My first guest blog, “Being BOLD and Taking Responsibility” at the LFIA’s Adelaide forum

I recently attended an Adelaide based forum on “Building Nutrition”, held by the Living Future Institute of Australia (LFIA). It was fascinating to say the least. Afterwards I was contacted and asked if I was interested in writing a guest blog on the forum experience – and of course said “Yes!”

Here’s how it starts…

“There are times when you hear about real people taking small steady steps toward achieving their goals and making changes. You listen with a sense of satisfaction, the changes might not be huge but at least they’re happening. This is how most change comes about, “green” or not.

Then there are times when this slowness of pace gets to you a little… You begin to hanker for some mountainous shift in the ways things work, some outrageous plan or project or people just getting on with things – regardless of apparent restrictions. For me, these are the moments that make all the small steps and the consistent effort worthwhile. And it doesn’t have to be something I’m personally involved in, I’ll accept inspiration from anywhere!

This is where the latest Adelaide Forum from the Living Future Institute of Australia (LFIA) comes into the story…”

Follow the link to read more on the LFIA website: https://living-future.org.au/blog/

 

A Guest Lecture on Urban Agriculture

Last week I gave my first ever guest lecture for a UniSA course called “Environment: A Human Perspective”. There were about 50-60 first year students present and my nerves came on strong at the beginning. But I made it through, and listening back I think I managed to get my passion and enthusiasm for urban agriculture across to the students –  I even made them laugh couple of times!… intentionally, of course.

Part #1 of the lecture covered the basics of urban agriculture (UA), some of its differences around the world and how common it is in South Australia.

In Part #2 (which is still being edited) I describe how there is more to UA than simply the productive side (how much food people can grow) – there is also a strong social value side. In the middle there’s some interaction where I ask the students what it takes to grow food from start to finish, and how this in turn influences your research design.

I mention both my honours research on the social reaction of people to aquaponics, in addition to how some of the local councils react to the idea of aquaponics. And finished up with a little on my PhD research on the productive capacity and social value of UA via the Edible Gardens Project.

I know there are a couple a little rough moments in here. But I would still love to get any feedback you may have.

Enjoy!
Georgia the Urban Ag. Scientist

Keeping Data Personal: Big scopes, little people

Every now and again I wonder about whether big data can still be personal. This generally occurs after I get a pop-up on my computer or an up-date on my phone which asks if they can track and use my background data.

But it does get me thinking – I hear a lot about us being in the era of “big data”, with mass data collection all around. Some of this is used to categorise us according to our likes and shopping desires. Some is used to actually better the systems and interfaces we work with.

But I know from my own data collection experiences how easy it is (once everyone’s answers are turned into numbers and categories), to lose sight of what those answers really mean in context to each person, and in turn what this means for your research.

But there are people out there making huge efforts to keep our interfaces, data collection and communications not just individual but personal too. I only recently watched a TED Talk by Aaron Koblin from 2011 called, “Visualizing ourselves… with crowd-sourced data”.

Aaron spoke about a number of very cool projects which he’s been a part of over the years:

  • In one project he mapped the flight patterns of North America as a time-lapse revealing the patterns of day/night, altitudes and flight types. It looks like skeins of thread weaving the US together.
  • Another project called the “Bicycle built for 2,000” involved getting a couple of thousand people to each contribute a recording of themselves singing less than 1 second of a tune – without telling them why. It was then put together as the “Bicycle Built for 2” song online . Hearing all these people contribute to such a large project, singing high, low, really well, or terribly is incredible! Yes, in the end they do sound like a slightly out of tune pionola but it is so touching and funny and real.

Another project Aaron was involved in is The Johnny Cash Project, where a clip of his last studio song recording “Ain’t No Grave” was put online and transformed into global art. People were given a single image (from a series of old Johnny Cash footage) and a custom online drawing tool so they could draw their version of that image. All these thousands of drawings were then put together as the music video for Johnny Cash’s song. As each one of these drawings flicker by when you watch the clip, you get such a personal sense of what Johnny Cash and his songs meant for people.

