spotlight. In light of COVID-19 halting human activities worldwide – a phenomenon dubbed the “Anthropause” – nature has captured the hearts and minds of the public as the unanticipated beneficiary of this global pandemic and the unlikely savior rescuing people from the most human of afflictions – boredom

Early in the pandemic I was quoted as saying

“Nature is taking a breath when the rest of us are holding ours.”

Michelle Fournet, The Atlantic

The science has since confirmed this sentiment. Whales and birds were given a respite from manmade noise as vacations were cancelled and stay at home orders were issued. When we weren’t outside breathing in the fresh air (an activity that was up in popularity by 58% during the pandemic), gardening (up 57%), or watching the wildlife ourselves (up 67%!) – you could find us at home reading about nature in National Geographic and the New York Times.

Oddly, and unfortunately, for some of us whose summers are typically spent exclusively outdoors (I mean that literally, during my fieldwork I will camp for up to 4 months in a single summer), the pandemic resulted in a massive shift in the other direction. I’ve been inside a lot this year. While my dog and my garden were pleased to have me home last summer, I found myself needing more to accommodate this dramatic shift. One path was to continue our quiet ocean research (another blog post of what we’ve found soon! Hint – we have thousands of hours of recordings from 2020 and will be deploying again in 2021). Unexpectedly, the rest of my time was more or less filled with science communication. Instead of camping on an island in Alaska well beyond the range of cell service, I found myself talking with journalists, podcasters, and artists almost daily at times as we collectively tried to tell nature’s pandemic story.

Dr. Fournet during our 2019 field season in Southeast Alaska, photo courtesy of Drew Xanthopoulos

This past year has seen more outward facing materials than ever before in the history of Sound Science, or in my personal history as a biologist. This flies in the face of one of my more naive 2020 goals:

Learn to say no to things that aren’t directly in support of my research.”

In retrospect, I realize that sentiment is incorrect. It falls squarely with the traditional view of science that success is measured exclusively in papers published and grants acquired. But is that the best way to frame the goals of science? Publishing papers is no doubt essential for credibility and dissemination of our results, but who reads them? How does the world benefit? Getting grants is essential to keep our work afloat! But who decides what questions are worthy of being funded? Part of our mission here at Sound Science is to shift the culture science toward one that is more inclusive and equitable – this means including a broader audience in the conversation. That includes you, reading this post.

My goal as a science communicator is not to inspire everyone to become a scientist. The world needs plumbers, chefs, psychologists, grocery store clerks, musicians, gym managers, and yes, biologists. My goal as a science communicator is to include everyone in the science process so that we cultivate a shared responsibility for this great earth. One doesn’t need to be a professional scientist to be invested in nature. By being transparent about our work (which is extremely difficult to do, expensive to maintain, and can be hard to explain), my hope is that we cut windows into the ‘black box’ in which science places interesting questions, and the process makes more sense. In doing this, perhaps the scientific community can earn back the public trust and we can collectively progress toward solving the ecological crises our world is facing.

With that ethos in mind, my heart softens a little knowing that although I didn’t sleep on the ground for 90 days in the company of whales in 2020, perhaps we accomplished an equal or greater good by sharing our work. If you’re reading this post, then our efforts are rewarded.

In light of this, we do have some rather large news to share that ties these topics together. In 2019, myself and three of our Sound Science team members spent a grueling field season in Frederick Sound, Alaska doing a particularly difficult playback experiment. Our goal was to determine what the function of a humpback whale call actually is. Simply put, we were trying to understand what the whale is saying when it calls.

We’ve been hesitant to broadcast this work through the media or on our own site because we were joined in the field by a documentary filmmaker Drew Xanthopoulos. Over the years we’ve built a strong, candid, and important relationship with Drew. He directed and filmed “Fathom”, a film aimed not just at glorifying humpback whales, but at understanding whales and the biologists who risk everything to study them. For our part, Drew followed us through the field as we conducted our research. In watching the film you can see what the process (warts and all) of doing this work actually looks and feels like. I am extremely proud to announce that Fathom will premiere at the Tribeca Film festival in June of this year, and will premiere globally on Apple TV+ on June 25, 2021.

For your enjoyment, take a quick look at the preview below or read the press release here.

With gratitude,

Michelle

PS- Without being too pushy, Sound Science is a small 501c(3) non profit. Our current research is supported by your donations and by the goodwill of our team. Your donations help our organization to grow and our research to flourish. Please donate if you are able.

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