Today we have a guest post from Andrew Holmes, a visiting lecturer at the University of Chester. His research is focused on animal welfare, conservation and evolution. Outside of the lab, Andrew is the creator of The Sciku Project, a scicomm website that brings together science and poetry using just 17 syllables. He’ll be sharing his thoughts on starting his scicomm endeavour while doing research and welcoming a new addition to his family.
Elegant Nuggets/of Intrigue to Stimulate/Curiosity… or How I ended setting up a science website based around Japanese poetry.
by Andrew Holmes
In the beginning…
I didn’t mean to start a website. Certainly the idea of creating a scientific website held little appeal, since there are already plenty that are far better than I could create. I didn’t even know the first thing about web design. And with a baby on the way (now since arrived), I definitely didn’t have the time.
Then again, I didn’t mean to be reading a book of haiku either, but sometimes the best ideas emerge when disparate concepts collide. In both creative endeavours and in science, it pays to accept inspiration as it comes.
I launched The Sciku Project, a fusion of science and haiku, 7 weeks after the birth of my son. Like Daniel, my website is out in the world, although unlike Daniel, it also has matching social media profiles. Interested visitors can revel in science stories of seventeen syllables.
…I can hear the bemused silence as I write this post. Science plus haiku? But before you leave this post, allow me to elaborate. There are so many benefits to this method of science communication that it’s worth a bit of explanation.
But wait…what is a ‘haiku’?
I like trying new things when reading, something that inspired my aunt Barbara to give me a book of poetry. Reading a solitary haiku captured my imagination and, intrigued, I immediately ordered myself an anthology. Haiku anthologies can be very slim and, consequently, cheap – a welcome fact for the impulsive buyer.
A traditional form of Japanese poetry, haiku consist of 17 syllables (known as ‘on’ or ‘morae’), written in English over three lines of five, seven and five syllables. There are other haiku traditions and rules but those 17 syllables are what stand out when we think of the idea. In essence, haiku are micro-poetry.
Haiku often explore miniature moments in nature. But the small stands without purpose if one does not consider its place in the existence, so haiku frequently reveal minute details within a wider context. They provide a setting for these microcosms within wider macrocosms that are sometimes merely hinted at.
One of the most famous haiku concerns a frog jumping into an old pond (several translations of the poem can be found here). The frog’s jump appears to be the focal point of the poem. But the jump is only relevant, only interesting, within the context of the pond, the environment and the observer.
Haiku are fast food art (but don’t worry, McDonald’s and chippy shop haters—this is a complement). Take the jumping frog jump haiku – Basho’s old pond. The haiku itself takes only seconds to read, but the imagery it provokes and the feelings associated with the poem linger for far longer (although it’s possible that your experience with fast food is different to mine). In reading the poem, I can see the pond and the shaggy, overgrown vegetation surrounding it. Insects are murmuring to each other in the background and the air is fresh and bright after a spring shower. And I can hear that SPLASH, and the seeming silence that follows before the world resumes. All this from a handful of words.
The idea for The Sciku Project came to me during my daily commute. I had started composing haiku in my head to stave off the boredom of the 40 minute journey. Heading home one day I wrote a science-themed haiku as an exercise of mental curiosity. And, surprising as it might be, I enjoyed it! As I continued driving, I wondered whether other scientific themes could be given a similar treatment. My initial curiosity soon turned into excitement: I had found something new and exciting, and by the time I reached home I knew what I wanted to do with it!
When I searched for my new idea online I was disappointed (but hardly surprised) to discover that I wasn’t the first to think of science haiku (or as they are known: sciku). There’s even a book of sciku written by students aged 11-18 at the Camden School for Girls to raise money for a new science laboratory.
But even so, I wasn’t discouraged. Nobody was doing exactly what I had in mind: I wanted to break research findings down into haiku. I wanted scientists and non-scientists alike to join in by sharing their interests, work or research papers through the medium of haiku. I wanted to create a website that anyone could visit as a place to celebrate this fusion of science and art.
