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.

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.

Meet the Ocean

When I was 21 years old and backpacking through Central America I met a man named Paul North at a dive shop. For a few precious weeks we shared an underwater community, diving among friends on the coral reefs of Utila, Honduras.  We became friends, we talked theatre and fish (we were both studying playwriting at the time), swam in the wine dark sea and parted ways.

Ten years later I receive an email from Mr. North. His path and mine had converged again, this time over a shared love for science, communication, and most importantly the ocean.

Paul is now the director of a non-profit organization called Meet the Ocean ,dedicated to educating the public on the importance of the saltwaters of our planet. At the heart of the organization is a combination of storytelling and science used to combat environmental apathy. He invited me to join the team as their resident acoustic ecologist. He remembered the version of me from my early 20’s that was dedicated to telling stories, and honored the me now who has committed my life to acoustic ecology. I accepted his invitation, honoring also this new version of him.

Well, Paul and the Meet the Ocean team have just released their 8th podcast, this time focused on the Alaska Whale Foundation, where I am a Research Associate. I listened to the podcast today, and immediately wanted to share it. Not only because I’m featured (listen for a tutorial on acoustic ecology), but because it’s really nicely done. I encourage you to listen and share the podcast as well. It paints a picture (using sound) of what our organization is like, how we got here, and why what we do is so important.

If you like what you hear, please don’t hesitate to donate.  Meet the Ocean is just getting off the ground, and it means a lot to us.

Download the Podcast Here

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The animal behind it all.  A humpback whale dives in Frederick Sound; not pictured is me on a small vessel nearby, listening.

The Season is Officially… over.

The 2016 Alaskan field season is officially over. I can drag my feet and hang my head all I want, but the acoustic and behavioral data collection for 2016 is done and the process of studying for my comprehensive exams is in full swing (I’m taking a short break from outlining the management procedures of the IWC to write this blog). Admitting that I will not wake to the sound of humpback whales breathing outside my tent is a tough reality. Going a day without seeing a seal or an otter has been harder than I expected, but I realize it is time to say goodbye.

This summer was challenging, for various reasons. Year two, I think, always is. Expectations are variable, hopes run high, and the delicious satisfaction that comes with problem solving doesn’t always happen. The problems are already solved.

Despite this, the 2016 field season remains the most lucrative of my career , with hundreds of hours of data collection and a total of nearly a thousand surveys to compliment the anticipated 3,000 hours of recordings. I learned a great deal about nature, humanity, and myself, and I have high hopes that our scientific efforts will be fruitful! Further, I deepened some of my most valuable relationships (scientifically and personally) which colleagues that intend to keep for a lifetime.

But my writing this blog post doesn’t adequately paint the picture of what life felt like on the island, or why we study what we study. PBS, however, has done a pretty nice job of doing that for us. So I encourage you to watch the five-minute film below. It was produced by PBS and Alaska public media, but really it’s the brainchild of Hanna Gomes.  She did a really nice job capturing our world of Strawberry Island. I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye.

Watch and Listen

My broken heart limped off of Strawberry Island a few weeks ago on a day when the fog was too thick to permit my sentimental heart watch the island fade into the distance. But while our field season on the island had come to an end, my field work for the summer was not quite complete.

My work in Glacier Bay studying humpback whale acoustics is partially based on my previous work conducted from the Five Finger Lighthouse. I’m interested in comparing the two regions (both the soundscapes and the behaviors of the whales themselves), as we have historic population and acoustics information from both regions dating back to the late 1980’s (Thank you Malme and Miles! Thank you Scott Baker!). To get the ball rolling on this comparison I made my way to the Five Finger Lighthouse for a short 10 day foray into “late season acoustic behavior”.

I don’t have anything definitive to report, except that the team of volunteers who have been working on maintaining my favorite historic structure have been hard at work, and that the whales were abundant beyond my wildest dreams. If Glacier Bay is indicative of high quality interactions with individual humpback whales (remember Cervantes), than Frederick Sound is a strong argument for quantity over quality. In this, my tenth summer spent with Alaskan humpbacks, I finally broke the record for highest concentration of animals in a single area. Don’t believe me? Watch the short clip below and see a glimpse of the 40+animals milling around the region. Once you’re done watching, listen to the sound file to get an idea of what these animals were saying when this video was filmed. In my humble opinion, it is in this pairing of sight and sound that we begin to understand.

Watch

Listen

(These videos and recordings  were collected  under a research permit and with zoom lenses. Endangered or not it is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to approach a humpback whale within 100 yards, to alter the behavior of an animal, or to recklessly operate a vessel — even a kayak– in the presence of humpback whales). 

The Little Things

IMG_1169What is 5 1/2 feet long, weighs 135 pounds, and isn’t an intern? My favorite odontocete: Phocoena phocoena, the harbor porpoise.

Due to their vessel aversion they are slightly hard to study, and their distribution, population structure, and acoustic behavior in the Park is still largely unknown. Harbor porpoise, while not an endangered species, are very susceptible to disturbance from noise. I’m not personally studying the impact of noise on these graceful creatures here in the park, but I am encouraging my team to come up with some creative study ideas.

