In Part 1 of this series, we explored why a research lab should take time away from their normal scholarly activities to engage the public. This post, Part 2, will look at the mechanisms the WitmerLab has used to share our research findings and approaches beyond the specialist scientific community. We participate in four basic, often-overlapping arenas: the web, the science news media, broadcast media, and in-person engagements.
Using the web 1: university sites
We have a series of websites on the Ohio University servers. These tend to be a bit more formal than our other sites but are much richer in content, mostly because we can upload pretty much whatever we want. We host literally gigabytes of freely downloadable content. We currently have seven major OU sites. (1) The Front page gives a Research Statement and highlights WitmerLab news. (2) Most significant is the Project Page site which presents subsites on individual research projects, providing not only PDF downloads of the primary publication, CT data, images, and movies, but also common-language summaries and links to news features. (3) The 3D Visualization site hosts high-resolution QuickTime movies and interactive 3D PDFs. (4) The Collections site hosts high-resolution photo galleries of the skull cast collection (>1000 images, >1 GB, ~80 skulls). Other sites present (5) lab Personnel, (6) Facilities, and (7) information for Prospective Students. These OU sites are intended partly for the professional community in that they provide resources that pros can sink their scientific teeth into, but also are intended to guide the public into and through the more technical aspects.
Using the web 2: social media sites
In the spirit of “being where people are,” we’re involved with diverse social media sites. WitmerLab at Ohio University is our Facebook page, providing a more intimate, behind-the-scenes perspective and direct interaction with people from dozens of countries around the globe. We have 30 photo albums documenting lab activities, publication-related content, lab tours, visitors, purely fun stuff, etc., as well as >40 videos. Our WitmerLab YouTube Channel has ~100 videos that provide another outlet for direct interaction. Videos include animations of CT-based 3D visualizations, as well as clips from TV shows featuring lab research. Since you’re reading our Pick-and-Scalpel blog here, you can easily see how we’re using this medium. Almost all of these various social media posts direct users back to the primary research on our OU sites, the hope being to draw the public in and then maybe sneak a little science to them along the way.
Behind the headlines: news releases and the science news media
Our published technical articles are sometimes judged “newsworthy” by the science news media. This is obviously a great way to reach people with our scientific findings, because we can tap into the expertise of professional reporters and their media machine. This could be a blog post unto itself, but typically we need to write a news release and put together various graphics, which then go out to the media so that they can prepare stories for public consumption after a specified embargo-lift time. Fortunately, the OU Director of Research Communications, Andrea Gibson, is highly skilled and has trained me well. As a result, we’ve done a number of successful news releases over the years, ranging from terror birds and dinosaur airheads to dinosaur hearing and hadrosaur communication. We even trained lab grad students in this process with news releases on rhinos and flamingoes.
Television documentaries: imperfect but still effective
Our experiences with TV could also occupy a few blog posts. WitmerLab has become a common location shoot for documentaries on the National Geographic, Discovery, and History Channels, as well as BBC (UK) and NHK (Japan), among others. It’s fair to say that these documentaries often have their weaknesses (don’t get me started…), but, despite any shortcomings, these programs are opportunities to present the findings of our research to an international audience of millions. In many cases, the same 3D visualizations that we used as figures in technical publications have been featured as animations—full screen and in full HD! It’s pretty hard to beat that for outreach. Again, other lab members often participate, providing training experiences for students.
Face to face, eye to eye: the power of in-person engagements
WitmerLab members have been involved with a diversity of public programs, ranging from lab tours and workshops to public lectures around the US. Although I’m usually the “mouthpiece,” all lab members are participants, and so receive training in not only outreach but also in balancing and integrating outreach and research. Without question, live interactions are the most rewarding experiences, because it’s direct and can have a lasting impact. I routinely leave these experiences thinking that this is the most important thing I do.
The goal isn’t just to engage the public, but also to bring the public “into the lab” to share the scientific foundations, methods—and excitement—of primary research. Part 1 of this post gave lots of reasons why we should do outreach, and Part 2 here shows that a multipronged approach can reach millions across the globe as well as right here in rural Appalachia. Does it work? Web analytics and media-hit tracking provide pretty precise measures of outreach efficacy, whereas TV ratings and anecdotal feedback are less direct. All the evidence we have suggests that we’re having an impact. We’re constantly evaluating what works best and what helps gets the message through. We’ll keep you posted…that’s what outreach is all about.
Reference: Martiny, Amy R., R. C. Ridgely, D. L. Dufeau, W. R. Porter, J. M. Bourke, A. C. Morhardt, E. D. Snively, and L. M. Witmer. 2010. Promoting a culture of outreach within an active university research lab setting: WitmerLab at Ohio University. Education and Outreach Poster at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, Pittsburgh, OH.