Art and Marine Science

The relationship between art and science is more pronounced than might be obvious. To interpret the actions of the natural world requires creative design, an open mind, and the admission on the part of the researcher that what is coming next is unknown. With every study we conduct, our role is to interpret the true story of the natural world. In this way, creativity is essential for truth-telling; and as scientists, our role is to tell the truth. The role of the artist is perhaps not so different: creative interpretation of the essential. Telling the story of science can also be done with fabric and thread, pen and paper, or a camera and lens. 

Ink on paper by our friend and colleague Danielle Nelson. Danielle also designed our logo and has been an affiliate artist since our inception. Find her on instagram @dayvayen

Sound Science is committed to shifting the culture of science to be more equitable and inclusive. Embracing the arts and artists who are committed to our work and our story is one way of doing this – our way of sharing science so all can understand.

This summer, we are doing this in a tangible way, starting with the premiere of the Drew Xanthopoulos’ feature-length documentary “Fathom” (I’ve mentioned Drew and his film on our blog before). This week, our team is headed to the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City to watch the premiere and hold our breath as we share this intimate fieldwork experience with the world. 

This is an important moment for us. Indeed, it is also an emotional and vulnerable moment for us. We are a new organization with a team of scientists, who have dedicated our careers and lives to study these animals to ensure they have a permanent place on our planet. This film follows one of our first major Sound Science projects from inception to initial conclusions. This includes our struggles, our quirks, and our successes.

In short, the film represents an experience that we have lived through yet lack the skill to express fully. Drew has filled that void for us by capturing what we do, why we do it, and what we risk to share the secrets of the ocean with you. With this documentary, as well as some of the other exciting projects we are working on, we see an future ahead of us. To share this process of our research is an enormous privilege.

We hope to continue collaborating with artists long-term, starting with our own (see the piece by Danielle Nelson above). On our team, we have painters, crafters, and writers. We hope you’ll be excited to see their work as our organization grows. 

Rent Fathom from the Tribeca film festival here and watch on June 17th or watch on Apple TV+ starting on June 25th. We’re embracing social media in a whole new way this week. You’ll see a bit of a blitz in our Instagram stories and likely on Facebook. Follow along as your interest and life allow. We hope you get a chance to enjoy the film and don’t hesitate to reach out to us. 

Sound Science is a federally registered 501 c(3) non-profit. Your donations are tax-deductible and keep our organization afloat.

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.

Global Change: COVID-19 and the quiet ocean

The term “Global Change” calls up images on a grand scale. Perhaps the visual of earth from space, forests growing and sinking, mass migrations, cities rising a falling. Until recently, the concept of global change occurred on broad almost indiscernible scales.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic began, and the globe changed almost instantaneously. Human activities halted at a scale unseen since the industrial revolution, and importantly to us here at Sound Science – in Alaska cruise ships stopped sailing.

In collaboration with partners at the National Park Service, University of Alaska Southeast, and NOAA we have begun the act of listening to these quiet oceans to see if we can track how humpback whales may be responding to what may be their first ship free summer in a generation.

Read more about of COVID-19 work in this article put out by National Geographic.

The Eye of the Beholder: In Support of the Gulf Toadfish

Charisma comes at a cost. Whales, dolphins, and seals have captured the attention of millions for generations, and with time hunting pressure has morphed into abject reverence (sometimes to the same mortal end). I am by no means immune to the pull of the leviathan. My fascination with humpback whales has driven my life choices for over a decade, and even now I am planning our 2019 fieldwork at the Five Finger Lighthouse to keep our studies of whale communication moving forward. I am also not naive, however, to the great myriad of other life on this planet. In my postdoc at Cornell’s Bioacoustics Research Program (BRP) I’m working closely with Dr. Aaron Rice who is opening my eyes to a wide range of spectacular creatures.

Starting with the humble toadfish.

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Gulf toadfish (Opsanus beta). My glorious study species. -Photo by A. Rice

Toadfish are a sound producing benthic ambush predator (hide in the mud making breeding sounds, and later BAM jump out and grab a meal). They can be found throughout Gulf Coast, and in particular I’ve been listening to them in the estuaries of the Florida Everglades.

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Florida Bay is rich with mangrove islands and pelicans.

Male gulf toadfish produce an amazing sound often referred to as a “boatwhistle” (listen below). This is extremely important for my purposes, as I am using a series of hydrophones widely distributed throughout the Florida Bay Estuary in order to (a) detect cool fish sounds like the toadfish and (b) investigate whether toadfish alter their calling behavior in response to conditions in the estuary.

See, the estuaries in Florida Everglades are not what they once were. Farmers needed water to keep crops alive; new settlers needed land in which to build (settling on a gently sloping swamp was ‘unappealing’ to say the least) – and so the massive re-routing of freshwater in South Florida began, and with time it continued until the once brackish water became hyper-saline and a once rich estuary grew unrecognizable. Now, resource managers are working to bring freshwater back, and are tasked with figuring out how these changes in water flow impact the critters who live here, and how (or if) the estuaries can be restored.

