TELL ME A STORY! A PLEA FOR MORE COMPELLING CONFERENCE PRESENTATIONS

- post for the American Ornithological Society's journal blog, about an opinion piece I wrote

At one point during last year’s North American Ornithological Conference, I found myself rushing down the hallways to catch a talk by a senior scientist whose research I have long admired. As I took my seat and he began speaking, I was immediately struck with the thought: “Darn, why did I make this mistake again?”

My mistake? Deciding to attend his talk and, in the process, failing to remember that I loathe his presentation style. The slides are always filled to the brim with volumes of text and a seemingly endless number of teeny-tiny figures. And despite going through them at a sprinter’s pace, he somehow fails to finish in the allotted fifteen minutes. It happens every time. The audience experience is akin to watching an action-packed commercial but, in the end, having only a vague sense of what was being advertised.

That incident and many others propelled me to write the commentary “Tell me a story! A plea for more compelling conference presentations,” published this week in The Condor: Ornithological Applications. In it, I argue that scientists should spend less time trying to impress their audience with mountains of data and more time implementing principles of good storytelling. I know this probably elicits a negative reaction in some readers, but hear me out.

Stories aren’t a mode of communication restricted to fictional tales. They are the most effective way to package information so that others can process and remember it (which is really the whole point of communication, right?). It’s difficult to recall a series of random facts; it’s much easier to recall the details of an engaging story.

The nice thing about storytelling is that it is a natural fit for the scientific process. Dr. Randy Olson, author of the book Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, defines a story as “a series of events that happen along the way in the search for a solution to a problem.” Sound familiar? As scientists, we are always in hot pursuit of a solution to a problem, but unfortunately we don’t always present our research that way.

So how can we change that? For starters, it’s not sufficient to package information in a logical order with a beginning (introduction), middle (methods and results), and end (conclusions). That’s obviously helpful, but I argue in the paper that you need to go a step further and develop a compelling plot—something that compels your audience to follow along with your journey of discovery. That can be accomplished by clearly articulating a problem to be solved and spending time convincing the audience why they should care about the problem in the first place.

In his book, Dr. Olson outlines a strategy that I find particularly helpful. He suggests framing your story’s plot by proclaiming something that scientists know and something else that scientists know, but then pointing out a critical unsolved problem or point of debate that, therefore, highlights a need for your particular study. He calls this his “and, but, therefore” template, which contrasts with the template used by many scientists: one that strings along a series of facts with “and, and, and” statements. There’s no drama in “and, and, and” statements, but there is with the “and, but, therefore” framework.

A key advantage of Dr. Olson’s approach is that—by setting the stage in an informative and captivating manner—you can bring your entire audience with you on your journey, not just the people who already understand and appreciate your field and study system. And that should be the ultimate goal: to engage the widest fraction of your audience as possible.

The ornithological community is doing important and interesting science, but we don’t always do a great job communicating it, even amongst ourselves. In my paper, I argue for more storytelling, but I also discuss a greater range of strategies for giving effective presentations, including the benefits of visually-engaging slides. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but it is my hope that this opinion piece will generate thought and discussion about how to best communicate our science. We can’t afford to let important research be lost in a sea of ineffective communication.

 

Langin, KM. 2017. Tell me a story! A plea for more compelling conference presentations. The Condor: Ornithological Applications 119: 321-326 [pdf]

NEW PUBLICATION: A FIELD ORNITHOLOGIST'S GUIDE TO GENOMICS

The genomics era is officially upon us. Not that long ago—in 2003—we were celebrating the monumental achievement that scientists had sequenced the human genome. Just over a decade later, technological advancements have made it possible to efficiently collect information from across the genome of virtually any organism. Rapid advances in scientific technology are often difficult to keep pace with, especially for scientists who don't specialize in that particular field, and genomics is no exception. For that reason, my colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey and I wrote a genomics review paper directed at ornithologists interested in questions related to ecology and conservation. We discuss the basics of genomics approaches and highlight research questions that can be answered with this new technology, including questions related to population ecology, disease transmission, migration tracking, and conservation planning. Click on the title below to access the article:

SJ Oyler-McCance, KP Oh, KM Langin, and CL Aldridge. 2016. A field ornithologist's guide to genomics: practical considerations for ecology and conservation. Auk: Ornithological Advances 133: 626-648

THE IMPORTANCE OF SMALL CHANGE: ON BEAKS AND BIODIVERSITY ON ISLAND CALIFORNIA

- popular story I wrote about my Ph.D. research for the Fall 2015 issue of Boom: A Journal of California (link here); it was modified from an earlier story published by Slate (see Feb. 2015 post)

In 1835, a young naturalist named Charles Darwin set foot on a peculiar land. Giant tortoises lumbered over barren lava fields, iguanas took to the sea in search of food, and some birds were utterly incapable of flight. He spent several weeks there—on an archipelago called the Galápagos—collecting specimens and observing the remarkable biodiversity in front of him. Many organisms were similar to species Darwin had observed on the South American mainland, but they were clearly distinct, with characteristics that made them well-suited to their island home.

Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands played an out-sized role in seeding Darwin’s ideas about evolution and the origin of species, but among islands they are not unique. Archipelagos are renowned for housing bizarre creatures, thanks to their isolation.

That’s why, as a biologist, I was thrilled when I got a chance to work on the California Channel Islands. I knew I’d find diminutive foxes and supersized jays. What I didn’t know was even more interesting. As I later learned, there was even more to the islands’ biodiversity than met the eye.

The California Channel Islands are made up of eight stunningly beautiful islands: San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Barbara, San Nicolas, Santa Catalina, and San Clemente. Many are visible from the beaches of southern California, but they have never been connected to the mainland and house a rich diversity of species found nowhere else. They’re home to towering peaks, vast inland valleys, picturesque white sand beaches, and one of the largest sea caves in the world. They also share a remarkably similar evolutionary story with the Galápagos—a story about bird beaks.

Read the rest of the story here.

EVOLUTION WORKS IN FAST, LOCALIZED, MYSTERIOUS WAYS

- popular story I wrote about my Ph.D. research, published by Slate (link here)

When I first stepped foot on California’s picturesque Santa Cruz Island, I was in awe. The foxes were tame, the jays were supersized, and the wildflowers grew like trees. I knew that islands were renowned for harboring unusual species. But I didn’t know that there was more to the biodiversity of this small island than met the eye—let alone that I would play a role in discovering it.

Islands have played a central role in the quest to uncover how evolution operates. A comparison of species on the Galápagos Islands and neighboring South America seeded Charles Darwin’s insight that similar species share a common ancestor. And later work on Darwin’s finches revealed that evolution isn’t just a slow, steady process spread out over millennia; it can occur rapidly and alter the characteristics of a population from one year to the next.

Islands are the test tubes of nature. Depending on the island (and the species) in question, many of them are closed off, rarely playing host to immigrants. This isolation allows species to adapt to the characteristics of their particular island home without the potentially meddlesome influence of “foreign” genes brought in by individuals from faraway lands. That’s why islands are hotbeds for the generation of new species.

But, as I found out on Santa Cruz Island, evolution doesn’t stop there. The process can also generate biodiversity within islands, not just as you go from one island to another. This came to light during my Ph.D. research spent studying a brilliant blue bird called the island scrub-jay, found only on Santa Cruz.

Read the rest of the story here.

GALAPAGOS SEA LION SONS ARE MAMA'S BOYS

- popular story, published by National Geographic News (link)

Don't let their hulking mass fool you: Male sea lions are actually mama's boys.

In the first couple of years after birth, sea lion sons seem to be more reliant on their mothers—consuming more milk and sticking closer to home—than sea lion daughters are, according to a study on Galápagos sea lions published in the December issue of the journal Animal Behaviour.

The young males venture out to sea on occasion, but their female counterparts dive for their own food much more often.

The curious thing is, it's not like the young males aren't capable of diving. As one-year-olds, males can dive to the same depth as females (33 feet, or 10 meters, on a typical dive).

It's also not like their mother's milk is always on hand. Sea lion moms frequently leave their growing offspring for days at a time to find food at sea. 

And yet, despite all this, for some reason sons are far less likely than daughters to take to the sea and seek out their own food.

"We always saw the [young] males around the colony surfing in tide pools, pulling the tails of marine iguanas, resting, sleeping," said Paolo Piedrahita, a Ph.D. student at Bielefeld University in Germany and the lead author of the study.

"It's amazing. You can see an animal—40 kilograms [88 pounds]—just resting, waiting for mom."

Read the rest of the story here.

BIRD EMBRYOS CAN DISCERN BETWEEN CALLS—A FIRST IN NATURE

- popular story, published by National Geographic News (link)

We're not the only species that can recognize voices in the womb: Inside the egg, tiny songbirds called superb fairy wrens can discriminate sounds from different birds of their own species, a new study reveals.

The embryos pay attention to surrounding noises and can tell if they are listening to calls from a fairy wren they haven't heard before, according to the study, published October 28 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The findings represent the first time a species other than humans has been shown to distinguish between individuals in utero.

This remarkable ability allows growing embryos to learn a "password" from their mother, which they then use to beg for food upon hatching.

"We have tended to use birth or hatching as the starting point for the development of behavior," said Robert Lickliter, a developmental psychologist at Florida International University in Miami, who was not involved in the study. 

"This work shows that it's worth going back further in development to see where the roots of behavior come from."

Read the rest of the story here.

Graduation! Wearing my grandfather's 61-year-old Ph.D. gown.

Graduation! Wearing my grandfather's 61-year-old Ph.D. gown.

WELCOME!

Hello, and welcome to my new website! I have recently gone through some major life changes—having finished my Ph.D. and undergone training to be a science writer—so I thought it was high time to abandon my graduate-student website and develop a new online presence. I plan to use this blog space to provide periodic updates about my activities, published works, and thoughts. Please come back later to check out what I've been up to.