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“It’s so much easier to protect species than [to] bring them back,” says Dr. Bettina Almasi, a Research Associate at the Swiss Ornithological Institute. Growing up in Switzerland, she was always “wanted to understand more about the processes of nature.” She gravitated to biology over the course of her studies, including a formative summer school experience in California after high school.

At the University of Fribourg, Dr. Almasi enrolled as a history major initially, then changed her major to biology on the first day. After making the switch, she earned a Bachelor’s before continuing on to earn a Master’s and then a PhD at the University of Zürich in collaboration with the Swiss Ornithological Institute. Then, as now, she focused on bird ecology, physiology, and behavior.

Dr. Almasi shows students the growth patterns of a juvenile barn owl. Photo courtesy of Dr. Almasi.

Juvenile barn owls in a nest box. Photo by Dr. Almasi.

Dr. Almasi studies how variable habitat conditions throughout the annual cycle affect barn owls’ fitness. To do so, she uses GPS loggers and a new automatic scale she and her team are developing. The barn owls in the study population have rings with identification chips on their legs. When an owl perches on the scale, the scale reads its identification number and records its weight. With this innovation, the team can measure the owls’ weight and presence at the nest boxes throughout the year without capturing them. The team has deployed 30 such scales at nest boxes so far.

Dr. Almasi uses radio telemetry to study barn owl habitat use. Photo by Lukas Linder.

“We still capture the owls once a year, during the breeding season, to measure size and stress hormone level,” says Dr. Almasi. “These data, together with the habitat use data and the year-round weight measurements, will allow us to target the critical periods when survival probabilities are lowest during the annual cycle. In a next step, we can then develop adequate conservation measures.”

Barn owls perch on the automatic scales by day (top) and night (bottom). Photos by the Swiss Ornithological Institute.

The type of work Dr. Almasi does generates a lot of data, which can be challenging. “It’s very important to have a passion for data,” not to mention patience. Analyzing blood in the laboratory for stress hormones can itself prove stressful. Another challenge is studying night-active birds’ habitat use, “as the size of battery-powered loggers is still just small enough for barn owls.” This means “it is difficult to get adequate data resolution and to complete the annual cycle of habitat use.” She hopes that lighter measurement devices with longer battery lives will be developed soon.

Dr. Almasi and her team mount a GPS logger on a barn owl. Photo by Lukas Linder.

Dr. Almasi enjoys working with students and field assistants, “seeing how they understand species and develop their own ideas.” Bringing people together is inspiring, and collaboration is a crucial skill. While curiosity about natural processes is essential, “science is, at the end, all about people…without my students, collaborators, and field assistants, or the farmers who gives us access to their barns to mount nest boxes, I could not do what I do.”

During her PhD studies, Dr. Almasi “was surrounded by very enthusiastic and motivated people.” Their enthusiasm and positivity made her stay in science, she says, and she learned a lot from them. These supervisors and peers exemplified the type of supportive scientific environment she fosters now.

Barn owls. Photo by Dr. Almasi.

Dr. Almasi learned how to lead a group by doing so. She advises science students to start taking classes in project and team management early, to prepare for the tasks to come. She also urges students and early career scientists to be self-secure, for example, when asking for what they need in terms of flexibility around family responsibilities. “Many don’t dare to ask,” she says, but self-assurance is paramount.

While Dr. Almasi deals with massive amounts of data already, she anticipates that current trends in open data and open science will lead to new data management challenges in the future. Her next step in the barn owl project will be developing new scale units to mount on all 300 nest boxes in her study area. Noting that most of her measurement devices are solar-powered, she suggests with a smile that lunar-powered ones would be ideal. This calls to mind “the kind of hope that flies on silent wings under a shining Owl Moon.”[1]

*Thank you to Dr. Bettina Almasi for sharing her story with 500WS Bern-Fribourg. Click here to find out more about her experience.

Gabrielle Vance

M.Sc. Geology

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- [1] Jane Yolen’s beloved children’s book Owl Moon.

This blog post was inspired by posts under the tag #SciCommSeptember on twitter. This is a very fun time when scientists and science communicators talk about their work and get to know each other through a series of daily prompts. It’s also a great place to look for information and inspiration if you’re interested in getting involved in science communication. Thanks to the Avid research podcast @avid_podcast for bringing us this fun science communication challenge!

What is science communication?

Science communication is the practice of communicating science. This includes a huge variety of things such as popular science books and television shows, podcasts, science journalism, outreach in schools, policy advising and scientists who are active on social media. The people communicating can be experts, students or non-scientists.

Here we’ll suggest some ways that researchers & students can get involved.

Why should researchers do science communication?

For a researcher or student, there are many benefits of getting involved:

  • Get to know fellow scientists and science enthusiasts.

  • Learn about other areas of science in a fun way.

  • Promote your research field, group or papers.

  • Talk about your passion in an informal setting.

  • Improve your skills in presentation, speech and teaching.

  • Learn new skills like social media management, web design, video or audio editing and visual arts.

What are the obstacles?

Of course, there are also some obstacles. Common ones are

1. It is a lot of work and can be time consuming.

2. It is unpaid.

3. I don’t know who my audience should be or how to reach them.

4. I don’t know how to talk to non-scientists about science, I don’t know how to talk to kids.

Unfortunately, we don’t have one-size-fits-all solutions to these problems, but I do have some tips:

1. Reduce the workload by sharing it. This could mean joining an existing programme to which you can contribute occasionally as a guest or starting your own project with a reliable team of friends.

2. Sadly, paid science communication is rare. Some institutes do recognise outreach as part of teaching or research duties, but we have a long way to go to get proper recognition for this kind of work.

500 Women Scientists believe that everyone deserves fair compensation and recognition for all kinds of work. We encourage universities and research institutes to show that they value outreach and communication by fairly compensating scientists and dedicated outreach staff.

3. Think about people in your life who you’d like to share your love of STEM with. It could be your family who want to understand why you’ve dedicated part of your life to science. Maybe it’s the people who are confused by science news and would enjoy a good resource for understanding something like statistics, scientific process or virology. It could be children in school who are interested in studying science- or even those who think they’re not interested in it! Maybe it’s people who are generally interested in science and culture but might not have heard about your specific field. Once you have an example person in mind, think about how you would explain things to them and where they might see it (where do they live, work or like to hang out?).

4. Most of us don’t get experience in talking about research outside of conferences and seminars. With some practice we will get used to speaking to different audiences. To get a head start, check out what other people are doing! Try looking on blogs and social media to find resources for your target audience. Notice features of the science communication that you like, dislike or are curious about.

Okay, I’m interested. How can I get started?

The good news is that we can use pretty much any platform for science communication! So, you can identify what you enjoy most (such as writing, presenting, visual arts, music or social media) and make use of it. Some of the most commonly used platforms are

  • University or research institute outreach schemes

  • Public talks at universities and museums: many of these host public lecture series for various audiences and are looking for volunteer speakers.

  • Informal public talks on the street or in cafes: there are several groups and festivals who organise this kind of event, including 500 Women Scientists.

  • Social media: science is being communicated in all sorts of creative ways on twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok.

  • A blog or website: this gives you a longer format to work with and total creative control. If you write a blog, try using social media to promote it.

  • Guests on someone else’s project: existing podcasts, YouTube channels, twitter takeover accounts and lecture series are always looking for people to host, interview or showcase

According to an informal twitter poll of #SciCommSeptember participants, the most common way to get started is through an organised university scheme.

The advantage of this is that materials, audience and guidance are all provided. After taking part in such a programme, a scientist or student has the experience to develop and execute their own ideas. If your university or workplace doesn’t run an outreach scheme there are others you can get involved in: see our list below!

Some more tips from our scicommer friends:

  • Be patient, it takes time both to find out voice and to build an audience

  • Don’t be afraid to promote your work on social media or in your workplace

  • Find a community of other science communicators to help and inspire you. Social media is great for this!

  • Don’t wait until you have money or expertise, just start creating and develop your equipment and skills on the job.

  • Talk about things YOU love and are interested in. This will make your content more interesting and keep you going when the work is hard or engagement is low.

Dr. Lucia Rotheray (@LRotheray)


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