While deterred by motorized vessels, harbor porpoise don’t appear to be disturbed by kayaks. These lovely animals often swim within meters of us when we survey on the water. Their vocalizations are too high frequency for our hydrophones to pick up, but I can’t help but wonder if they’re echolocating our equipment.

 

Saying Goodnight

Going to bed (and by bed I mean tent) on the island is easy. It is often rainy and cold;  recently the days have been growing shorter revealing black starless nights that challenge my trust of these old woods, and when the weather is clear enough to work our days can be long. But occasionally as we are tucking ourselves into our sleeping bags at night something happens that’s worth getting up for.

This was the case a week or so ago when the exhales of one whale (SEAK-1899, a.k.a. “Nacho”, a.k.a. “Cervantes”) persisted for so long, and with such intensity, that we left our tents and made our way in the fading sunlight out to the beach to see what was going on. As it turned out Cervantes was feeding in our intertidal; take a peek.

Cervantes visits us often these days. This isn’t unusual for for Glacier Bay whales, which exhibit strong maternal site fidelity to the Park (for a really interesting scientific read on local recruitment of humpback whales in Glacier Bay and check our Sophie Pierszalowski’s master’s thesis here), but it is new for our field team here on Strawberry Island. The ability to recognize and interact with an individual humpback whale in such close proximity requires patience, attention and time. While our team last year grew capable of discriminating between individuals whales (a requirement for focal following a whale that’s a mile and a half away), the ability to recognize an individual whale with certainty every time one sees it requires repeated interactions. For humans who are a measly 1.75 meters tall, these interactions are imprinted more efficiently if they occur at close range.

Individuality matters. Increasing evidence for personality in animals confirms what pet owners for decades have intuitively known – animals have unique dispositions. Not all whale are created equal, and to understand how the population as a whole may respond to changes in the environment, necessitates sampling a wide swath of individuals. For example, if we follow Cervantes around from birth until death we may conclude that all humpback whale forage intertidally (likely not the case), that all whales annually migrate (also not entirely true) and that all humpback whales blow bubbles at their prey (which would be interesting… but unlikely).  Further, what if Cervantes proved to be an anomalous whale? Not wholly on the “average” spectrum for whale behavior. Cervantes is of unknown sex; it is tempting to infer that an adult whale of unknown sex who has never had a calf must be male (this is in fact what our field team inferred). The possibility, however, fully exists that Cervantes may be a late bloomer who will calve in the future and against what we anticipate given the average age of first calving, prove herself to be a lady whale after all. If Cervantes was the only animal we studied, we might infer an age of first calving for humpback whales that wasn’t accurate for the majority. So if we want to understand whales instead of understanding whale we have to look at many individuals.

Cervantes (SEAK-1899) visits the Strawberry Island survey point frequently. The entanglement scars near the dorsal fin help our team to identify this whale.

Why then are these repeated interactions with Cervantes so valuable? They are valuable scientifically in that we have the ability to investigate individual variation by linking behaviors with a known animal. More importantly for our team right now, however, these interactions are valuable to us personally. Living in the presence of giants inspires a person; knowing the giants’ name and saying good morning to him everyday, in my humble experience, moves a person beyond awe and into action. As overused as the Jacque Cousteau quote is, one cannot deny that people protect what they love. Cervantes’ ability to exist in such close proximity to our camp give us permission to love these animals, this shoreline, and this ocean just a little more strongly. This is a gift, and I am grateful.

The Talking Earth

*This post is dedicated to my mom, who taught me how to read and how to listen*

When I was a small child my mother read a book called “The Talking Earth” out loud to my sister and I. As an adult I can’t quite remember the details, but it was about a Seminole girl alone in the woods interacting with plants, animals, wind and water in an effort to regain her faith in the power of nature. I vaguely remember her saving an abandoned otter pup and nursing it back to health and something lovely about a panther. What I poignantly recall, however, is a passage in the book about listening to the language of the earth as she nurses the otter; the beating hearts and warm bodies of mammals, the beating wings of the birds, and the sounds of rain and wind that collectively gives all animals a way of understanding the world. This book inspired a lot of thoughts in me as a child.

Now, I spend a lot of time thinking about only one species, as it communicates with other animals of the same species, underwater, in the Beardslee Island Complex, in Glacier Bay Alaska. I dream about humpback whales calling in these waters at night (and often as I nap between shifts throughout our long days). But living on this island does something very kind for me, it speaks about more than just the whales. So a few days ago I stood alone on the beach at 4:07 am preparing to survey for whales and as the sun rose I took a few moments to listen to what the earth had to say to me.

The tide was shifting; I could see the water converging at our survey point. The clouds were rolling in on a southwest wind, and the fog was preparing to slowly take over the coastline in front of me. The loons called to each other in the pink turquoise rising sun. The family of oystercatchers that we watched last year gave one another their high cackling good morning greetings . The gulls squabbled, the sea lions yawned angry yawns. The earth woke up in pastel glory. When I was experiencing my first Alaskan winter I wrote that the Alaskan sun doesn’t burn, it blushes. This particular morning at 4am, the sun blushed and I was there to experience it.

