Scientists blog for positive change, in environment and community

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: