A remembrance of my dad, the best field assistant anyone could hope for

My dad died this past weekend, of what was surely covid (though, since he wasn’t tested, he isn’t in the official statistics). Not surprisingly, this has me reflecting on a lot of things, including the time we spent together at Kellogg Biological Station (KBS), when I was in grad school and he was my field assistant. My father was about as non-academic as they come, but he was so supportive of my academic pursuits. That time we got to spend together was a gift.

scanned black and white photo of a boy with his head tilted, smiling at the camera

My father’s childhood was not easy — his mother died when he was 6, his father died shortly before he finished high school, and money was always very tight — but he still always approached life with a “glass half full” attitude. 

After he finished high school, he was drafted into the Army. He wasn’t particularly excited about having been drafted, but the alternative was to go to college, so he went into the Army. He was lucky to be stationed in Germany, rather than Vietnam. (This led me to be very confused when I was younger. I knew he’d been in the Army and that he’d been in Germany during a war, so I was sure he’d been in WW2, despite my teacher’s insistence that he was not old enough for that to have been possible.)

After the Army, my father enrolled in college on the GI Bill. This, too, was a source of confusion for me, since it also seemed clear that he had no interest in college and he never mentioned anything about courses. I finally asked him about this a few years ago: it turns out he enrolled for one semester, but never actually attended any classes. School was never his thing. 

Instead, he ended up becoming a NYC firefighter, spending over 30 years with FDNY. For the last part of his career, he drove the engine officially, was the Engine Company Chauffeur. I’ve always been proud of him being a firefighter, and that he drove the engine made me extra proud. (I mean, driving the engine is super cool, right?) It also led to a running joke that “side view mirrors don’t count”. I doubt he actually took out that many mirrors in his years I think he was very good at his job. But his point was, if he had to squeeze the rig through a tight spot and a car’s side view mirror was the only thing keeping him from getting through that spot and to the fire, that mirror was expendable. There’s a lesson in there about having one’s priorities straight.

* * * 

My dad was always incredibly supportive. He wasn’t someone who really pushed education my drive to do well in school and go to college definitely came from my mother, who had not been allowed to go to college when she graduated high school. (She later went to college after having three kids and while working two jobs.) At first, his support took relatively unremarkable forms, such as shuttling me and my stuff back and forth to Ithaca. (He would always stand with his hands on his hips while surveying the amount of stuff I wanted to bring and the amount of space in the back of the car; he always declared it was never all going to fit, then somehow got it all in.)

When I got a job working as a technician in Antarctica between college & grad school, it was his turn to think my job was cool. He drove around with me as I bought some supplies lots of film, a ton of fruit leathers, a good pair of sunglasses. He proudly announced to everyone in every store that we were buying them because I was going to Antarctica. He was the proudest papa there could be.

But the most notable and most memorable support of me, my education, and my career came when I was in grad school. He loved visiting me at KBS and, at some point (I can’t remember how or when), we hatched the idea that he should be my field assistant. So, he came for the summer and part of the fall, two years in a row. We’d go out sampling in the morning (or, sometimes, late at night if I was studying diel vertical migration or early in the morning if I needed to collect fish), then he’d help out a bit in the lab, then he’d go home and I’d stay in the lab counting samples. He was legendary at KBS, where everyone called him Fireman Bob. Not everyone could always understand him he had a strong Brooklyn accent and tended to mumble — but everyone loved him.

As readers who’ve done field work will know, there is a special bond that comes from being in the field with someone else. We spent so much time together in the truck and the boat, having time to talk about all sorts of things. I remember a story about him being in a burning building during the 1970s oil crisis and opening a door to find a closet stocked full of homemade containers of gasoline. We also didn’t talk about some things. Most notably, we never discussed evolution. My father didn’t accept evolution, yet was selflessly and happily helping me with evolutionary studies. We never discussed that inconsistency — we all have our own inconsistencies, and it wasn’t worth the strife discussing it would cause.

It was so fun to share this other world I’d moved into with him. Academia is definitely not part of my family’s story, and ecology isn’t either. I remember very clearly the first time he was doing a temperature profile on a lake, starting at the surface and lowering the probe meter by meter. When he hit the thermocline (the layer where the water temperature drops very quickly), he was shocked at how much the temperature was changing and kept saying “Whoa, it’s really dropping!”, thinking something was wrong with the probe. I will never have such a careful field assistant sometimes I would think it seemed like he was towing kind of fast, but then I’d time it and he was always spot on at 1 meter/second. He definitely took pride in a job well done.

In the end, I came out of those two years with lots of data, yes, but also with so much more. That time took what was already a strong bond and made it unbreakable. And it took something I already knew — that he supported me 100% — and took that to another level, too. It also provided perspective — getting up early to collect data on fish predation felt hard, but then my dad would be like, “You’re getting paid for this?!?!” If you want perspective on how hard your field season is, you should do it with someone who ran into burning buildings for a living.

* * * 

If we were in normal times, I would have flown to NY at the end of last week. But we’re not in normal times, and I’m stuck in Michigan. So, I took to looking through pictures, from when I was little, but also from our time together at KBS. I found this one, and texted it to my mom, asking her to share it with my dad:

Man smiling at the camera, holding a fish on a line

By then, my dad was starting to get confused — the virus was just too much for his body to handle. But as soon as he saw it, he said “That’s grandpa!” I had forgotten, but he, even in his confusion, remembered the name we used for any of the larger bluegill that we caught. (I did remember that he’d been upset that the fish had spun for the photo, making it look smaller!)

Memories are interesting, including what we remember and what we forget. I may have forgotten our Grandpa joke, but I know that I will always remember that time we had together. Clearly he did, too. It was such a gift. 

I miss you, dad. Rest in peace. 

A young woman and an older man standing next to a truck in rain gear, each holding an oar

On reaching one’s destination and realizing it’s a starting point

Last summer, I gave a talk at the Evolution meetings in a session focused on science communication. My main message was: there’s value in preaching to the choir. But, as I’ll explain in this post, that talk helped me realize something else: sometimes, what you think is your destination is really a starting point.

The idea of preaching to the choir is one I’ve been thinking about a lot, especially as a result of work I’ve been doing on student understandings of and views on climate change, in collaboration with Susan Cheng and JW Hammond. We started using that metaphor because we found that almost all students entered the course we studied already accepting that climate change is occurring: when asked “Do you think climate change is happening” at the beginning of the semester, 98% of students choose one of the “agree” options. (The paper is here and open access.) In the course we studied, one of the main messages of the lecture on climate change was that climate change is occurring. Given that most of the students already thought that prior to instruction, you could argue that this course was preaching to the choir. But one of the messages of our study was that there is value in that; as one indication that it had value, after instruction, students became more confident that climate change is occurring. There’s value in preaching to the choir! I thought that message applied to science communication more broadly, so decided to make this the theme of my Evolution talk.

Before writing a talk with that theme, though, I wanted to make sure that the way I use the metaphor is the way others use it, too. I googled it, which led to me finding this amazing piece by Rebecca Solnit. The focus of her essay is on political communication, but it is very applicable to science communication, too.

So, my Evolution talk ended up having several slides with quotes from Solnit’s piece, including this one:

Karen Haygood Stokes, a minister … explained …her aim is not so much to persuade people to believe as it is to encourage them to inquire into existing beliefs. “My task as a preacher is to find the places of agreement and then move someplace from there. Not to change anybody’s mind, but to deepen an understanding.” The common ground among her parishioners is not the destination; it’s the starting point: “Have we thought critically about why we agree?”

This quote really stood out when I was reading the Solnit piece, because it was so applicable to the work we’ve been doing on student views on climate change. When we look at their short answer responses, there is huge heterogeneity that is not captured by the statistic that 98% of them accept climate change coming into the course. When asked about what factors are contributing to climate change, some seem to understand things well enough that they might be able to teach the lecture, others have a partial understanding, others say they don’t really know, and still others seem to harbor misconceptions.

When I started the work, I viewed a student clicking “accept” as my destination. This work has made me realize it’s a starting point.