Enter our vocal fish. Toadfish have a few qualities that potentially make them a good (if not  obviously charismatic) species for ecosystem monitoring. They nest in estuaries, and males stick to their nest sites during the breeding season. They are resilient to a wide range of oceanographic conditions, and – importantly – the males call predictably and loudly throughout the breeding season.

 

 

My aim is to see if these muddy little chatterboxes are a good indicator of overall ecosystem health. This is likely because, beyond being easy to listen to, toadfish are mid-level predators. They are important in terms of eating the little guys (crabs, shrimp, small bottom fishes etc), but they are also a potentially important prey species (dolphins eat lots of toadfish). If toadfish are responding to changes in water quality, it’s highly likely that there are shifts up and down the food web.

For now, I’ve got ears in the subtropics listening to the songs of fish, but for our next field trip we hope to be more active participants as we playback the sounds of toadfish to the predators of Florida Bay.  They may not be as flashy as a humpback whale, but you know what they say: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

 

PS- I didn’t manage to get a toadfish on video- but I did spend some lovely time with this ray when I was changing our hydrophones in Bob Allen Key!

Making a Case for Open Access

On October 28th, the global scientific community wrapped up the Open Access Week. Open Access Week (according to wikipedia, and fact-checked by openaccessweek.com) is a scholarly communication event that focuses on Open Access and related topics. Events include talks, digital seminars, symposia, curated blog communities, or the announcement of open access mandates or other milestones in open access. All free of charge, of course.

This is well and good (very good in my opinion), but what is Open Access and what does it mean to me? First and foremost Open Access means information (often in the form of peer reviewed publications) that is freely available to anyone who seeks it. Which is, strangely, not always or even typically the case.

I published my first manuscript shortly after finishing my master’s degree at Oregon State University. I’m early enough in my career that I still have a visceral memory of the joy associated with getting the acceptance notification. When the manuscript finally made it out in the journal, I emailed my undergraduate field technicians – beaming with excitement – to share this enormous accomplishment with them.

One of them, a first generation college student and a woman of color, wrote me back: “My mom doesn’t have a library login, am I allowed to share this with her?” I didn’t know the answer, the paper was not published in an open access journal. I said yes, because I believed it was the right thing to do.

My student’s mother is not an academic, but she read the manuscript and beamed with pride herself to see her daughter’s name mentioned in the acknowledgments section. She shared the manuscript at work, paraphrasing it the way her daughter had paraphrased it for her. In this way the paper grew legs and slipped quietly out of the ivory tower and onto the streets, which ultimately is where research belongs.

The sharing of information is ingrained in the modern technological world. I can freely download secret family recipes, instructions on how to change a flat tire, poems by e.e. cummings and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, or algebraic proofs. I cannot however, without some sort of institutional login, freely download peer reviewed literature on the media’s influence (or lack thereof) on frequent dieting in adolescent girls. Why? Cookies are free, but legitimate studies on social pressures and health is available only to those affiliated with an institution? Without pointing fingers, it is time for the research community to shift our own culture, and value the dissemination of work above all. Open access seems to be one of the torches being carried in support of this goal.

The move to open access publishing is palpable. Even journals that function on a traditionally subscription based model still have an open access option (at a hefty, dare I say, occasionally insurmountable fee of $2-$7k). Nonetheless, this is an important transition in the culture of science. Until the open access movement gained legitimacy, the potentially dramatic skew in access to scientific information – which is disproportionately biased against independent researchers, small NGO’s, and the general public – remained unchecked. Open access allows us, as a scientific community, to make a commitment to minimizing access disparity, and maximizing access to merit based research across subjects.

But open access publishing is only the first step. Opening the front door is not the same as giving someone directions to the house.

Open access publications ensure equal access. But equality and equity are not equivalent. Equality is about sameness – everyone gets to read the paper. Equity is about fairness – each person has the ability to find, and also understand the paper. As researchers we have developed a vocabulary that we’ll gently call ‘inaccessible’ to many, if not most. This phenomenon is so widespread that without batting an eyelash we’ll ask a scientist to quickly summarize their work for ‘non-specialists’, with the cogent implication that this means simplifying it to the utmost. While the vocabulary of research is to a large degree topically specific (one cannot talk about osmosis without using the word ‘osmosis’ at least once), the language of research has grown so obtuse that we ask “Do elasmobranchs possess the cognitive ability to discriminate between complex auditory cues?” rather than asking “can a shark tell the difference between two types of music?” (You can read this compelling study here, for a subscribers fee). I feel quite confident that my grandmother understands what it means to play music to sharks, but complex auditory cues may not get much of a reaction.

So yes, open access publishing levels the accessibility playing field (this is the equality portion of publishing). However, publishing research in an open access journal does little to increase the scope of dissemination to the members in our global community who may most benefit from the information (this is the equity part of the conversation). We have some choices to make. Is equity important enough to us as a community that we will shift both our language and our access? Do we cultivate a research culture in which every scientific manuscript is accompanied by straightforward translation? If I can successfully write an entire manuscript in “layman’s english” will my peer reviewers accept it?

Albert Einstein wrote “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” As a research community we are moving in the right direction, but let us do more than remove all of the fences from the trees and post signs that say “Climb me”. Let’s examine how we can be better communicators of our work, both in the peer review literature and beyond it.