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Hi, thank you for visiting my blog.

Since 2016 I have been publishing my writing on Medium. I hope you will visit my profile and check it out! You will find a series of blogs that illustrate how design, data visualisation, and technology are being used to communicate information more effectively, to help tackle some of the world’s most important issues.

I hope to see you on Medium very soon!




Tweetable science gifs

Sometimes 140 characters just isn’t enough to get your message across on Twitter. So what options do you have to make the most of your tweet?

I’ve discussed tweetable science posters in a previous blog but today I saw a great gif tweeted by @WWF that explained the 2oC climate change concept in an incredibly clear and simple way. In just five slides WWF laid out the facts about the global temperature rise to date, the maximum increase in temperature if we want to limit the worst impacts of climate change, what the temperature rise will be if we carry on with business as usual, and the temperature rise if every country sticks to its climate pledge. All this in one tweet!

Limiting the increase of the global temperature rise has been a key topic of conversation during COP21 in Paris. I have seen tweets, mainly sent by climate deniers, which show a clear misunderstanding (perhaps wilfully) of what world leaders are trying to achieve through their discussions. For example I came across a tweet by someone who was complaining about the arrogance of leaders for believing they can reduce the global temperature by 2oC! For me this highlighted that climate science needs to be communicated better.

With their gif, I think WWF is achieving this. They are also using this gif to call for greater action by highlighting current pledges are not enough keep the global temperature rise within a range that can limit the most dangerous impacts of climate change. The look and style of the gif itself is in the typical WWF design style and delivers just the right amount of information.

Done well, gifs could be an amazing way to communicate science and perhaps the tweetable science poster will soon evolve into a tweetable gif!

Check out WWF’s gif for yourself!


Combining entertainment and education

When I wrote my last blog, I was busy preparing for a trip to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The ship I was due to sail on promised an on board marine biologist and I was curious to see what learning opportunities there would be for the guests. I’m pleased to report that the trip, and the on board marine experts, exceeded my expectations!

First, I shall introduce the people who made the trip so memorable – the Trip Director and the Diving Instructor, who were both experts in marine biology. I was thrilled to discover there were two marine biologist on board! Kristy, the Trip Director, delivered fascinating talks about the Great Barrier Reef and led the glass bottom boat tours while Riccardo, the Diving Instructor, showed off the reefs from an underwater perspective. Both of them willingly shared their own knowledge, passion and infectious enthusiasm for the reef!

Over the course of a four night cruise, the ship stopped at four different reefs: the reef fringing Lizard Island; Ribbon Reef Number 9; Ribbon Reef Number 3; and Rescue Reef. Throughout the trip there were many opportunities for guests to learn about the reefs they were visiting and education was very much part of the entertainment schedule.

Kristy made daily presentations about coral reefs and the animals you might find living on them. She explained how coral reefs are formed, the threats they face, and what measures are being taken to protect the Great Barrier Reef. The science behind the formation and composition of a coral reef was clearly and simply explained with scientifically accurate detail.

Kristy’s presentations were well rehearsed from doing them on a weekly basis but her passion for the reef was obvious and the talks still sounded fresh. The excitement in her voice shone through when she told us about her favourite fish (boxfish) and she always seemed happy to answer any questions people had about what they were seeing under the water.

After one of her talks, Kristy revealed her secret to success. When she had started out as a presenter, one of her colleagues had counted the number of times she ummed or erred during one talk. The number was too high for Kristy’s liking so she worked hard to build her confidence and practiced until her talks were um and err free. Of course, confidence builds the more presentations you give but Kristy puts 110% into her presentations and this dedication has paid off.

Beneath the glass like surface of the ocean, Riccardo was working hard to show the first-time divers the wonders of the coral reefs. Even though most of his attention was on the novice divers and making sure they didn’t get too close to the coral, he was still keeping an eye out for the species that some of us had on our wish list to see. I was thrilled when Riccardo gave the signal for a shark and just ahead of us was a white-tipped reef shark making its way slowly along a coral wall, paying absolutely no attention to the divers floating motionless just a few meters away.

Back above the surface, Riccardo shared his own memorable experiences of sailing and diving on the reef. His eyes lit up as he shared a story about the time a humpback whale came alongside the ship while it was at anchor and showed off, flapping its fins and apparently enjoying the attention of its rapturous audience.

Kristy and Riccardo are exactly the kind of people who should be educating others about coral reefs. Thanks to their efforts, I had one of the best experiences I’ll probably ever have. Their love of the reef helps others understand why these incredible places should be respected and protected. They also knew how to talk about the reef in a way that everyone can understand, and they made it fun to learn. Kristy, in particular, did a fine job of combining education with entertainment and I’d like to finish off by sharing the key learning points she has inspired.

