The Writer and the Scientist: Finding Inspiration

Earthzine’s Senior Science Writer Elise Mulder Osenga finds hope through her work in interviews with scientists.

An ecologist teaches the author and a coworker about mountain plants. Image Credit: AGCI

I have many reasons to be grateful for my work as a science writer. Writing has expanded my horizons beyond ecology into the wild realms of oceanography, geology, and even climate modeling—which I used to avoid with a 10-foot pole. Writing has also been frustrating at times: late nights after already long days, airsickness after a busy conference, gray hairs after discovering I deleted the wrong draft of an article.

Perhaps you have had these experiences too. Most often, however, what I associate with science writing is optimism. Learning about Earth observations reveals the breadth and gravity of environmental problems facing the Earth. It also provides a rare insight into how these challenges are being addressed and why that work is conducted. The how and the why are beautiful things.

I’ve spoken to scientists and educators and even some free-market data suppliers. Some have been friendlier or more charismatic than others, but I have yet to interview anyone who did not care deeply about what he or she was doing. This is what I love about being a science writer. A soil biologist enthusing over tardigrades taught me that even the microscopic can become adorable. A representative from the Met Office revealed that weather reports were born out compassion and tragedy. An actor-turned-engineer revealed genuine enthusiasm behind the seemingly dry interface of a data portal. Each of these people is passionate about what he or she does. They work hard not for the money (which is often tied to mercurial grants) or for the fame (how many living scientists can an average person name?) but for love of what they do.

The scientists and communicators of Earth observations carry out their jobs because they are fascinated by their work. Their answers to the simple question “what does a typical day on this project look like?” involve lengthy, impassioned descriptions.  These people don’t just amble through their work. They get down and root around in it.

Each interview I have conducted for Earthzine has been a learning experience. As I reflect on this year from the perspective of “what gives me hope,” two specific examples come to mind: one that represents the potential power of the individual and one that represents the potential power of collaboration.

Early in this year I interviewed Hannah Bernard, a marine biologist who has works in conservation with the Hawai’i Wildlife Fund. Bernard has personally spent decades plucking plastic off garbage covered beaches and monitoring populations of endangered species. The message she repeated throughout our interview, though, was not frustration that these problems exist but conviction that we are making progress toward solving them.

Volunteers repairing a turtle fence. Image Credit: Hawai’i Wildlife Fund

“I think it’s important for us to point out that conservation works,” she said. She described rebounding whale populations in the North Pacific and how conservation actions to protect various marine species are being taken at a community level. These successes are possible, she explained, because of actions that individuals take.

I worry that our young people will lose hope and lose the understanding that they really can make a difference,” she told me. “I would just share that while we’ve read and heard so much about these big gyres of debris floating in our oceans … we’re working on it day by day and beach by beach.”

This is how I now try to think of environmental (and other) problems. No individual can solve all of these issues, but we don’t have to solve them all. We just need to pick those we have control over and do what we can.  

As Bernard said, “Pick your favorite place and care for it.”

My other sample of hope comes the opposite end of the action spectrum: the group approach to Earth observation. This November I had the pleasure (and exhaustion) of attending the Group on Earth Observations’ annual conference (GEO XIII). This gathering represented collaboration from more than 100 different member countries, in addition to other member organizations.

Several hundred people attended.  These people gathered together from different cultures, different disciplines, and different goal sets, but they shared a common goal: to use Earth observations to help protect our planet’s ecosystems and improve living conditions for the people on it. In a plenary speech, Steven Volz, a representative from NOAA NESDIS, succinctly captured the anxiety and hope driving this effort.

“We live in a very changing world, facing many challenges. But we are experts in change and dealing with change … and every day we work to do the right thing for our people … I am eager to work with you in this great endeavor.”

I believe that what Volz says was true. The hurdles facing us are high, but I have spoken with the scientists and engineers who are developing the technologies to help us overcome those hurdles—or at least to better understand exactly how high they are. Whether we each choose to act as individuals or choose to seek out large collaborative partnerships, I believe that movement toward a healthier more sustainable future is possible. There is no doubt in my mind that a great deal of learning and compromising, negotiating and discovering are going to be necessary to get us there. But thanks to the people who inspire me to finish the articles I start, like Volz I can say, “I am eager to work with you in this great endeavor.”

Elise Mulder Osenga is IEEE Earthzine’s senior science writer. Follow her on Twitter @mountain_lark.

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