When the Deepwater Horizon (or BP) oil spill devastated the Gulf Coast in 2010, dumping nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the ocean, Randall Hughes and David Kimbro, then scientists at Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Laboratory, saw their research immediately become relevant. Both study the impact of natural and human-made disturbances on oyster reefs, and—by association—the effects on nearby fishing communities.

Three years after the spill, the region’s economy has still not fully recovered. “This fishery supplied 10 percent of the commercial oysters to the United States, which is affecting at least 2,500 local jobs in Florida,” says Kimbro. He and Hughes joined Northeastern’s Marine Science Center as assistant professors early this year. “It’s a big deal.”

At Northeastern, Kimbro and Hughes continue the project they developed in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. They learned then that connecting with a generations-old fishing community is easier said than done. They knew that if their research were to be useful, they’d have to cut out the jargon and start having conversations with the people directly affected by the spill.

So in 2011, in conjunction with WFSU, the local public radio station, the duo applied for and received a grant from the National Science Foundation to create a suite of communications tools and training to help them connect with Gulf community members.

They have since held several storytelling training workshops for themselves and their graduate students and started a blog popular in the Gulf area called “In the Grass on the Reef.” They’re also working on a feature-length documentary film (excerpts can be found on YouTube).

“Many science blogs out there are preaching to the choir,” says Hughes. “We want to get away from that and speak directly to the general public.”


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Angela Herring is Northeastern’s science writer. Contact her via twitter,  at her blog, or via email.