The “Building Leadership in Science Communication” project was an
education and outreach effort designed to build science communication skills and confidence among C-DEBI grantees, especially graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Organized by the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography’s Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, a one-day workshop was held on October 17, 2016, in conjunction with the 2016 C-DEBI Annual Meeting in California to maximize the opportunity for C-DEBI grantee attendance. The workshop focused on providing expert instruction and coaching on how to develop a compelling message about scientific research for a variety of audiences, how to prepare for interactions with the news media, and how to develop and share videos of research activities for broader audiences. Of the 27 workshop participants, twenty completed a pre-workshop survey to assess their science communication experience, needs, and expectations, and sixteen completed a post-workshop survey to gauge the program’s effectiveness and impacts. The workshop was part of Metcalf Institute’s ongoing work to deepen public engagement with science through communication training for scientists and science training and resources for journalists.
The discovery of life in the deep biosphere has raised a conundrum for scientists: how in the world can anything persist buried far below the surface of the Earth for thousands, and even millions, of years? What adaptations allow organisms to flourish in this ecosystem poised at the edge of starvation and extinction? This is the topic of C-DEBI theme 4, Evolution and Survival: Adaptation, Enrichment, and Repair.
The third theme of deep biosphere research is the Limits of Life: Extremes and Norms of Carbon, Energy, Nutrient, Temperature, Pressure, and pH. There are many different ways that animal and plant life are tested to their limits. The marine realm has long been fertile ground for research into the extremes at which life can thrive and survive. A classic example was the 1977 discovery of life at hydrothermal vents where organisms were found to be thriving in water well above the conventional boiling point. That discovery changed our understanding of the limits of life, especially with regard to temperature.
C-DEBI’s second theme, or avenue of investigation, is Extent of Life: Biomes and the Degree of Connectivity. Given the fundamental role of microbes in life as we know it, one might expect scientists to have some idea of where different types of microbes are found and maybe even why they’re there. Yet specialists in the field of microbiology struggle to understand why, in some cases, nearly identical organisms live a world apart. How can identical bacteria exist thousands of miles away from each other, even when we know the width of a human hair is enough to divide entire microbial populations?
The first C-DEBI theme, or avenue of investigation, is Microbial Activity in the Deep Subseafloor Biosphere. The deep subseafloor biosphere refers to all the life underneath the ocean; not deep in the ocean or living on the bottom of the ocean, like fish, but many feet and even miles below that. In the past decade, researchers have discovered that these distant subseafloor environments contain a substantial amount of biomass, as measured by carbon content. One of the big questions for scientists is how many of those cells are actually alive and active, as opposed to inert. It may sound as though this is veering off into the domain of philosophy, but there is great scientific significance to the answer to this question.
This education and outreach effort developed scientifically vetted resources for the journalism and science-writing communities to assist in their coverage of exciting developments in deep subseafloor biosphere research. Led by the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting in the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography's Office of Marine Programs, project PIs developed and disseminated explanatory media backgrounders on each of the C-DEBI research themes, including an annotated list of scientists with expertise in relevant C-DEBI-related research topics. The project also identified appropriate spokespersons and outlined options for featuring presentations by C-DEBI scientists at key professional development venues attended by science writers and journalists. The activities of this pilot project set the stage for longer-term initiatives to support further communication of C-DEBI research throughout the life of the project.