Communicating Awe: How Three Young Scientists Reach New Audiences

In a panel moderated by journalist Miles O’Brien, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists discussed why creative scientific communication is important.

Olga Rukovets
October 24, 2023
Left to right: Bennett Slibeck, Miles O’Brien, Elizabeth Case, and Daniel Babin at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory’s Open House. Photo: Francesco Fiondella
Left to right: Bennett Slibeck, Miles O’Brien, Elizabeth Case, and Daniel Babin at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory’s Open House. Photo: Francesco Fiondella

How do we communicate science in an increasingly distracted world? What messages truly resonate with the public? Can social media and art inspire meaningful engagement with science? These questions set the scene for a panel on science and communication at last week’s Lamont-Doherty Open House. The panel featured three up-and-coming Lamont scientists and journalist Miles O’Brien, national correspondent for PBS NewsHour and reporter, producer and director of the PBS film “Chasing Carbon Zero.”

With misinformation and political division driving much of the narrative around climate change, imparting information without triggering fear or resistance has become especially challenging. “The world of science and engineering has come up with a whole panoply of solutions,” O’Brien told the audience, “but that story doesn’t get told very well.” As the climate crisis grows, so too does the knowledge gap between scientists and the general public, he added. How do we encourage science communication that focuses less on consequences and more on opportunities for a better future?

Whether it’s through education initiatives, storytelling, Instagram videos or art projects, these three young researchers are finding innovative ways to convey their enthusiasm for scientific inquiry and for bringing diverse audiences into the discussion.

Bennett Slibeck, a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia Climate School’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who researches dinosaur footprints, the end-Triassic extinction, and global environmental change through the Mesozoic Era, said one major challenge in science communication is the idea that science is something dogmatic, which can turn many people away from the subject at a young age.

Slibeck, who is also involved in environmental justice advocacy and research collaboration with Indigenous communities, said, “We have an opportunity to shift from saying we need educators who teach creatively to methods where we’re actually teaching creativity” in schools. For most non-scientists, the last science class they will take is an introductory level college class, Slibeck said, so we have to ensure they leave this experience with a holistic grasp of what it means to develop new ideas and engage in the scientific process, especially when it comes to real-world scenarios. “We need to make very clear that science is much more of a method than it is a collection of discoveries,” he said.

Daniel Babin, a postdoctoral research scientist and geologist at Lamont who has nearly 44,000 followers on Instagram, agreed. The way Babin sees it, his social-media storytelling has struck a chord because people are hungry for ways of better understanding how the world works. Babin wants to engage viewers by appealing to their humanity—whether that’s by interviewing a cryospheric geophysicist in a parking lot or audibly marveling at a strange rock formation in Iceland.

His advice for other scientists who want to connect with a broader populace? “Share your passion and be courageous.”

Elizabeth H. Case, a Ph.D. candidate at Lamont who studies glaciology, ice deformation, firn processes, and polar geophysics, uses art to educate, illuminate and invite new audiences into conversations about the climate crisis. She is also the co-founder of Cycle for Science, an initiative that trains early-career scientists to develop interactive curricula for K-12 students. “As a scientist, but also just as a citizen and a human being living on this planet, I feel like my job is to relate to people and meet them where they are,” Case said. There shouldn’t be this boundary between the public and scientists, as scientists are also members of the community—and likewise, many individuals without advanced degrees have greatly expanded our knowledge of the world, she said.

Case conducts research on formations including the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica, also known as the Doomsday Glacier for the catastrophic effects predicted when it collapses. She acknowledged the grief that often comes with the changes we’re experiencing globally—and this, she said, is where art can help communities comprehend and process the significant loss and transformations they are witnessing.

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Artist and scientist Elizabeth Case’s art at the ‘Communicating Science in a Distracted World’ panel. Photo: Olga Rukovets

What advice did the panelists have for young audience members looking to break into the field? They unanimously recommended the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at Lamont and Columbia University, a paid summer program sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Slibeck, who completed an REU when he was in college, said students should not be afraid to put themselves out there and make connections. “Most of the success I’ve had is because I made friends with a TA or a professor or gotten into someone’s good graces by being engaged with them and being excited about what they do.” Babin and Case also encouraged talking to professors in any favorite classes and asking them how they got to be where they are, as well as cold-emailing researchers or scientists whose work they find interesting and inquiring about any available opportunities.

Taking the discussion one step further, O’Brien asked: Do scientists have an obligation to reach out to the public, above and beyond their scientific research duties? Should it be part of the job?

The panelists emphasized that, while not quite an obligation, scientists do have a unique opportunity to connect and educate, including through forms of social media, such as Instagram, TikTok, and Substack, Case said. We need more people to get out there and try to change the world, Babin added, whether that’s through technology, art or other forms of communication.

“Every scientist I know is passionate about something,” said Slibeck. “Appreciation and awe are powerful tools for reaching people.”