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Some things that helped me make it through a particularly busy semester

This past fall was quite busy for me, and I was worried at the start about whether I’d bitten off more than I could chew. The big things taking up time were teaching over 600 students in Intro Bio and chairing a university task force on graduate student mental health, but it was also important to me that people in my lab not have to go the whole semester without getting feedback on their manuscripts, and there were also a couple of grant deadlines that I really didn’t want to miss. I knew this would be a lot, so I did my best before the semester to set up a structure that would hopefully help me through my particularly busy semester. And it worked pretty well! Things weren’t perfect, but I did the things that needed to be done and think I did them reasonably well, and I came out of the semester with my mental health intact. I think a few things really helped with managing things, and I’m hoping that sharing them might be useful to other folks, hence this post.

I’ll expand on each of these below, but the short version of my strategy is:

  1. Block off time for everything
  2. Say no to lots of things
  3. Work with good people
  4. Celebrate the wins
  5. Remember that the bar is not perfection

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How much evidence is there that we should aim to write every day? And are their downsides to suggesting that people aim for that?

As a postdoc, I read Robert Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members. I think it helped me a lot as I started my first faculty position: I blocked off time for writing, learned how to use short chunks of time productively, and tried to make sure I still got research done even while I was teaching new courses. Until fairly recently, I would have considered myself strongly on Team Boice. I have recommended his book and his approach to people over the years, including one of the ideas he’s best known for: That we should aim to write every day. Now, I’m less sure how strongly to recommend his books, and my advice on how to be a productive writer has changed.

So what changed?

First, I was on a panel with a colleague of mine who is very productive. The panel was for early career folks and there was a question about how to balance all the different demands on your time as an early career faculty member, including how to still maintain research productivity while doing all the other things new faculty need to do. I preached the Boice gospel: You have to learn how to work in small chunks of time, you have to block off time for writing regularly, you can’t wait until you have a full day to write, etc. My colleague was like “yeah, that doesn’t work for me. If I have a free half hour or even hour, I will waste it. I can’t write in that time.” Instead, he structures his weeks so that there’s at least one big chunk of time where he can write.

I was shocked – this was the wrong advice to be giving! He was leading them astray! This is not the way to get off to a strong start as an assistant professor!

Or maybe not? At that time, I would have said that I followed Boice’s advice, but, looking back, I realize I was only following parts of it. Most notably, I actually wasn’t really writing every day, and I’m not sure if I ever did that as a faculty member. I block off at least one morning a week for writing. Unlike my colleague, I do try to get some writing done in smaller blocks of time, too, though I am more likely these days to save up email for those small blocks of time and try to tackle as much of it then as I can. Overall, I do a lot of writing and editing by blocking off 2-4 hour blocks of time in my calendar.

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On overdetermining success, embracing messiness, getting ducks in a row, and changing course

I am chairing a task force for Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School that is focused on graduate student mental health. This is something that I care about a lot and that I really wanted to lead. But, at the same time, it was a very different sort of leadership role than I’d had before. So, as I prepared for this work, I read a variety of books about organizational change and leadership.* Some argued for overdetermining success, while others argued for embracing vulnerability and tough, messy work. I found both sets of arguments convincing.

On the day of the first meeting of the full task, I felt like it was my first day of school, with all the nervousness and excitement that comes along with that. Right before the meeting began, I was talking with Heather Fuchs, the wonderful person from the Rackham Dean’s Office who works with the task force. She asked if I felt ready for the meeting and my reply was something along the lines of, “I don’t know! Half the stuff I read said I need to overdetermine success and the other half said I need to embrace vulnerability and messiness! I’m not sure what I should do!” (Heather joked that maybe I should write a book in the future on meeting in the middle.)

I was joking with Heather, but I really had been feeling unsure of how much to try to come up with a clear, specific plan for the work of the task force versus how much to let things evolve organically. So often, when people set up a choice between A and B, my reaction is: “Why not both?”** But in this case, the suggestions—overdetermine success! embrace messiness!—felt pretty opposite. I definitely didn’t want a hybrid that overdetermined messiness! Still, I decided to try to do both, but had no idea how that was going to work out.

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Changes I made the last time I taught that I think were useful

The last time I taught Intro Bio (in Fall 2017), I felt like things went really well in terms of interacting with students. And, while they’re a flawed metric, my teaching evaluations were notably higher than they’d been in the past. I mentioned that to a friend, who knew I had set goals before the semester about what I was going to do differently, and asked if I could write them out. So I did. And then I forgot I had done that.