Aaron Koblin ended his talk with saying how, “the interface can be a powerful narrative device” which he believes we can use to help us all, “maintain the humanity of data collected”.

I really appreciated his whole perspective about making the process of data collection, analysis and display be something that we craft and meld to work for us, rather then blindly persisting with our slightly-difficult-to-interact-with and not-always-intuitive-to-use programs, interfaces and visualisations.

He made me feel quite hopeful. And much more determined to spend the extra time and effort with my research to find clear and creative ways to communicate the findings and keep a better sense of the people behind the data.

Book breakdown – “Don’t be such a Scientist” Part 4

The fourth instalment of Dr Randy Olson‘s book explores the trait of “likability” and its place in scientific communication.

Part 4: Don’t be so unlikeable.

Even just the title of this chapter made me think – “What does he mean ‘unlikeable’? Is he talking about always agreeing with people? Or trying to look pretty and make friends?” It turns out there’s a bit more to it than that…

To begin with, Olson once again describes the value of scientists as society’s truth tellers, or as the “designated drivers” of reality. Scientists are those who resist getting swept up by fantasy and instead try to take a good hard look at the facts.

Scientists play an important role – there’s no denying it. However the question remains, can you be a scientist and still be liked?

Because science is based upon the process of critical evaluation, pointing out flaws and faults in arguments and ideas, can become second nature. But this sometimes aggressive process can be taken as un-neccessarily critical, arrogant and just plain mean when seen by the general public. Olson warns scientists to be careful of “rising above” (acting superior, arrogant or smarter-than) when communicating with people from a non-scientific background.

From previous chapters we already know there’s substance (what you say) and there’s style (the way you say it). Now would be nice to think that the substance of an idea, process or project, is what people pay attention to. Yet as discussed by both Randy Olson and Richard Lanham, when it comes to large public venues with broad audiences (or any time when the amount of information being communicated reaches excessive levels) then people’s minds make a shift from substance to style.

It becomes easier to evaluate the presenter, then to evaluate the information they’re sharing.

So how does Olson recommend you can become more likeable?

  1. First impressions count. People can form an opinion of you within the first few seconds of meeting you. Try to appear friendly, calm and organised (neat).
  2. Even if someone disagrees with something you say, don’t rise above. Stay grounded, calm and try to understand where they’re coming from. Don’t be dismissive.
  3. Shift from using only your brain to using humour, emotion and passion. If you can work “fun” in there too, then you’re golden.

Does being likeable mean you cannot use critical thinking? No, not at all. It means you can use both positivity (a form of spontaneity or creativity) and THEN negativity (critical thinking).

Options for interviews:

One opportunity for using both positivity and negativity which Olson gives is during an interview. When asked a question, he says you can partition your answers, for example by beginning with a range of creative possibilities and then imposing some discipline by moving on to, “But a lot of evidence points to the most logical explanation of ….”. This shifting back and forth provides your interview with much more interest than simply sticking to the pure logical results the entire time.

My own recent attempts at likability

By launching my Edible Gardens project, I have been doing most of the promotion myself. Often I have only a few minutes to get explain my project and make a good impression. So thank goodness for all my hospitality experience with waitressing, bartending etc. I am more than comfortable introducing myself, smiling and chatting to new people.

But it’s not just my hospitality experience making the difference – I am working hard at being likeable.

Lots of smiling, nodding when people talk, taking in their perspectives and ideas or concerns, learning a bit about their circumstances to see whether or not my project is right for them – as much as learning whether they are right for my project.

By making a social effort and focussing on the mutual benefits, I am getting through to most of the people I meet, and have had many project volunteers.


Want to read all the brilliant stories and details of, “Don’t be such a scientist” for yourself? You can purchase the kindle edition from  Amazon.com.au for $13.03, or get the paper version for $26.50 from Booktopia.com.au, or from Angus&Roberston.com.au for $26.99. Enjoy!

Project Launch!