The idea that science and art are a false dichotomy is nothing new and cross-pollination has, in fact, been going on for centuries. The advent of the United Kingdom Research and Innovation agency to coordinate STEM funding bodies as well as the Arts and Humanities Research Council points towards a desire for a greater link between these seemingly disparate disciplines. STEM is now becoming STEAM, adding the arts to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And sciku are one of many ways that we can cross this old divide… if you can get them out there.
I was too mentally invested in my idea to let the mere fact that I’d never built a website stop me from achieving my goal. I spent time researching domain hosting/web-building platforms and their user friendliness, all the while learning a whole new vocabulary of web-terminology. Wordpress seemed to give the best balance of control and flexibility for the ideas taking shape in my mind – not the simplest platform available, but also not overly complex for the beginner. I began building the website in my evenings and at weekends, all too aware of another imminent event.
The Sciku Project reached full term a few weeks before Daniel was due. While waiting for his arrival, I let the website gestate a little longer so I could prevent too much of an overlap, taking my time to fine-tune the micro-aesthetics within the macro-structure of the website until we all were ready.
Launching a website is anti-climactic. I clicked “publish” and a small balloon popped up briefly to say that we were live. Google takes a while to locate new sites, so I couldn’t even enjoy searching for my virtual baby. I sent the link to friends and family and waited for replies. I looked at the site and the site looked back. I wondered how it was going to grow and just what I was going to do now it had arrived. I shared similar looks with Daniel in the days following his birth; I’m still not sure which of them comprehended my looks of panic the most.
Haiku as SciComm?
We live in a time-poor, fast-paced world. As a scientist I try to balance my research with paper writing, grant applications, supervision, teaching and admin as well as my day-to-day life, which is now busier than ever. Other professionals have their own plates to keep spinning. The brevity of sciku makes them an ideal science communication medium, whilst as a bonus the novelty of the haiku-form helps to break the ice. Sciku do the hard work by providing an intriguing hook with which to catch the curious.
Haiku are concise, evocative, exquisite and thought-provoking poems. Their form can help to reveal the beauty of science and mathematics which can become lost among the dry details of manuscripts and conference presentations. Sciku can help us to find the elegance of research once again, to rediscover its charm. Where traditional modes of scientific sharing obscure, sciku communicate clearly, using language that is both understandable and relatable.
As scientists, we are told we should maximise the impact of our work, and it’s a fundamental aspect of present-day grant applications. Ensuring our research is publicised helps with this, but our work can only have impact if we share it in easily digestible and interpretable forms. I can read a sciku in a few seconds and think about it for minutes. A sciku is a moment that echoes in the mind. They are the perfect medium for sharing a scientific story.
It’s easy to get caught up in the specifics and to forget the bigger picture when working in science. And yet, like the frog’s jump, the results of an individual experiment are only interesting and relevant within the context of the wider world and the research that has gone before. By reading and writing sciku, we can gain a renewed appreciation of the reasons behind and the deeper meaning of our work.
Writing sciku has also helped me better appreciate how to explain my own work to anyone outside of my field by helping me see what details and aspects really matter. This creative process helps me to understand the fundamental components my work. This benefit of sciku can be useful in the classroom too: research suggests that composing sciku helps students gain a deeper understanding of their subject matter and promotes logical thinking skills.
Lessons learned and things to come
I didn’t set out to start a website when I wrote my first sciku, but I’m so glad I tried something new. It’s been a lot of work but the entire process is so much fun and extremely rewarding. I’ve learnt web-design skills, gained a greater appreciation for my own research and career, and improved my ability to communicate outside of the confines of research papers and scientific conferences.
I urge everyone to try something new and discover for themselves the many benefits of drafting a 17-syllable scientific poem. Don’t be afraid or intimidated by the idea of poetry. The brevity is liberating and sciku are a remarkably forgiving medium – it’s hard to completely mess up.
If you want to share your efforts then submit them to The Sciku Project, where you’ll also find tips and advice for writing sciku. You can also follow the site on Twitter and Facebook.
This week we have another collaborative post from guest blogger Namrata Sengupta. She’ll be introducing the concept of risk communication in environmental science and toxicology. Next week we’ll be following up on her introduction with a more detailed look at ways of approaching risk communication approaches and a review of a recent webinar hosted by NOAA. Enjoy!
