In July 2012, I received an email that has had a profound effect on my career and life. The email came from Jeremy. He had begun blogging as part of the editorial board of the journal Oikos, but had resigned from their editorial board, so it no longer made sense to blog there. Instead, he had the idea to start a blog written by a small group of ecologists. The blog was to be named Dynamic Ecology, and he wanted to know if I would be interested in writing for it.
I didn’t sleep that night. There were plenty of reasons to say no. I was preparing to move from my job at Georgia Tech to a new faculty position at Michigan, and would, for that year, have labs running in two places. I would be teaching Introductory Biology in my first semester at Michigan, to hundreds of students. I had a toddler and was pregnant with my second child. My first graduate student was working to write up her dissertation. We were setting up new field sites in Michigan. I planned on submitting my tenure dossier the following summer.
Yet, the reason I couldn’t sleep was that I knew I wanted – needed – to say yes, despite all those other things going on. In the months leading up to that, I had been finding myself increasingly interested in speaking out about science and topics related to the process of science, and this was a chance to do just that. I had a hunch that it would end up being an important blog in the ecology community, and that I would regret it if I turned down the opportunity.
So, I wrote back and said yes. I am so glad I did.
Since then, blogging has become an important part of what I do as a scientist. And it has given me an important platform to talk about issues that I feel strongly about – especially issues related to diversity in science. I’ve written about sexism and stereotype threat and implicit bias in job searches and gender bias in awards and sexual harassment at field sites and how I almost quit grad school. And these posts have reached people. My post saying you do not need to work 80 hours a week to succeed in academia is by far our most popular post (and that doesn’t even account for the views it has received at the two other sites that I’ve allowed to post it). My post on having an anxiety disorder received an overwhelming amount of positive feedback and is the only one of our newer posts to be in the top 20 for page views. Those things give me hope that maybe, by raising these issues enough times and with enough people, I can play a small role in helping us to make progress on issues that are important to scientists and science.
Yet, increasingly, I find that I want – again, need – to do more. Communicating with other scientists (which is primarily what we do here at DE) is important, but there is other work to do, too. I think it is abundantly clear, especially today, that scientists and academics need to do a better job of communicating with broad audiences. I hope to be one of those communicators.
Recently I have started testing out some things that are a little more in the traditional science communication vein (e.g., this blog post on Daphnia and infectious diseases and this tweetstorm on plankton). But I feel a bit out of my depth, and recognize that I would greatly benefit from formal training in this area.
To that end, I have applied to the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science; I very much hope to be selected and to receive their intensive training and mentoring relating to science communication. One of my goals is to use this training to create more effective engagement opportunities with some new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives at Michigan. Other goals include more general science communication, with undergraduates and the broader community. I also recently jumped at a chance to receive training this winter from The OpEd Project, which aims “to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas we hear in the world”.
So, in the end, I think it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes we need to say yes. As academics, we are so often told to say no in order to protect our time. And that is, in many cases, good advice. But we also need to say yes sometimes. We don’t all need to say yes all the time, and we don’t all need to say yes to the same things. But we do need to say yes sometimes.
Today, please think about what issues are important and what you are passionate about. Maybe that issue is teaching the next generation of critical thinkers. Maybe it relates to broadening participation. Maybe it is doing outreach or science communication. Maybe it is doing research on the importance of biodiversity. Whatever it is, once you’ve identified it, think about what you can do to engage more on those issues. Come up with a plan. Think about saying yes to opportunities in those areas. We all need to be engaged.
Acknowledgment: The idea for framing this as being related to the importance of saying yes came from Jeremy, in an email conversation I had with him while working on my Leshner application. This morning, that message seems even more important.