After almost two years of planning, I am utterly excited to introduce you all to the Edible Gardens project!disc_edible-gardens-logo-small

Many people across Australia grow some of their own food. In fact in South Australia, 59% of households do so (Wise, 2014). As most of us now live in urban areas, this food production is taking place in cities, towns and suburbs. Urban agriculture is any form of urban food production from growing vegetables, fruits, herbs, to even keeping urban livestock such as chickens, fish or bees

Have you ever wondered how much food your garden actually produces each year? Or how much water, time and money went into producing that food? The Edible Gardens project wants to find out.

The project is currently open to all South Australian home, community and school gardeners. Feel free to share this with anyone you know living in South Australia who produces urban food.

combined-ua-pic-3b

“Preparation” is the word

The first step was to take stock. According to the University of South Australia I have four years to design my research, collect sufficient data, analyse it, write it all up and then publish / present / submit a thesis.

So boy did I make plans. I started with:

  • A four year budget with price ranges
  • A Gantt Chart timeline complete with contingencies
  • Drafts for every step of the project, estimating and imaging as best I could what each of those steps would entail. This way, even though I may not look at some of those drafts again for another six months – by the time that particular step came along I already had an idea of what I needed to do
  • Draft promotional posters with various taglines to suit different types of gardeners
  • A list of what participants would get from taking part in this project
  • Another list on what the value of this project was for different interested parties, e.g. local Councils or the Natural Resources Management (NRM) Board

Even with all this preparation I have still experienced delays and mishaps amounting to approximately 6-8 months. Happily, I’ve been told that this is considered both standard and reasonable for most PhD projects.

Yet there is still the unexpected…

There were two things I underestimated at the beginning of my PhD. The first was the reciprocal nature of citizen science. The Edible Gardens project is supported by the Discovery Circle – an Australian citizen science initiative working to better connect people with nature. Citizen science involves opening a project to contribution by interested public. Some projects open their entire process from design, data collection, analysis and reporting. A more typical approach is engaging people in the data collection phase of the research. The data collected and all the results are usually freely available to the public.

This meant my project had to be engaging and interactive enough to keep people’s interest. It needed a whole web interface for registering gardens, searching through the list of participating gardens, entering data, viewing results and a way to compare the results of different participants.

project-postcard2

The second underestimation was the sheer amount of work, time and talking I would have to do to promote the project. We designed postcards (easy to distribute, display and take home), clever Facebook posts, guest blog posts and numerous versions of short blurbs. I’ve visited community centres, Council offices, libraries, community gardens, gardening groups, markets and events. Sometimes I feel like a tv with only one channel.

seed-freedom-food-festival-2016-photo-by-david-cann
Chatting to Stephen at the Seed Freedom Food Festival. Photo by the talented David Cann.

Why it’s worth it

Since making the project open to the public (about 3 weeks ago) we have had 140 survey responses from all around Metropolitan Adelaide and from some gardeners as far away as Mount Gambier, the Yorke Peninsula and Port Lincoln.

Of these 140 people, 95 of them have volunteered to collect data on their own gardens and 73 of them are keen to attend a focus group on the social value of growing your own food. I love response rates like this.

Now it’s back to work – to infinity and beyond!


If you’re interested in finding out more about the Edible Gardens project visit the webpage at: http://www.discoverycircle.org.au/projects/edible-gardens/

 

Crusaders of Science

A recent article by Richard P Grant on why scientists are loosing the communication fight, really struck a chord with me.

Richard comes across as actually saddened by the way in which many scientists attempt to communicate with the public. He points out that most of the people who actively argue and disagree with science are just people. They’re people who want their concerns, fears and needs listened to and taken into account. And instead of doing this, we scientists have the tendency to fight the good fight and defend science at all costs.

This article certainly made me wonder – is the habit of defence so ingrained in all scientists that it’s actually eroding our ability to communicate?

Now I don’t know any scientists who habitually browbeat people into accepting their point of view. However, there is an element of defence in everything scientists do. We are taught to defend our research to other scientists. We defend the value of our research to funders, companies and governments. And then we go right on and defend our research to the public, even though perhaps, this is one group of people with which we should instead be conversing, inviting in and offering the chance to engage in what we do.

