The oyster doctors hit the silver screen

Producer Rob Diaz de Villegas films assistant professor Randall Hughes doing research in the salt marshes of Apalachicola Bay in Florida. Photo by Rebecca Wilkerson.

Pro­ducer Rob Diaz de Vil­legas films assis­tant pro­fessor Ran­dall Hughes doing research in the salt marshes of Apalachicola Bay in Florida. Photo by Rebecca Wilkerson.

Last May I posted about a very cool sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion project from Ran­dall Hughes and David Kimbro, both assis­tant pro­fes­sors of marine and envi­ron­mental sci­ence. Before they came to North­eastern a little more than a year ago, they were at Florida State Uni­ver­sity where they devel­oped a part­ner­ship with the local public broad­casting sta­tion, WFSU. The crowning glory of the project—a one-​​hour doc­u­men­tary film called Oyster Doc­tors—was released last week.

The project started largely because of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill,” Hughes said. Everyone expected that the mas­sive amounts of oil dumped into the Gulf of Mexico would have a huge neg­a­tive impact on Apalachicola Bay, where she and Kimbro had been con­ducting research for sev­eral years. “We wanted to doc­u­ment what the habi­tats looked like before they were cov­ered with oil.”

But thank­fully, that never hap­pened. The oil never got that far east. Nevertheless, Apalachicola Bay still began to suffer a huge oyster crisis a year later. Some sus­pect that this might be due to the increase in oyster fishing that took place in antic­i­pa­tion of habitat loss, she told me. The pre­emp­tive over­fishing, some spec­u­late, could have had the same neg­a­tive effect that people were wor­ried about occur­ring because of the oil itself.

Of course, the only way to figure out answers to ques­tions like that is to do the research. Which is what Hughes, Kimbro, and their teams have been up to over the last few years. Even now that they’re here at North­eastern, they con­tinue to go down to Florida to follow up on studies they began there.

In the mean­time, the pro­ducer that WFSU assigned to Hughes and Kimbro’s project, Rob Diaz de Vil­legas, had fallen in love with fol­lowing the researchers into the field. He pro­duced dozens of short videos that they posted on their blog, In the Grass, on the Reef, in the hopes of com­mu­ni­cating to the local pop­u­la­tion how impor­tant sci­ence like this really is for the region’s livelihood.

With the blog and the videos, Hughes told me, they wanted to convey some spe­cific con­cepts. In par­tic­ular they wanted people to realize how many ben­e­fits the salt marsh and oyster ecosys­tems (which are home to lots of other species) pro­vide. Yes, there’s the food pro­vided in the oys­ters, but these habi­tats also lend pro­tec­tion to the coast­line, filter run off from the land before it gets to the sea, pro­vide jobs to oys­termen, researchers, and eco­tour oper­a­tors, and just gen­er­ally increase the quality of life for the local community.

They also wanted their readers and viewers to under­stand a little better how sci­ence works—the fact that it takes a long time to answer ques­tions that policy makers and the public often want answers to right away; that often­times unex­pected things happen in the midst of an exper­i­ment, which researchers have to cre­atively address.

Per­haps most impor­tantly, they wanted people to under­stand just how com­plex the rea­sons behind the oyster crisis really are. Not only was their increased fishing in the area, but there’s also a big debate about whether drought and water diver­sions taking place up north are having an effect. These both increase the salinity of the water in the bay, which, according to some of Kimbro’s pre­vious research, has the effect of increasing the range of salt-​​water preda­tors. This may also be playing a role in the oys­ters dying off, who are now sus­cep­tible to preda­tors that they don’t nor­mally encounter.

It’s kind of like death by a thou­sand cuts,” Hughes said. There’s no one simple answer to why the oys­ters are suf­fering, but in order to get a cohe­sive pic­ture and address it effec­tively, researchers like her need to be able to keep asking their ques­tions and doing exper­i­ments. And they also need to keep com­mu­ni­cating the results of those exper­i­ments to the public.

Hughes said that she always knew that talking about her work with the gen­eral public was a good idea, but now that she’s com­pleted most of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions project with WFSU, she’s much less appre­hen­sive about the idea. It’s also shifted her own research. “I try to strike more of a bal­ance between basic research and what’s more inter­esting to the com­mu­nity,” she explained.

Now that the majority of the project is com­plete, she and her col­leagues have to go look at all the data they’ve col­lected (from sur­veys and tools like Google Ana­lytics, which tracks their blog traffic) to see whether they achieved their goals. They want to know what kind of an audi­ence they man­aged to attract and how they heard about it. They want to know what that audi­ence knew before they started fol­lowing their research pur­suits, and what they learned along the way. Stay tuned for another blog post here to find out what they learn.