Dawn Wright: On Science Communication, Social Media, And Joining Our Board

This week, we welcome Dr. Dawn Wright to the COMPASS Board of Directors! Dawn’s day job (and she would probably tell you, her night and weekend job too) is the Chief Scientist at Esri. I love her story of why, after 17 years in academia, Dawn made the “escape”, as she says, to Esri. At its core, her story is really one of communication, leadership, exploration of the relevance of her science, and examination of her place in the scientific enterprise (all things we like helping scientists think about). Dawn is an amazing scientist, a generous human being, a committed communicator, a prolific tweeter and a hard-core cyclist. We couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome her to our board, so she can contribute to helping all of us at COMPASS support scientists in finding their own “so what”.

You can read more about Dawn here.

As I welcomed Dawn to the board, I had the opportunity to probe into some of her communication and engagement experiences and advice:

Tell us what a day in your life looks like, and how does engaging and communicating fit?
Dawn Wright is a professor of Geography and Oceanography at Oregon State University, Esri's chief scientist, and COMPASS' newest board member.

Dawn Wright is an ocean scientist and geographer, Esri’s chief scientist, and COMPASS’ newest board member.

The exciting thing about my job at Esri is that it is all about engaging and communicating.  Today, for instance, I met with our new product manager for 3D mapping and analysis to share with him the many projects in our science initiative and begin to connect him with my network of scientists using our software so that he can develop better use cases, which will ultimately lead to improvements in our 3D products to serve scientists. We were joined by the CEO of the company (neat serendipity as he saw us and just sat down) who gave us both an overview of the history of how the company had approached 3D problems in the past, the data structures that had evolved, and future directions given the various needs of our users and disruptive technologies such as drones, etc.

Later, I ran into colleagues who wanted to show me applications they were developing for virtual reality mapping experiences (including a spin wearing an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset). Another colleague wanted advice about where to publish an article based on new spatial statistical approaches his group developed for interpolating data collected by mobile devices in the field.

Of course, like most of us, I spend large portions of every day doing email too! I was attending a panel discussion at a conference and as the distinguished panelists introduced themselves (“I’m XX and I’m a marine ecologist,” “I’m YY and I specialize in marine spatial planning,” etc., etc.), one panelist said, “My name is XX and I do email!”

Scientists communicate for lots of different reasons – why do you invest your precious time in communicating?

I think it’s similar to classroom teaching: despite the many challenges, there might be one lecture where you really get through to students and that’s a shot of endorphins. The positive reinforcement of helping people to see more clearly where science is concerned, or even to change their minds is quite a powerful motivator. And then there’s the fact that we are facing some of the most of vexing and daunting problems in human history (climate change, oceans in crisis, etc.), and we should do what we can to “speak truth to power.” I think communicating also helps me to be a better scientist. I love the E.O. Wilson quote: “The ideal scientist must think like a poet, work like a clerk, and write like a journalist.”

You have a great presence on Twitter; does that come naturally? What about it is easy for you?

For me, it came progressively. At first I didn’t even engage because I thought it was only something for cell phones, and I don’t live via my cell phone. But once I discovered you can do it at your desk, it really took off for me. And it’s so much fun. The 140-character limit makes it both easy (it’s only 140 characters) but also sometimes challenging (REDUCE what you want to say TO 140 characters). For me it’s so easy to pick a snippet that I’ll see in email or on the web (e.g. a job posting) and bump it right to Twitter. 

What advice do you have for scientists who are thinking of engaging online?

Start to see engaging online as a form of academic service. There is so much value to it; colleagues and students especially appreciate it. Readers may be interested in a 2013 AGU poster: Participation in social media as academic service. Click on the AGU logo to open the poster as a “story map.” There is also a great article in Nature just out: Van Noorden, R., 2014. Scientists and the social network.

When you think about all your outreach activities, what does that portfolio look like? Are there things you do that might surprise scientists reading this post?

I think the story map shows my “portfolio” quite nicely. No single thing there is very surprising, but what might be is the variety. You don’t have to do outreach full-time in order to do it all; there are ways to get a far-reaching bang from a single buck.

Even for folks who are seasoned communicators, like you, there are inevitable misses or failures. Can you share a story of how you’ve bounced back or share coping strategies for when communications didn’t unfold as you expected or prepared for?

Recently, I did an interview for a magazine and before publication I found that the editors had taken the transcript of the interview and applied some serious “spin”. I think they had expectations that my actual responses didn’t meet and so they inserted some inaccuracies and misquoted me. It was all resolved in the end but took a lot of back-and-forth and I came away feeling quite unsettled and down about the whole affair, especially given the supposed reputation of the magazine. Thankfully, I had asked for a draft of the piece before it was released.

We’ve had the pleasure of working with you when you were a Leopold Fellow and on other outreach – what’s the most meaningful piece advice COMPASS has given you?

The Steve Schneider quote: “Know thy audience, know thy self, know thy stuff.” AND to keep working on my message boxes!d.getElementsByTagName(‘head’)[0].appendChild(s);