  • Be passionate about your subject and let it show in your voice and actions.
  • Get a friend to count the number of times you say um, err, or ah during your presentations. If you are guilty of adding an umm at the beginning of every sentence, practice and build your confidence until the ums and errs are eliminated.
  • Practice makes perfect but keep it fresh and add your own anecdotes to make it personal.
A picture of a shallow coral reef in Australia's Great Barrier Reef
Rescue Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Photo copyright Camellia Williams

Final note: I visited the Great Barrier Reef with Coral Expeditions as a paying guest. They showed great respect for the Great Barrier Reef and the crew was helpful and knowledgeable. This blog is independently written and all views and opinions expressed are entirely mine.

Explaining coral bleaching in a simple way

In a just a few weeks I’ll be visiting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef on a four-day live aboard trip to the Outer Ribbon Reefs and Lizard Island. I studied tropical marine biology at university and I’m really excited about learning more about the reef from the on-board marine biologist.

Knowing that it can be hard to explain in simple terms what a coral is and what coral bleaching and ocean acidification are, I’m curious to see how the marine biologist communicates coral science to the guests and how much detail they go into.

But this is preamble to a future blog, today I want to show you a really good infographic I found that explains coral bleaching in a simple way.

Earlier this year, NOAA scientists announced that a third global coral bleaching event was on its way and last week, NOAA announced that the event is now underway with widespread bleaching in Hawaii which will soon spread to the Caribbean. Long term forecasting by the NOAA Coral Reef Watch predicts a 60% probability of bleaching due to thermal stress across the southern hemisphere between February and May in 2016. (See here for more details)

But what exactly is coral bleaching and why does it matter? NOAA defines coral bleaching as follows, “when corals are stressed by changes in conditions such as temperature, light, or nutrients, they expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn completely white.” Because this doesn’t quite explain everything, especially if you don’t know much about coral biology, NOAA has also made an infographic that I think explains coral bleaching pretty well.

coral bleaching infographic
An infographic by NOAA that explains what coral bleaching is. Credit: NOAA. View the infographic here.

The infographic splits the bleaching process into three stages using simple diagrams that show healthy coral, stressed coral and bleached coral. These diagrams illustrate how algae lives in the tissue of a coral and provides it with food in a relationship that benefits both parties. When conditions become stressful, algae leaves the coral, leaving it looking white or ‘bleached’ in appearance. In a separate column that uses a contrasting colour, the causes of bleaching are listed with a brief explanation of each one.

The only thing the infographic doesn’t fully explain is what happens after a coral becomes bleached and why it worries scientists. Without this information, people may not understand the significance of coral bleaching and the impact it has on the entire coral reef ecosystem. Overall, I think the infographic would be suitable for a range of audiences who are unfamiliar with coral biology but I think it’s missing the ‘so what?’ element.

I’m now on the lookout for an infographic that explains ocean acidification in a simple way. If you know of one, let me know!

Find more learning resources at the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Programme website.

Scicomm lessons from a film documentary

The focus of this week’s blog is a film documentary with a strong environmental message. While it is not strictly a film that communicates science, lessons on how to communicate a message effectively can still be drawn from it.

The film I am discussing is Salt of the Earth, a documentary about the photographer Sebastião Salgado and his travels across the world documenting its people, its remote places, and the impact of war. It was both harrowing and mesmerizing. If you haven’t yet seen it, but plan to, I warn you now that this blog contains spoilers.

Directed by Sebastião’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the film allows us to journey with Sebastião into the depths of human misery and our own destruction of ourselves and our planet. After witnessing the devastating famine in Ethiopia and the plight of migrants fleeing genocide in Rwanda, Sebastião’s soul had broken. His wife Lélia, whose support had enabled him to fulfil his career as a photographer, suggested they return home to his family’s farm in Brazil.

Once a healthy farm with thriving wildlife, the land became barren and empty when Sebastião’s father sold the wood from the surrounding forest to pay for his children’s education. Dry and infertile, the land was a wasteland but with perseverance, Sebastião and Lélia set out to replant the forest.

The first time they tried to replant, 60% of the trees died. The second time they replanted, 40% of the trees died. But, they kept replanting and now the forest and its wildlife has returned. The farm is no longer private property and has been made into a national park for everyone to enjoy. The techniques used to grow seedlings and replant forests are shared with others who are replanting other forests. With their efforts, Sebastião and his family proved that we can repair the damage we do to nature.

So, what can we learn from this documentary that will help us to communicate science better?

First, the film had a compelling narrators. Sebastião and his son have the kind of voices you could listen to all day. They are full of passion and conviction and you believe what they say. Put your passion for your science into your voice next time you give a presentation.

Second, the film had a clear story and structure. Each section of the film was leading towards its climax when the narrators delivered the message that we can do something to fix the mess we make. Remember what your message is and make sure you deliver it – you may not need all the tiny details to explain how you got there but structure your narrative in a way that leads people to a natural conclusion.

Third, the film gave us stunning imagery. Sebastião’s photos say more than words can ever express. If you really want to get your science across, make sure you have the right images, and show them at the right time.