“It is ironic to think that man might determine his own future by something so seemingly trivial as the choice of an insect spray.” – Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
In 1962, the American conservation biologist Rachel Carson published a book called ‘Silent Spring’. She described the effects of man-made contaminants and their potential of harming wildlife. The book detailed a study on thirty five bird species which were nearing extinction caused by these contaminants entering water bodies, and the story facilitated the ban on DDT in 1972. The book is considered as the scientific foundation for modern environmentalism in America, including the establishment of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) in 1970 as well as the Clean Air Act (CAA) and Clean Water Act (CWA) later that same decade.
Carson was an early pioneer of the field of risk communication. Her book powerfully displayed the combined intellect and thoughtfulness of a person who was a scientist, poet, nature-lover and activist all in one. She inspired a generation of people to become well-informed and to realize the importance of getting involved in environmental health research.
In the modern age of chemical industrialization, the existence of the CWA and CAA has played a major role in protecting both wildlife and human health.
Even 50 years since the publication of Carson’s novel, environmental science and toxicology continues to grow. From decoding manmade chemicals, understanding the complexities of cancer, or using advanced statistical techniques to explaining ecosystem dynamics, our field has expanded not just to labs and journals but also to applications and implications in public health policy and decision-making. Environmental scientists and toxicologists now realize the relevance of their work in policy making but are also constantly critiqued by industry, government, and policy makers who are using their work.
The US EPA developed guidance and structure for characterizing the hazards associated with exposure to environmental contaminants to both wildlife and a human population, which is called risk assessment. The purpose of a risk assessment is to evaluate the potential for exposure to a chemical in the environment as well as the potential impact of these chemicals.
The process of characterizing the potential for chemicals to harm humans or wildlife through risk assessment is an important component of policy making. It provides scientific support for decision making and limits the pervasive social and governmental influences. But regulatory science is not always clear, neither to the government nor to the public. Because of this lack of clarity, the EPA is working to develop better strategies not only for risk assessments but also for communicating the implications of risk to the general public.
What is Risk Communication?
Risk communication is the interaction between environmental risk assessment scientists, managers, policy makers, and public stakeholders. For effective risk communication to occur, all impacted stakeholders for a particular setting should be a part of the communication process from the beginning. It is extremely important to identify relevant stakeholders (generally done as a part of risk management strategy) and to develop communication streams to fit their needs. It is also crucial to engage in two-way communication, where stakeholders are able to voice their perspectives, questions, and opinions directly to scientists.
One of the biggest challenges of risk communication is that it is generally the most overlooked aspect of risk assessment and management. Scientists often forget the importance of being able to communicate effectively about their research and scientific opinions when working with a diverse audience. This lack of effective communication has occasionally challenged the ability of industry and government officials to interpret the scientific evidence which can inform regulatory affairs.
Another challenge is how much information should be shared directly with the general audience. In today’s world of the Internet and mass media playing critical roles in science communication, scientists need to be cautious about the interpretation of their data. Strategic training, information sharing sessions, and orientation with the public should be planned by both scientists and policy makers when discussing topics which affect wildlife and human populations.
Why is Risk Communication important?
Our environment, food, and personal health are threatened by exposure to environmental pollutants and bacterial hazards on a daily basis. While there are research and quality control safeguards towards protecting us and our ecosystems, there are times when we may encounter an additional crisis event, such as an oil spill. The communication associated with both daily and event-based risks needs to be a continual and evolving process and not just for a one-time crisis management initiative.
The topics widely covered under the umbrella of risk communication are generally:
1. The levels of risk (environmental/health)
2. The significance of the particular risk
3. The regulations, decisions, and policies in place to deal with these risks
Previously, risk communication was often thought of as a “linear process”, but now experts and all concerned stakeholders understand that it is a “cyclic process”.
In next week’s post, we’ll go into more detail on methods for how to use the cyclic process of risk communication. A big thanks to Namrata for introducing us to risk assessment and communication! For more of her writings, be sure to check out her science and outreach blog.