Northeastern University

Scientists blog for positive change, in environment and community

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Image by Rob

An oyster rake is given a rest after a long, mostly unsuccessful day of digging for the shellfish. Image by Roberto Diaz de Villegas.

New faculty members Randall Hughes and David Kimbro set up shop at the Marine Science Center this winter after spending several years at Florida State University studying oyster reefs. During their time in Tallahassee, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill devastated the region, dumping nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the ocean over a period of 87 days. The tragedy killed 11 people and threatened fisheries and other animal populations throughout the Gulf of Mexico.

Since the spill, the oyster fishery in Apalachicola Bay, where Kimbro and Hughes worked, was declared a federal disaster, said Kimbro, who, along with Hughes and dozens of other researchers, had already been investigating the impacts of disturbance on marine organisms. But the oil spill made it all a lot more relevant, especially to the people who lived in the area. Two years later the community is still not fully recovered. Oyster deaths aren’t just oyster deaths—they also spell financial turmoil for people like oyster fishers and food service managers. “This fishery supplied 10 percent of the commercial product to the US. This is affecting at least 2,500 local jobs in Florida,” said Kimbro. “It’s a big deal.”

Hughes and Kimbro realized that their research could benefit that community: if they could figure out what makes for prime oyster real estate, they might be able to help implement remediation strategies to bring that oyster fishery back up to snuff. But “outsider” scientists trying to interface with a generations-old community is easier said than done. Hughes and Kimbro realized that if their work was going to do anything at all, they’d first have to communicate with the people living in the area about their research. They’d have to stop talking in scientific jargon and start having regular conversations with the people immediately impacted by the spill.

So in 2011 the duo applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation’s “Connecting Researchers to Public Audiences” program. They wrote a detailed, 15-page project proposal outlining their very scientific approach to science communication. Joining forces with the local public radio station, WFSU, they put together a suite of communications tools and training to help them connect with the community members affected by the spill.

Each week they and their students post about their research to a blog hosted by WFSU’s website: In the Grass, on the Reef. Film producer Roberto Diaz de Villegas shoots video footage of the team in action, as well as interactions with the community. All of this is expected to soon be compiled into an hour long documentary about the researchers’ efforts.

The most recent video on their blog gives you a little glimpse of how their work is both facing serious challenges because of the spill, as well as how their communications efforts may be creating positive connections between the oyster fishers and the scientists, who clearly need to work together to overcome those challenges:


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