It was a lovely moment for me. One of the few moments on the island when I was truly afforded solitude. Fieldwork is a strange bedfellow- the six of us are isolated on this island, yet we are never out of earshot of one another. I joke that we are isolated, together- and at 4am if given the chance to sleep in, our team will take it (and deserve it). Why I stayed up to survey myself? I’m not sure. Maybe I needed the space. Maybe when I woke up to check the weather it was too beautiful to go back to bed, and too foggy to be worth rousing my snuggling crew.

I’ve been going back and forth to that moment in my mind and it reminds me again of the book, The Talking Earth that my mother read to me as a child. It isn’t just the sounds of the earth that I found remarkable, though certainly sound is what resonates with me, it is the subtle signals that the earth gives all those who inhabit it, humans included. It requires an attentiveness to hear the messages in nature, and therefore a desire to listen in the first place. Subtly is a divinely natural quality.

I realize in writing this that this is important to me because it’s how I try to run my field team. With grace and intention, routine and subtlety, with the expectation of the best of my crew, and with consistent communication. Sometimes I succeed, often I fail, but it is in this emulation of nature’s voice that I think we can both collect the best data possible (you can go back through this blog to learn more about the technical rigors of our field collection), while absorbing the many lessons that come from simply observing a place for as long as we are privileged to observe the waters of Strawberry Island.

The scientist in me doesn’t sleep through these sorts of introspections. My job, among many in science, is to try and take these intangibles and make them tangible. My job as a creative human is to do this without losing the essence of what makes these observations incredible. So I won’t deny that in my grand sunrise moment I grinned a little knowing that all of the glorious things I was listening to were being recorded by a two tiny terrestrial recorders that were lent to me by the Cornell Lab or Ornithology (thanks to my advisor Holger and BRP!). When I’m not in the field I’ll post some clips of the Talking Earth here in Glacier Bay, I’d encourage you to close your eyes and imagine being here. Here are a few photos to help you along.

Your Alaskan Correspondent,

Miche

 

 

Incumbent

There was a point in the not too distant past when the mayor of the small town of Gustavus also ran the landfill. The mayor position is a one year gig, today Paul continues to run the landfill. After leaving his political career behind he seems content to talk about recycling (if you meet him ask him about co-mingling), and to be exuberantly invested in his town. While I didn’t get the chance to ask him if his time spent as mayor changed how he viewed Gustavus, I am certain it changed his body of knowledge about his community.

This is, in many ways, how I view returning to Strawberry Island – as an incumbent mayor who has been recently elected to a second term. Our initial field team was tasked with establishing a small (and ephemeral) community on Strawberry Island; our little peninsula consisted of five human citizens, approximately 30 humpback whale citizens, and a large un-censused population of voles, birds, and of course harbor seals. The structure we established during our first term in office is holding up well — protocols are streamlined, our tasks are efficiently assigned and completed, our well oiled machine was restarted with relative ease. But there is a tacit anticipation that this year on the island we will accomplish more, grow more, and see more than we saw last year.

But I’m not much of a politician really; my goal is not to out-do 2015 but to strive to be as humbled by this year’s field season as we were by last year’s field season. So how do we do that?

Well, so far life is peppered with heaps of humpback whales (we had a day with 10-15 whales in the survey area and another 10 or so just out of sight), sunset kayaks, sunrise surveys, and visitors to break bread with on the island. Our oyster catchers are alive and well, and though I can’t confirm, I think they may be nesting. The harbor porpoise have calved and are regularly visitors to our island cove. In short, life on the island is bustling.

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We arrived on the island just as the whales moved into the area. (photo credit: L. Matthews)

In slightly sadder news, this year a Glacier Bay whale nicknamed Festus was found dead in the water. Two of our team members, Luke and myself were able to participate in the necropsy of this well known animal. Festus was among the first (if not the first) humpback whale to be ID’ed in Glacier Bay. He was first photographed in 1972, and has been a regular inhabitant of the Park ever since. It’s difficult to say at this point if his death was tragic, or whether it was simply time, but my hope is that the samples we were able to extract and the evidence that we gathered on the beach last week will help solve the mystery of his death.

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Luke and I had the privilege of spending a day with an amazing necropsy team.

Thought the event was sad (I described it as feeling like a funeral for someone who made you so happy you that giggle through their service despite yourself), our necropsy team was inspiring. In the company of Glacier Bay’s humpback whale monitoring team (Chris, Janet, and Lou), bear biologist Tania (talk about women in science!), BC based veterinarian Stephen (nicest man ever, even when covered in whale blood), and the slew of Gustavus-folk who just happened to show up (Of course, when you need an MD most she and her entire family of science minded enthusiasts will be camping nearby)!

I realize as I’m wrapping this up that I’m not really doing our first few weeks in the field justice; maybe it’s because I’m exhausted, or possibly the allure of Gustavus on the Fourth of July has my mind wandering. What I did learn last year is that the photos never do it justice, the stories always miss the details, and that even the mayor needs the day off from time to time.