In May, I wrote a post on a small change I made to try to make it clearer to students that I really care a lot about their learning. The short version is: before answering a question a student asked in class, I tried to do more to signal that I appreciated them asking the question. In the comments section, someone asked if it improved my teaching evaluations. My answer was “My student evaluations were unusually high after I did this, but I changed a few things so it’s hard to know how much of an effect this had. I wrote out all the changes for a colleague who was curious, and it might be worth turning that into a blog post.”

So, here is a modified version of what I sent my frolleague (friend + colleague = frolleague!):

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Poll: Parental leave and CVs

Back in 2016, I wrote a post about formatting a CV for a faculty job application (aimed especially at folks applying for positions in the US). In that post, I wrote:

One question that came via twitter was how to indicate slow research output due to having babies. I have seen people do this, and I try to take it into account. For example, when going through CVs, I keep track of things in a spreadsheet where I note the year of the PhD; I would add a note there to take into account family leave for birth of a child, eldercare, etc. However, there is no question that there are still a lot of biases against women who have children, and that it could easily trigger implicit (or even explicit) bias. So, I would recommend against it (even though it pains me to type that).

More recently, a few things prompted me to reflect on that advice. One of those things was a blog post by Athene Donald, who argues that people should include leaves on their CVs. Another was an email from Tess Grainger who asked:

Is there is any evidence of bias related to parental leave, or it a thing of the past? How many people have been on a search committee (recently) in which someone indicated any kind of negative bias associated with a parental leave (or leave for illness, eldercare etc.)? Is this something that still happens, or should I and others not hesitate put these leaves in our records?

Those are all really interesting and important questions! So, today’s post is a poll (written with Tess) to try to get a sense for what is going on. Most of the questions in this poll are geared towards people who have sat on at least one search or award committee. There are also two questions asking people who did list parental leave or other family leave on their CV about where they listed it, as well as a free response question at the end — those can be answered by anyone, even those without experience on search or award committees. And, finally, if you know of publicly available examples of CVs that list leave, please share them in the comments!

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Seagulling, ego itching powder, supporting one another, and happiness

A friend recently shared an episode of the 10% Happier podcast with me, in which the podcast host, Dan Harris, interviews Johann Hari about his new book, Lost Connections. When listening to it, I kept being struck by the connections to academia. One of the first connections occurs right at the beginning, when he notes that, when it comes to understanding the reasons for the rise in mental health conditions, we need to focus not just on chemical imbalances but also power imbalances. Indeed!

But the main thing I wanted to focus on in this blog post is about another part of the podcast, where Hari talks about how our society is set up in a way that is basically like ego itching powder—we are constantly encouraged to think about ourselves and whether we’re getting ahead and getting enough attention and stuff. About 25 minutes into the episode, Hari talks about:

go[ing] through the day in this ego-itching-powder mode, which the environment sets us up to do, which is: your gain is my loss, we’re in a race for scarce resources and it’s like we’re rushing out of a burning building and I’ve got to clamber over you, I’ve got to fight for every moment of what I get, and if you get ahead of me that places me in danger.

He’s talking about society in general but, of course, this applies to academia, too—academia definitely pours ego itching powder on us regularly.

Hari also talks about research that was done asking whether people can set out to make themselves happier if they try. (This is about 30 minutes into the episode.) The answer is: not if they live in the US, but yes in several other countries where this has been studied. The reason for the difference is that, in the US, we try to make ourselves happier by doing something for ourselves—maybe we buy ourselves a new pair of shoes or some chocolate or something like that—or worse, as the podcast host Dan Harris suggested: we try to crush our enemies at work. Hari compares this to trying to get your legs out of quicksand by reaching your arms and trying to grab your legs—it just makes things worse.

In contrast, in the other countries that were studied (Russia, Japan, and Taiwan), people were able to make themselves happier. That’s because in those countries, people try to make themselves happier by doing something for someone else—a friend, a family member, their community. Doing things for other people ends up making you feel happier.

