Research Ambassador Program Connects Research Scientists to General Public

May 9, 2011

How do you translate the language of ecosystem ecology biology into words that four-year olds, senior citizens, and incarcerated men and women can not only comprehend, but also be excited about? Is it possible to spark their interests and intellects in a subject that seems so far removed from their daily lives? These types of questions shape the work of scientists trying to move their research beyond their field in academia and out to the general public.

The "Research Ambassador Program" is trying to answer these questions by approaching these issues from a perspective of "cross-cultural exchange." In the case of the toddlers, a marine biologist visited the Evergreen Campus Children's Center and talked about mud. A forest ecologist gave a lecture about bark beetles and forest dynamics to a group of female inmates at a minimum security prison, ending with a rendition of "I will survive" to signify the resilience of both forests and people.

These biologists were recruited, trained, and rewarded to be "Research Ambassadors", prepared to interact with and bring science directly to both traditional and underserved segments of the public.

In 2010, Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, faculty member at The Evergreen State College, received funding from the National Science Foundation to initiate the Research Ambassador Program, a project to explore ways for scientists to link with members of their local communities by offering presentations, workshops, and other events at senior centers, churches, daycare centers, and other places we visit on a daily basis.

Since January, 2011, the Research Ambassador Program has hosted the first seven of its eight scheduled visiting Fellows, which include some scientists at the beginning and others at later stages of their careers. They wish to learn creative ways to conduct outreach in their local communities during their three-day visits to Olympia. Here, they receive one-on-one training in communications strategies from both Dr. Nadkarni, and Amy Stasch, a former National Park ranger. They then apply those strategies in outreach talks later in their visit. Fellows have spoken at area prisons (including Stafford Creek Corrections Center, Washington Corrections Center for Women, and Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women), to the four year old "Geoducks" of the Evergreen Children's Center , at the Olympia Film Society, and at a workshop at United Churches. Fellows have also met individually with patrons and employees of the local stores Alpine Experience, Olympic Outfitters, and Wind Up Here toys, exploring how scientists could more actively interact with skiers, snowboarders, and parents. .

The program has received an enthusiastic response from all involved. Participating scientists have returned to their home communities with action plans to contact their local senior centers, and the teachers at the daycare centers their children attend. Partners have expressed interest in hearing more about current scientific developments and appreciate the opportunity to interact directly with a scientist to ask questions and hear the details of working in a lab.

In May, the program will be hosting one more visiting Fellow, Dr. Doug Levey, a Professor at the University of Florida who studies plant compounds. He will talk to the childcare center, and discuss his scientific work with prisoners. The public is invited to a public talk at Buck's Fifth Avenue (209 5th Ave.) in Olympia on Tuesday May 17 at 11 a.m. Amidst the shelves of spices, Dr. Doug Levey will explain why chilis are hot, drawing on his ecological and biochemical work to understand the evolutionary ecology behind plant production of spicy compounds that affect animals that may eat them..

Program Director Nalini Nadkarni is a leading forest canopy ecologist and has been a member of The Evergreen State College faculty for more than 18 years. She has a passion for introducing new audiences to the wonder of science, and won the Public Service Award from the National Science Board in 2010 for her efforts.

Participating Scientists Include:

Dr. Denise Bruesewitz
Postdoctoral Researcher
University of Texas at Austin
Research includes: freshwater ecology, biogeochemistry

Dr. Matthew Hurteau
Assistant Research Professor
Northern Arizona University
Research includes: climate change mitigation

Dr. Doug Levey
University of Florida
Research includes: landscape ecology and conservation biology

Ms. Aurora MacRae-Crerar
Doctoral Student
University of Pennsylvania
Research includes: soil microbial communities, biogeochemistry

Ms. Molly Mehling
Doctoral Candidate
Miami University
Research includes: community ecology, ecotoxicology

Ms. Katie Renwick
Doctoral Student
Colorado State University
Research includes: temperate forests, disturbance ecology

Dr. Rebecca Trueman
Assistant Professor
Concordia University Chicago
Research includes: biogeochemistry, wetland ecology

Dr. Alan Wilson
Assistant Professor
Auburn University
Research includes: community ecology and genetics, limnology

For More Information:

Program Director Nalini Nadkarni
(360) 867-6621

Program Manager Amy Stasch
(360) 867-6767