But what about frustration?

I feel frustrated when I overhear someone’s conversation about “the myth of climate change”. I feel frustrated when my partner or someone in my family hears the debate of a science skeptic on the radio or tv and says, “Oh that’s a good point”. As someone who has studied long and hard to obtain environmental science knowledge, it can be really hard  when other people don’t automatically understand. But to be fair, not having that knowledge isn’t their fault. Everyone has different knowledge and has mastered different skills.

Maybe my frustration could be more useful as a warning that my defensive tipping point  is fast approaching. Because as romantic as it may sound to be a crusader for science, our defensive fervour could be getting in the way of true communication. I for one am going to try and listen a little more and defend a little less.


To read the full article by Richard P Grant, click here.

Award Nomination?!

It turns out that not only does WordPress make blogging pretty simple, but also that the WordPress blogging community are pretty damn supportive.

Amazingly enough people are reading, liking and even following a science communication blog – THIS science communication blog to be exact.

Thanks Jonny from sci.casual  and The Biology Yak for nominating me!

oie_transparent-11

The rules attached to this award are that you have to:

  • Show the award on your blog
  • Thank the person that nominated you
  • Share 7 different facts about yourself
  • Nominate 15 blogs of your choice
  • Link your nominees and let them know of your nomination

So here a little about about me:

  1. I do “real” science too. I have a Bachelor of Sustainable Environments, an Honours degree in Environmental Science and am currently working through a PhD in Environmental Science… can you see a trend?
  2. My current research is all about urban food production (urban agriculture). I’m actually about to launch the Edible Gardens project (more on this soon) where people can sign up to collect data on their own gardens! The project will investigate both the social value and the productive capability of urban food gardens.
  3. “Quiero aprender Espanol” – I want to learn spanish. Or several languages, that would be cool too. Duolingo has been helping.
  4. I love art and at various times can be found painting, drawing, embroidering, sewing, planting things in patterns and collecting (artistic) junk.
  5. I was a complete daydreamer, reader and tree climber as a kid…. not a lot has really changed – I just tend to pack waaaay more into my days.
  6. I want to help change the world. For this I blame my parents, who always told me that I could and would… funny how it seemed like such a simple easy idea as a kid!
  7. Living on Mars would be incredible. But I also know I would miss some pretty important things – like feeling wind, and rain, and being able to go outside when ever I want without having to put on a big ole’ spacesuit.

The next trick is to nominate 15 other blogs for this award. I think I follow at least 15 blogs… ah well here are my favourites:

Emily, Stephanie, Anna and guests (@wildlifesnpits) If you’re interested in seeing some amazing wildlife photos, in addition to reading great posts on conservation, communication and new research then this is a blog for you.

Yanhao and Harvey (@thenexusscience) – just reading their About page made me laugh. They write about some very cool and complicated (made not complicated) topics.

Heather (@heatherstuffnthings) – besides having a brilliant post about how you (yes you) can better keep up to date with science communication research, she also writes about public understanding and the impacts of public perception.

Dr Kirsty MacLeod (@kjmacleod) – She has a photo of herself with a Meerkat on her head (Do I really need to convince you anymore?). Read all about her fieldwork, research travels, publications and (@realscientists) connections.

Matt Shipman (@sciencecommunicationbreakdown) – Matt writes both about the science of science communication, and the practice of science communication. I greatly appreciate the distinction.

Meandering Matt (@bordersandbackpacks) – thanks Matt for letting me vicariously travel through your posts! Brilliant photos, stories and reviews.

The South African Young Academy of Science (@SAYASblog) – They have a collective page for the most recent posts from winners of their 2016 contest to find the best PhD bloggers in South Africa. Read away!

Natalie (@butwhy) – I love the idea of questioning everything. “Why?” is the simplest and most powerful question out there. (Don’t worry Natalie I know you’ve already been nominated for this!)

Matteo (@matteofarinella) – Here is a wonderful comic journal with some of the best illustrations. I wish all science infographics could look like these amazing images.