Right after listening to this, I had a day where someone seagulled something research-related that I had worked on for years and was proud of—he swooped in, shit all over it, and then flew off to leave me to deal with the mess.* It made me feel bad for the rest of the day. I slept terribly, and I still felt bad the next day.

It turns out, though, that my schedule that day was filled with projects related to graduate student mental health. I was working on two different but related projects that are aimed at better supporting graduate student mental health. I spent the day working hard on them, and, at the end of the day, realized I was feeling good and hadn’t devoted any mental energy to Mr. Seagull since I had started working on the mental health projects. It doesn’t mean that what he did was okay—it wasn’t—but it was interesting to me how little it was bothering me after I’d focused on these other projects.

As I’ve been reflecting on this, I’ve been thinking about Brian’s old post on whether deans are making the same error as hen breeders. We have largely set up a culture in academia where we not only pour ego itching powder all over everyone all the time, but we also often inadvertently select against working collaboratively and trying to boost each other.

I know that I am incredibly fortunate to be in a position where I have a lot of flexibility in terms of what I work on—where I have the flexibility to choose to devote a substantial amount of time to working on projects such as the ones on student mental health. But I think this general idea can apply differently to different people at different career stages.

A year or so ago, I was on a panel with a graduate student, Leslie Decker, who said she wished someone had told her right at the start of grad school that others’ success would not prevent her own. She noted that success is not finite, and the ability of those around you to succeed does not detract from your own progress. She suggested that we should take heart in that fact and support one another.

She’s right.

 

 

* For the birders, yes, I am aware that “seagull” is not a technical term and that some of you will argue with this characterization of gulls. For folks in Britain who are aware of another meaning of the term “seagull”, yes, I am aware of it, too. I do not care about either of these objections to the term.

Recommitting to email boundaries

In November 2016, I did a poll and wrote a post about how overwhelming email can be. About a quarter of respondents to the poll said they rarely or never feel overwhelmed by email. I am not one of them. I’m in the majority that are overwhelmed by email at least some of the time. Other notable poll findings were:

  • people with more emails in their inbox were more likely to feel overwhelmed by email, and
  • faculty were more likely than grad students and postdocs to have a lot of work-related emails in their inbox.

At the time I wrote up the results of that poll, one of the main strategies I settled on for trying to be less overwhelmed by email was to batch my inbox, so that my emails only arrived once or twice a day. The idea is to treat email like regular mail – a thing that arrives at a given time and that you deal with in a batch (or, um, toss on the table and leave there for a while).

After that poll, I switched to using batched inbox to batch my mail. (It was free when I signed up, but I don’t think it is now.) It was amazing how much less overwhelming email was! I wasn’t getting distracted by emails as they arrived in my inbox, I found I actually got less email than I thought, and dealing with them in batches really reduced the amount of time and energy I spent on email. (I’m not alone. Arjun Raj has a post about how much email filtering helped his peace of mind.)

So, I was a fan. But then I started “cheating” and checking the folder where the batched emails hang out until they get dumped into the inbox. And, in the years since then, I have gone through cycles where I recommit to batching, think “OMG, why did I ever stop doing this?!?! Dealing with emails in bulk is so much better!!!”, then start sliding and going back to more of a system of dealing with emails as they come in (why? why do I do this?!? I know it’s counterproductive!), then get completely overwhelmed by emails, then at some point remember that batching is supposed to help with that, at which point I recommit to it and once again think “OMG, why did I ever stop doing this?!?!”

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Guest post: Strategies for helping your research reach a wider audience

Note from Meghan:  This is a guest post from Richard B. Primack and Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie; Richard has written guest posts for us before, including one on using a professional editor. This guest post is on a topic that I get asked about regularly when I travel for seminar trips, so I suspect it will be of interest to readers. I’ve added some thoughts of my own throughout the post below.

 

As scientists, we love our research and want to share our findings far and wide. As ecologists and conservation biologists, we especially hope that our findings affect policy, management, or everyday stewardship. And funding agencies remind us that we must ensure our research has broader impacts that benefit society, beyond just publishing scientific papers. But how do we effectively communicate our research? Here, we share some tips about how researchers can communicate research to the media, and reach audiences beyond peer-reviewed journal readers. We use examples from a recent paper of ours published with co-authors.

