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Science Communication, Simple Words, and Story Telling at ESA 2016

A guest post from PLOS Ecology Reporting Fellow, Caitlin McDonough, on research from the Ecological Society of America Scientific Meeting in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, August 7-11, 2016.

On Tuesday afternoon at the Ecological Society of America 2016 Conference in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, amid the many Latin species names and varied sub-discipline jargon, it was possible to stumble upon a session of talks about blue flyers, spring pretty flowers, God’s creatures, and animals with six legs and no bone in their back. The audience fell in love with black back wood hitters, cheered for flying friends with six legs and four wings that like sweet things and help plants with sex and was touched by the sentiment that the land had memory made up of things in the dirt and much of the memory was lost.


This was the Up Goer Five Ignite Session, where seven brave scientists took on the challenge made famous by xkcd comic author Randall Munroe and his Thing Explainer book and presented their research using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language, originating from Munroe’s eponymous example. In the ESA session, the phylogeny of grassland plants was reduced to grasses, grasssish, smells fresh, sun flowers, fixers, and roses and climate change was described as the whole earth surface is getting more and more hot.


The presenters approached their talks with a high level of creativity and humor, and the audience responded with enthusiasm, empathy, and #UpGoESA tweets. Rebecca Barak opened the session with a high-energy summary of grassland restoration research. Her talk featured the poetic land memory line and the hilariously simplified grass phylogeny, as well as the explanation that one piece of equipment used to study seeds was the special machine that doctors use to look inside of you. Nick Haddad asked Can I light a fire to save those damn butter flies? With surprising dexterity he wove the story of Icarus and Daedalus into his research on fire adaptation and complex species interactions. Here, we noticed how difficult it is to mark temporal change and population dynamics of a butterfly species with only the 1,000 most common words: over five tens of years the numbers of these plants have gone down to zero. The stark phrasing that people may need to kill these animals to save them was very powerful in this pared down vocabulary. Margaret Lowman may have smuggled in a few extra words, but her talk about working with priests in Ethiopia to save sacred forests (birds eye view of trees: in the center is a round house called a church) was a refreshing reminder that there are whole communities that ecologists traditionally neglect to engage with, and these have the potential to be fruitful partnerships.


David Inouye shared research from his field site (or where he spends his time playing while not teaching) and explained phenology models by asking the audience Can we guess when that will happen? His talk featured the memorably phrased description of his Colorado field site location as the place where people over 21 can buy grass to get high. Samuel Cowell regaled us with tales of the nesting behavior of blue flyers — their propensity for stealing some wood hitter homes, but also their territorial protection of other wood hitter homes, ultimately summarizing their complex interactions as blue flyers are bad and good to the wood hitters. Jeff Atkins’s visuals — drawings commissioned from his and his colleagues’ children — strongly resonated with the audience. Pairing crayons and construction paper with the big green stuff and the small green stuff, in the mountains and the not so flat ground was a brilliant take on the simplified vocabulary. Finally, Elizabeth Waring closed the session with her comparison of Old Green Things and New Green Things. The crowd loved her terms for nitrogen deposition (extra ground food to make green things for humans grow harder faster stronger) and greenhouse experiments (grown in a hot box, I changed how hot the grass got).


Science communication, language, and accessibility were at the center of the post-presentations discussion. Across all of the talks, the most memorable and successful Up Goer Five phrases didn’t just substitute simple words for scientific jargon, they were emotional and evocative compositions. Distilling one’s science into the 1,000 most common words was described as an opportunity to influence the connotation of common (but not top 1,000 words common) phrases with thoughtful word choice. The direct vocabulary has a sharp impact. As one audience member noted, this was not just an exercise in how good are you at using a thesaurus — the speakers found ways to be poetic, expressive, and clear.


Restricting word choice to the 1000 most common words highlights how few of our common words are ecological terms. In a way, this highlights the difficulty of science communication with the general public: our vocabularies do not always intersect. Meg Lowman wondered aloud if we could add 125 of “our words” back to the common vernacular. The loss of nature words from the Oxford Children’s Dictionary and our vocabulary in general has been noted. Is this a crusade for ecologists? What are the 125 words that we most miss? And what can we do to reintroduce these into words so that the next generation of Up Goer Five ecologists has the ability to say “trees”?


Great story telling was not limited to the Up Goer Five session. At the Wednesday night Special Session “Engaging with the Wider World True Tales Told Live” four ecologists were given the whole range of the English language to speak to their experiences in diverse forms of engagement. During his tale Matthew Williamson confessed to fellow story-teller and ESA President Monica Turner that years ago, in a punk rock phase, he had joined her field team as kid with a Mohawk and a bad attitude. The narratives tracked births, deaths, career changes, and community building; they reflected on intersections of creativity, courage and advocacy. There were funny moments — Monica Turner admitted “I am not Stephen Colbert!” — and deeply poignant personal stories. In beautifully crafted prose, Annaliese Hettinger described the joy, isolation, and exhaustion she found in finishing her Ph.D. within a year of the birth of her son, while caring for her dying mother who, decades before, had defended her own Ph.D. when Annaliese was an infant.


There was a real sense of craving in the audience as we watched these ecologists talking about science communication. We want more examples of successful science communication, and more opportunities to practice these skills ourselves. These opportunities are at ESA; among our ranks are excellent science communicators, our meetings feature multiple workshops focused on diverse engagement opportunities, and the Up Goer Five audience passionately embraced the idea of an annual Ignite Session. Hopefully this is an areas where we can continue to build and grow.


 Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie is a PhD candidate in the Primack Lab in the Biology Department at Boston University. She spends her field seasons in Acadia National Park, Maine studying leaf out and flowering phenology and patterns of historical species loss across plant communities. Her field methods include three ridge transects that are conveniently located adjacent to beautiful running trails and carriage roads. Away from Acadia’s granite ridges, she’s interested in underutilized sources of historical ecology data including herbarium specimens, field notebooks, photographs, and old floras; the potential for citizen science in phenology research; and the intersection of science and policy.  (Follow Caitlin on Twitter @CaitlinInMaine)





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