So thanks to everyone who follows/reads/occasionally likes this blog – it is a wonderful feeling to try to contribute to a topic and know that someone is listening.

Cheers! – Georgia the Urban Ag. Scientist

P.S Both my grandmothers in the featured image thank you too.

Confronting the 3 Minute Thesis

I finally sat down after the first School of NBE round of the 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) and thought, “Well I tried but I don’t think I’m getting through.”

This was because I have never been so overwhelmingly nervous during a presentation ever before in my life. At one point I even remember thinking, “If I just lie down right here on the ground… will everyone just go away and leave me alone?”

So thank goodness I did better than I thought I did.

The 3MT was developed by the University of Queensland and has been running since 2008. It’s a deceptively simple concept:

Can you take your 4 (or 5 or 6 or even 7 years!) of PhD research and explain it to a non-expert audience in under 3 minutes? Oh and you’re only allowed one slide behind you, with no moving parts or sounds. Sounds like a reasonable challenge yes?

In that first school round I came second (which I was not expecting at all).

Three weeks later in the Division round, the presentations were part of an all day Division Information Day. This means it was held in a large sunken lecture room with more than 100 academics coming and going throughout the day.

Again I was very nervous. But thank goodness I was still slightly less nervous than the last time. I tried to set myself up to succeed by leaving the room about three presentations before my own, and using some of the warm ups and voice exercises I learnt in voice training. By the time I returned to the lecture hall – it was time for me to present.

As I was slightly calmer I was able to use my hands to gesture more, I was able to smile more and even move around a little. However I still stumbled on some words and when trying to move on to the next part or my talk.

The others who were also presenting did mostly really well. Everyone stayed within the three minute mark. Some had brilliant voice projection, and some were a little hard to hear in this large padded room. Most of them moved around while they spoke, and used hand gestures to great effect.

What I took away from this was that not only should you practice a lot, but you really should try to practice in front of as many people as you can muster. With only three minutes to present, you don’t have any time to relax into your talk once you get going. You need to start already relaxed.

For anyone interested in watching the 3MT Final Round for the University of South Australia, it’s on Wednesday the 17th of August from 10-12 at the City West Campus. Good luck to all the presenters!


And does has anyone had a similar experience with the 3MT? Or do you have any ideas or suggestions for how to begin a talk calm, instead of having to calm down during your talk? Let me know!

Book breakdown – “Don’t be such a Scientist” Part 3

Here we cover the third instalment of Dr. Randy Olson‘s book which gets a little deeper into the “arouse and fulfil” tactic of getting people interested in the point you’re trying to make. And although that simple two-step process can work just fine, one way to mix it up is via storytelling…

Part 3: Don’t be such a poor storyteller

By now you may have noticed… many scientists aren’t brilliant storytellers. They can be passionate and big picture oriented, but also long-winded, detail obsessed or even dull. In Hollywood, people study for years to learn how to tell a good story. Scientists study and train for the complete opposite – to always constructively review whatever they are told, and to keep an eye out for any inaccurate details. But to get your information across to a non-academic audience… you have to be able to tell a good story

You begin with your raw material. For scientists this is your data, results, interviews, conclusions or realisations (admit it – there’s a lot). It may be in a jumble, or you may have it in the standard scientific structure: introduction, methods, results, discussion and conclusion. Although that structure is perfect for the scientific world, it isn’t great for anyone else.

While working on his film, “Flock of Dodos”, Olson figured out that to go forwards with all of his raw material – he would have to go back to one of the simplest stories there is: there’s a man, a journey, a damsel, a dragon and a larger evil in the land. Then all of his raw material suddenly worked together like magic.

The trouble is, the simplicity of a good story is both its greatest strength in engaging people, but is also the biggest sticking point for those who cannot (or will not) suspend disbelief, and believe in the story they’re told.

Olson tells of his trouble when showing some of his films to scientists, how they simply could not stop themselves from constantly questioning what was occurring – “Could that really happen?” or, “I don’t think that detail is correct”. Olson goes so far as to call them the “designated drivers” of the storytelling audience, while everyone else sits there drinking in the wonder of the story.

