By Allyson Mann
If you’ve seen, heard or read news about climate change and extreme weather, plastic waste in oceans, or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, you probably know these names: Marshall Shepherd (above left), Samantha Joye (center) and Jenna Jambeck.
They’re some of UGA’s best-known experts in their respective fields, and they’ve been quoted by media outlets all over the world. They give interviews from work, from home and when traveling. They speak to national entities like the U.S. Congress and local groups like the Rotary Club. They’re active on social media, engaging with those that are well informed and those that are not.
It’s time consuming, and there’s no official channel for recognizing and rewarding such activities. Plus they sometimes receive negative feedback from those who disagree. Why do they do it? The reason, it turns out, is different for each.
The reluctant spokesperson
Samantha Joye is one of the world’s foremost experts on the environmental impacts of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. During its aftermath, she was interviewed, quoted or featured in approximately 4,000 news stories, appeared in documentaries like BBC’s “Planet Earth: Blue Planet II,” and testified before Congress. But she never meant to be in the spotlight.
Joye was a grad student when she learned her first lesson about science communication. A visitor walked into the lab, and she tried to shoo him out because she was taking sensitive measurements that could be compromised by heavy footsteps. But he started asking questions, and she found herself explaining her work to someone who turned out to be a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Their conversation led to a story on the front page of the science section.
“It made me realize that if you were passionate and presented the science in a way that was compelling and captivating, then you could get the scientific message across in a really powerful way,” she says.
By the time of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Joye had joined the faculty at UGA. She’d also spent 15 years working in the Gulf of Mexico and felt like it was her “science home.”
“It’s my zen place,” says Joye, Georgia Athletic Association Professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.
A back injury kept her off the first cruise into the area, but she avidly followed the blog that scientists were updating from the ship, as well as news coverage. One article drew her attention—a New York Times piece that chastised the scientific community for not doing enough.
“It made my blood boil,” she says.
After Joye called the reporter, he wrote another article, using her as a source. Five minutes after the story was posted, her phone started ringing and didn’t stop for months. She began receiving 400 emails a day. And she was attacked in the press when she reported the research findings, which contradicted what the public had heard—that the oil was on the surface only—from BP and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“It’s hard to watch yourself get painted in the news as a hysterical, unethical scientist that makes things up,” she says.
Joye stuck to her message, and NOAA finally confirmed that there were oil and gas plumes below the surface a few hours before she testified before Congress.
“The Deepwater Horizon taught me that one person, speaking the truth and not backing down, can make a difference in the face of extreme criticism and extreme opposition,” she says. “When you realize that, I believe that you no longer have a choice about whether or not you use your voice. It’s a responsibility. It’s not a choice.”
Planet or plastic?
Jenna Jambeck was home for only two days in June. In addition to attending the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington, D.C., the associate professor in the College of Engineering traveled to India, South Korea and Vietnam, delivering keynotes, speaking at universities, meeting with municipal waste collectors and laying the groundwork for future research.
At the same time, Jambeck was fielding media inquiries about research she’d just published that calculated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced because of China’s recent ban on plastic waste imports (see story on page 16). Despite the significant time differences, Jambeck gave multiple interviews, with coverage running in The Washington Post, USA Today and The Times of India as well as on National Public Radio.
It wasn’t her first time dealing with this kind of demand. In 2015, Jambeck and a team of scientists published research calculating the magnitude of plastic waste—8 million metric tons—going into the oceans every year. That experience taught her that she can be the spokesperson for her own work.
“Initially there were times when I just wanted to crawl under my desk and hide, but part of my responsibility, if I’m going to do this kind of work, is to communicate it,” she says.
“If I don’t share the message when asked, then someone else will, and my research may get communicated and interpreted inaccurately.”
She got help from two sources: an after-school program that taught her how to translate science and engineering concepts for middle school students, and a media training program that helped her prepare for inquiries about the 2015 paper.
“I had extensive global results, and they helped me develop my message and narrow it down to one number to tell the media. It’s so hard to boil down three-and-a-half years of research,” she says. “But then I realized I could illustrate what 8 million metric tons means. And now it’s a number that people know.”
The debate about plastic waste is usually civil, according to Jambeck. “Everyone pretty much agrees they don’t want plastic in the ocean, and that’s all the way from industry to the citizen to the government,” she says.
She’s witnessed some backlash on the issue of plastic straws, and she emphasizes that it’s not as simple as yes or no—there are shades of gray. “You have to have good communication when that’s the case,” she says.
From the White House to the Waffle House
Marshall Shepherd was at a McDonald’s in Wyoming this summer when another customer struck up a conversation. He was wearing a T-shirt that read “Climate change is not fake news,” and the woman told him, “I think it is fake news.”
Shepherd asked her why. It turned out that she’d been camping in the mountains nearby, and it had been very cold at night.
“She made the classic mistake of thinking because it was cold the previous night, climate change isn’t real,” he says. “I said, ‘Think about the clothing you have on—you’re dressed for today’s weather, but your closet has a range of clothing. The closet is your climate.’”
Shepherd also told the woman that he and his family had visited Glacier National Park for a reason.
“In the 1900s, there were 100-plus glaciers in the park. Now there are 26,” he said. “That’s climate change.”
Her response? “Oh, I hadn’t thought about it like that.”
Shepherd spends a lot of time communicating about weather and climate change—from one-on-one conversations to media appearances (CBS’ Face the Nation, NBC’s The Today Show and Fox News) to briefing national leaders on climate change and extreme weather. He spent 12 years as a research meteorologist at NASA before joining UGA in 2006, where he is a Georgia Athletic Association Distinguished Professor in the Franklin College and director of UGA’s Atmospheric Sciences Program.
At NASA he received media training, but Shepherd has always been interested in communicating with a broader audience. He hosts Weather Geeks (a Weather Channel talk show and podcast), writes for Forbes magazine and stays active on social media.
“If we’re not communicating beyond the ivory tower, there are people who are willing to come in and fill the void with misinformation,” he says. “With climate change, there are lots of people who are very keen on providing misinformation that clouds the picture—pun intended—on the science. If I’m not there to refute it, then misinformation will grab hold as the truth.”
But it’s not just a matter of being willing to say something. Climate change is one of those topics—like vaccines or genetically modified foods—that tends to inspire strong feelings. How does Shepherd get his message to resonate? He knows his audience.
“I’ve briefed at the White House. But I also might be talking to the lady at the Waffle House,” he says. “I will approach things very differently for the woman at the Waffle House.”
When Shepherd talks to a group of Democratic senators, he leads with issues like social vulnerability, economics and disease. When he talks to Republican senators, he discusses the threat of climate change to national security and economic productivity in agricultural states.
“Understand your audience and the values system that will resonate with them,” he says.
Unfortunately, Shepherd’s success has a downside. The more effective you are, the more vitriol you get from the extremes, and he’s been the victim of racially slanted attacks.
“They don’t have the science on their side, so they have to use other ways to attack you,” he says.
But it doesn’t change the bottom line, according to Shepherd.
“The ice doesn’t care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat,” he says. “It just melts.”