Make your research exciting—identify your hook. In our recent paper, Phenological mismatch with trees reduces wildflower carbon budgets, published in Ecology Letters, we emphasized that we are building on the observations of Henry David Thoreau; Thoreau was the “hook” that we use to attract much of the interest in our research.

Make the message easy to understand—tell a story. We wrote a press release that told a story about our research and highlighted key points in non-technical language and without jargon. Even though Richard’s academic home of Boston University does not generally issue press releases about scientific papers, our summary helped reporters quickly understand our work, its significance, and potential angles that could interest readers or listeners.

(From Meghan: if you’re having a hard time finding your hook or story, there are some great resources. Randy Olsen’s And, But, Therefore structure is great, and laid out in detail in his book, Houston, We Have a Narrative. The Aurbach et al. “half life” activity (described here) is also a helpful way to find your message.)

Provide informative, high-quality photos. We take many photos to illustrate our research and the key results. Sometimes these photos are carefully staged to illustrate the research process or results. Reporters are more likely to write a story if excellent photos are available.

A man wearing a baseball cap is crouched down in a field. In one hand, he is holding a field notebook. The other hand is reaching out towards a plant with yellow flowers.

Having good photos, such as this carefully arranged shot of Primack working in the field, helps to create media interest.

(From Meghan: these are so important, and often people forget to take them! I agree that carefully staged photos are valuable. Getting videos is very helpful, too, including for reporters to use as “B roll”. I recently shared various short snippets with a reporter—I was glad to have them, but also wished I had more! Another example of how videos can be helpful comes from this recent story by some of my colleagues at Michigan, which went viral because a student on the trip, Maggie Grundler, thought to pull out her phone and capture a quick video of a very cool interaction.)

Reach out to the media and be responsive.  We emailed our press release and eye-catching photos to contacts in the media. One of them liked the story and wrote an article about our work for the Boston Globe. He was writing the article on tight deadline, so we promptly answered his numerous questions.

(From Meghan: A couple of things related to this: first, reporters are often working on much, much tighter deadlines than we are used to—they might need to file the story by the end of the day they contact you. So, you need to be quick about responding to them, but it also helps to give them as much lead time as possible. Second, reporters generally will not share their story with you ahead of time for you to review. It’s very different than working with a university press officer!)

One thing can lead to another. The Boston Globe writer pitched the story to National Public Radio, and he will interview us for a radio program in April.

(From Meghan: One thing can lead to another….or not, or maybe it does but with a big delay. One of the things I didn’t really appreciate when I first started doing more science communication is that you can spend a lot of time talking to a reporter and it can end up going nowhere. [example 1, example 2] It can be really frustrating! If anyone has advice on how to make this less likely, I’d love to hear it!)

Get with social media. Caitlin tweeted about the article, creating buzz in the twittersphere. We wrote a short summary of our paper for our lab blog—essentially a shorter, more conversational version of the press release—with links to a pdf of our article. Our lab blog has been viewed around 100,000 times in 6 years, so we estimate that this will be 500 views of this story, a nice complement to the Twitter buzz.

Publish on-line. To generate publicity within our Boston University community, we wrote an article for BU Research, using the press release as a starting point. This article further widened the audience who will hear about the research, with relatively little additional effort on our part.

Leverage institutional networks.  The other co-authors of our paper reached out to their universities and media contacts, sharing our press release. The paper received added coverage in institutional publications and websites of the University of Maine and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

(From Meghan: another reason this can be useful: one press officer might not be interested or might not have the time, but someone else’s might.)

Send out pdfs.  We emailed a pdf of our paper to 100 colleagues in our field, along with a very short email summarizing the key points of the article, again pulling from the same basic story in the press release and blog and Twitter posts.

Each paper and project are different, but hopefully this post has given you some ideas of things to try.

Other resources:

Compass – https://www.compassscicomm.org

The Op Ed Project – https://www.theopedproject.org/pitching

Cahill Jr, J. F., Lyons, D., & Karst, J. (2011). Finding the “pitch” in ecological writing. The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America92(2), 196-205.

Merkle, B. G. (2018). Tips for Communicating Your Science with the Press: Approaching Journalists. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America99(4), 1-4.