I find this habit of constantly looking for flaws in everything a little inflexible. Yes, stories can be simple and tend to follow patterns we already know. But they’re not just for children. Most of us became scientists because we never quite lost our childlike fascination with the world. Scientific research begins with a simple curiosity that drives us to ask, “Why…?”. So why on earth can’t we accept the power and necessity of a good story sometimes?

The book then shifts to the challenge of Accuracy vs. Boredom. Scientists care most about how accurate something is. Almost everyone else cares slightly more about whether they’re bored or not. Olson goes so far as to call this, “The fundamental dilemma facing the world of science today”.

One way to overcome boredom is by introducing  a source of tension or conflict. Something to think around or overcome. By denying any challenges made to science, scientists are missing out on a potential opportunity where they could fight the source of conflict and triumph!

Olson winds up this chapter by unreservedly championing the fact that,

“Being concise” is not the same as “dumbing down”.

Yes, you will have to work harder to get down to the relatable true essence of what your research is about. But surely you will become more confident and comfortable in your own understanding, and your ability to share what you do. So see if you can’t weave a little storyline through your work the next time you have to talk to those outside the academic sphere.


Once again, if you’re interested in reading, “Don’t be such a scientist” yourself, you can purchase the kindle edition from  Amazon.com.au for $13.03, or get the paper version for $26.50 from Booktopia.com.au, or from Angus&Roberston.com.au for $26.99. Happy Reading!

Discovering Voice Training

Imagine being told to make gargoyle faces, to hum using different parts of your body, and to read Doctor Seuss tongue twisters aloud in a big empty room. This was my introduction to voice training.

The class was run by Ms Justene Knight, a Senior Consultant: Organisational Development, Human Resources at the University of South Australia. Standing before us she looked so comfortable and confident in her own body and voice – so it didn’t surprise me to learn that she had previously been an Actor.

We began by trying to pay more attention to our  bodies as we stood there. With two hands on our bellies we practised breathing into our stomachs instead of into our chests (where people normally tend to breathe from). To find tension in our bodies we swung arms, rolled ankles and shook our legs. Justene got us noticing how different subtle postures could shorten our breath. Things like standing on your toes, lifting your shoulders or even curling your toes up can impact how grounded you feel and how your breath comes out.

And try this for an exercise! To help shift your voice from the back of your throat or up in your head – Pinch your nose closed and say,

“Hello, my name is _______ and I do _____________ for work.” 

I bet you sounded pretty funny huh? Now try to do it and sound completely normal! No nasal sounding words at all ( I can get some words but not others).

Another great part was having to read a page from the Doctor Seuss story “Fox in Socks” aloud. We tried emphasising the consonants and then the vowels. We even mouthed the words without sound, and wow – that really makes you notice how much (or how little) your mouth moves when you speak. Apparently Australians are particularly bad at not opening or moving their mouths very much when we speak!

Some other tips Justene had for preparing for a talk or presentation were:

  • If you can, find somewhere private to warm up your body (shoulder rolls/ankle rolls etc.), to warm up your face (scrunch it up and then relax it or mouth the first few lines of your talk), and finally your voice (hum a tune).
  • Take a few slow deep breaths into your belly before you begin to speak.
  • “Acknowledge the room”. Now this was more about taking in the size of the room you’re in. So look at the back wall and take in all the space in the room. This will help you to automatically project your voice to fill the space, instead of only talking to the front row (or your shoes).
  • Too nervous to make eye contact? Look at their ears instead! Most people can’t tell.
  • And if you forget a word or a sentence in your talk, just take a slow breathe and move on. It happens to everyone.

But my favourite part of the class was Justene telling us that feeling nervous or scared is utterly normal and to be expected. No, it isn’t a comfortable feeling by any standards. But that energy can help you give a better, and more interesting presentation.

So thank you Justene Knight for the brilliant class. I never would have through that such simple things like posture, tension in your body, or warming up the muscles in your face could actually change the sound and reach of your voice. And for anyone wondering if they should give voice training a go – yes do!