As a kid, Rose Gulledge loved the beach—not to go in, but to collect critters. In college, Gulledge took a hodgepodge of courses in the sphere of biology. Her master’s degree is in marine, earth and atmospheric sciences, with a concentration in biological oceanography. Her main research focuses have been phytoplankton and isotopic changes in certain elements, although recently she’s spent some time working with land plants. Gulledge now works as a museum specialist in both the botany and invertebrate zoology departments at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
What kind of science communication does your job include?
With our positions we need to do outreach. I do it through interns and visitors. Some people actually do behind the scenes stuff with volunteers. Some people do what’s called “The Scientist is In,” where they actually have a cart and they’re out in the museum. They bring out some samples from the collections we have, which is kind of a cool thing. It attracts a lot of children, but then the adults come by. It helps people realize that the exhibits are based on science.
Could you tell me a little more about hosting interns?
I’ve had interns on and off for about ten years. When I interview them, I ask them to ask questions, because they need to know if they want to work with us and work with me. I like having students come in. Some of them are super excited to start working with collections, and some of them are like, eh whatever, it’s just work. To get one or two every summer that continue on with research means we did a good job. It means that we got them excited and they found their niche and their love of science.
Do you think it’s important for scientists to do outreach, and to communicate about their work?
Oh definitely. Otherwise, you can’t convey the importance of what you’re doing. Otherwise, you’re in science, you’re a scientist. It becomes one big umbrella, you know. When there’s a problem going on with fish in the Chesapeake, people go, oh you’re in science Rose, you should know. How could I know? I’m not in that facet of science or marine biology. It’s important to strike up a conversation about what makes it so fascinating, and also that science is not stagnant. Science encompasses so many different disciplines. The biological, the chemical, and also the historical information and how it all works together.
Is part of that, maybe, that scientists sometimes have trouble communicating about their work?
Yes. It’s not so much the material, it’s more the personality. They get so involved with what they’re doing, and they can’t see that others are lost. It can become, not narrow-minded exactly, but like they’re looking through a telescope sometimes. They don’t see stuff around them or how to communicate with people, using not quite simple words but words that get people interested in things. Like, do you see that thing? It works with that, and that over there because that’s there, and you get this. It’s a matter of being a teacher versus someone that’s just looking for something, some answer. Not everybody has that talent.
Does having a science background versus a non-science background change the way we communicate science?
It can or cannot, depending on the topic and how you convey that information. My husband’s a business-type person, but we manage to still talk. I think it’s about breaking down the topic matter and not getting too… sciencey, I guess. I think there’s an art to finessing things and making them understandable, but also relatable. It all affects us, but how does one detail or facet of your research affect everything in the whole? You need to show it as part of the world, not just a part of your research. People want to know why you’re doing that, and you have to have a reason. Obviously, you do, but you have to know how to explain it so it’s relevant to life. Otherwise, people don’t care.
How do you feel about the general state of science communication in the U.S.?
Science is more on the forefront now, because it’s on everybody’s mind. Everyone is affected by the current situation in one way or another. You need science to make a decision, based on everything—going to the grocery store, going for a walk, how to cook and how to manage your household. Right now, it’s good and bad. Some people are listening, and some are not, and it’s tricky separating fact from hearsay. I don’t know if there’s a good word for that. Just, being informed and knowing the right information to listen to, because science doesn’t lie; it’s a yes or no. Some things are inconclusive, but when something has been published and vetted, that is the information that should be looked at.
So, you think that the way we communicate science is improving?
Yeah, because there’s so much online stuff. The natural history museum puts out a monthly collection of online citations and information that’s been connected to natural history. Everything is available so much more readily, in different avenues and terminology. There’s different platforms and different ways to convey it, and it works for a lot of different people. It’s overwhelming sometimes, too. Maybe I’m skewed, but it doesn’t just end. I’m forever reading more and more, and now I have time, which is great. I don’t just gloss through articles anymore, oh my god, I can actually sit there and read. It’s really neat.
Is there anything you would change about science communication?
I’d like to see more women get into the natural sciences, but you’re seeing that trend going up and up. Also, minorities. You don’t see a lot of minorities in marine biology. You just don’t, and I don’t know how to change that. I don’t know if it’s because they’re not interested in it, or if it’s not pushed to them, or not made interesting. Some movies are now exemplifying minorities and science, and we need to keep that trend going. For the things going on in the world right now, and for other natural disasters, the facts need to be laid out. Information generates decisions.