Find out more about more about about the replanting of the forest here:

Show the impacts of research with pictures and storytelling

This week, I am writing about using interactive websites to share research results, in particular, a webpage created by Blue Ventures, a marine-focused conservation organization working in Belize, Madagascar and Malaysia. Blue Ventures recently published a paper that demonstrates the benefits fishing communities in Madagascar can gain from temporarily closing their octopus fishing sites, and Blue Ventures chose to use visual storytelling to highlight the results.

Viewed best on a desktop but still stunning on a tablet or phone, the interactive website opens with a gif that leads the viewer from under the water to above the surface. As you scroll down the page, you are presented with stunning, carefully chosen images that tell the story of the villagers’ lives and what octopus fishing means to them.

Clear, simple infographics emphasize key facts and findings such as the average increase in village income from octopus farming after a closure. The infographics demonstrate the impacts of managing marine resources with temporary bans on fishing and highlights the benefits local people have gained. In essence, the research has shown that marine management can pay.

The webpage is simple yet effective and ends with the option to view more photos and read the full story of what marine management means to people like Velvetine, an old lady for whom octopus gleaning is the only way to earn money. You can also download an infographic with all the findings and if you want to know the full methodology and analysis, there is a link to the open source, freely available paper.

Blue Venture’s interactive website is an excellent example of how to communicate science in an engaging way and I hope others will adopt this method of disseminating research to a wider audience.

View the webpage here:

Octopus cyanea pictured in the Maldives
Octopus cyanea pictured in the Maldives. Photo by Ahmed Abdul Rahman. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Tweetable science posters

Twitter is a fantastic place to share research, express opinions, and connect with others in the same field of research. This week on Twitter, I came across an image that was a hybrid between a science poster and an infographic. In four bullet points, a few photos and a couple of graphs, this ‘tweetable poster’, which is also known as a ‘graphical abstract’, revealed that scientists who had combined long-term monitoring data on the seasonality of nesting effort with a ground-based survey covering 585 km, had discovered that Gabon hosts the largest rookery of olive ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) in the Atlantic and that a significant proportion of nesting effort occurs inside Gabon’s extensive network of coastal protected areas.

Tweetable science poster of olive ridley research
Presenting paper abstracts graphically in a tweetable science poster allows scientists to share their research in an interesting way to a wider audience. Metcalfe, K. et al, 2015. Going the extra mile: Ground-based monitoring of olive ridley turtles reveals Gabon hosts the largest rookery in the Atlantic.

Impressed and intrigued, I got in touch with the creator of the tweetable poster, Dr Kristian Metcalfe who is a Darwin Research Fellow at the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation (which is the same place I studied for my Masters in Conservation and Biodiversity!) Kristian’s current research is focused on delivering a marine protected area network for fisheries and biodiversity in Central Africa, with a particular focus on the Republic of Congo and Gabon.

The Centre for Ecology and Conservation (@UoExeterCEC) encourages its staff and students to use social media to share their research and people like Kristian (@_KMETCALFE), or his colleague Professor Brendan Godley (@BrendanGodley) are well worth following if you are interested in biodiversity and conservation news. The original idea to share a visual abstract via Twitter was from George Swan (@GJFSwan), a graduate student at the Centre and as it proved successful, the template is now widely shared with staff and students, who also receive guidance on how to give effective presentations and produce engaging posters.

I asked Kristian why he creates tweetable posters and who his target audience is. “Not everyone outside of academia has access to scientific journals, largely because of the subscription costs involved,” said Kristian. “In addition, a significant number of papers are published each day and finding those that are of interest can be a slow process. Twitter makes it easier to hear about the latest news, views and research, and so the aim of these tweetable graphical abstracts is to ensure that our findings are also accessible to anyone with an interest in our research area, from policy makers to practitioners, as well as those with a general interest in biodiversity conservation.”

Condensing an entire paper down to a select few bullet points may seem daunting at first but when I asked Kristian if it was a challenge to do this, he said, “I wouldn’t say it is challenging but you have to think about what the most important findings are that would be of interest to a general audience not just scientists.”

The simplicity of a tweetable poster makes it easy to highlight a project’s impact or identify solutions, and by sharing them on Twitter, the reach of these posters goes far beyond that of the traditional posters you find at conferences. Twitter has already made science more accessible, and the adoption of these brief, simple posters can bring research to the fingertips of an even bigger and wider audience.

Find out more about Kristian Metcalfe and his work here and find out more about the Centre for Ecology and Conservation here.

Migratory corridors of green turtles in the Med
Another example of a great graphical abstract from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation. This one identified migratory corridors and foraging hotspots for green turtles in the Mediterranean and identified issues in need of further investigation. Stokes, K.L, et al., 2015. Migratory corridors and foraging hotspots: critical habitats identified for Mediterranean green turtles.