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Telling stories about science

Lee Jian Chung

The University of Missouri has awarded $25,000 to a group of scientists, journalists and other communicators on campus who want to make their research more accessible to the wider public. To do this, some graduate student researchers are looking to the art of storytelling to help describe their work.

In a sterile, white laboratory, graduate student researcher Tabitha Finch walks past tables stacked with machinery and utensils used for elephant research at the University of Missouri. As part of her research, Finch spends months visiting the low plains of Kenya to collect animal dung. That dung is then stored in a freezer at the back of the lab in small plastic tubes.

“The primary purpose of this is to get DNA from the dung,” Finch says

Every two weeks, Finch gets out of the lab to be part of an after-school program where graduate students teach elementary school children a little bit about what they do.

“Our long lesson plans are designed around our own research, and if I talk to elementary school kids about it, their reaction is like ‘Ew! That’s gross!’” said Finch.

So to get these kids to lean in a little closer, Finch creates a story about the elephants.

“ So imagine if you are a corn farmer in Iowa and an elephant comes in and eats all your corn, right? Well, we don’t have elephants here in the United States — which we may be lucky about — but in Kenya, they do have elephants...”

And Finch is not the only scientist on campus trying to build a narrative around their research. Graduate student Lizzie Wright also uses storytelling techniques to explain her research on insect behavior in the Ozarks.

“Once upon a time, a spider wandered around on the forest floor, and he saw a baby grasshopper and he decided to eat it so he eats it. But what happens after that spider eats the grasshopper? You get less grasshoppers eating the plants, so that changes the whole process.”

Wright is one of the two founders of the student-led organization Science Communication and Public Engagement or SCAPE. The group wanted to bridge the gap between scientists and the laypeople after its founders saw a disconnect between what science said about climate change and what the public thought.

“Scientists tend to be very focused in their work," Wright said. "They get into this narrow mindset about what they are working on and they sometimes fail to see the bigger picture of humanity behind what they’re doing. They can’t get unfocused enough to share their work.”

Wright says research funding for the sciences has been getting lower and lower each year, and scientists need to start telling their stories. So they invited professional storyteller Milbre Burch — who also happens to be on MU’s Science Communications Commitee — to help teach their members how to weave straight facts into a beginning, a middle and an end.

At the workshop, 12 graduate and undergraduate researchers sit in a horseshoe around Burch. Their research varies, but in this room, what they’re studying is the way Burch shrieks at the sight of an imaginary spider or lowers her voice to a whisper to get her audience to listen closely.

“Folk tales are science in a storytelling format because they are intended, very often, [to convey] particular how and why stories in cultures around the world, and to explain why the world is the way it is: Why the rooster has tailfeathers in a comb, why the elephant has a long trunk, why the lightning strikes from the sky,” Burch said.

But do we remember better if we actually have the context of a story? Burch says there's no doubt about it.

"Human beings are wired for story delivery in the form of something you care about, a change," she said. "Here’s the world, a change happens, and here’s a new world. And if it can be couched in human terms, then all the more we will be listening for it and remembering it. If they don’t have a human coat to hang on, they are very easily slipped to the floor.”

Burch says the nature of academia is changing in how researchers present their work.

"One of my dearest friends from college is a rheumatologist. When she went to a medical college in Georgia, she was told as a newly-incoming medical student that within five years, no one would be able to understand what she said outside of the medical community. And this was said with pride! This sounds like a problem in the making. And now we have a whole movement in medicine called narrative medicine," Burch said.

And she's not the only one that considers this a problem. Dr. Jack Schultz is the director of the Bond Life Sciences Center and a Plant Sciences Professor. He is also on the Science Communication Committee with Burch.

"There’s such a strong selection in the lab for speaking the secret language and learning the secret handshake and communicating with other scientists in their language. It’s really easy to forget the kind of language you need to speak to a broader audience," Schultz said.

Schultz says he has been looking at new ways to communicate science for around 20-30 years. Yet he says some scientists still remain skeptical of using non-traditional methods.

“It’s kind of a, as far as I can perceive, a negative pushback about PR or advertising as a component of science. Scientists really feel that the facts should speak for themselves.”

Back at the workshop, Burch begins to list off some key storytelling points: explain your jargon, gauge your audience, use your body. Elephant researcher Tabitha Finch is already thinking about how to engage her kids next.

“I like how she talked about incorporating folk tales as a sort of background, especially because I study a species of elephant [around which] are a lot of folk tales spanning different cultures and histories. And that’s something I never considered."

And quite possibly in the near future, upcoming researchers in fields such as insect behavior or elephant biology may begin bridging the gap between science fact and fiction with a "once upon a time" and maybe, just maybe, a "happily ever after".

Correction: An earlier version of this story identified a student-led organization as Science Communication and Public Outreach. The group is actually called Science Communication and Public Engagement.

Rehman Tungekar is a former producer for KBIA, who left at the beginning of 2014.