Taking care of Nature through science communication: the journey of a PhD student

Having earned four science communication awards during her still short career, Sofia Oliveira is a rising star in her field. With her powerful speech and well-crafted methods, she is an epitome of a true ecologist and science communicator. Now, she is pursuing her PhD in Science Teaching and Dissemination at the University of Porto (Portugal). Apart from her professional duties, Sofia is an avid wildlife photographer and an active advocator for wildlife conservation. She is also a proud tutor of a puppy – Starbuck – and one of the authors of Science Station. Today, we tap into Sofia’s experience on science communication and learn more about her journey.

Rajarshi: Hi, Sofia. How are you?
Sofia: Fine, thank you. You?

Rajarshi: I am good. Thank you for asking. So, you are an ecologist and a science communicator. Please, explain us how these two things work together.
Sofia: Well, having a background in biology (and, more specifically, ecology), my main activities in the scope of science communication focus on telling people about biodiversity, about the main threats species face and also how we can help to protect them.

Rajarshi: That’s very interesting! Does each of those fields, ecology and science communication, help you understand the other one better?
Sofia: Yes, of course! By knowing more about ecology, by having a deeper understanding of that field, I am better able to communicate those themes to the general public. And the other way around is also true, actually. By connecting with people during science communication activities, I learn more about their history with the environment they live in, which is very helpful. And I will give you a very practical example. In order to restore a given habitat, we need to know how it looked like in the past. And how will we know that? Many times we use information given to us by people whose families lived there for many, many years. They help us get a better picture of how the habitat looked before and, that way, we know what to aim for when restoring it.

Sofia taking pictures to use in her science communication endeavours

Sofia Oliveira trying to capture the mesmerizing landscape of Peneda-Gerês National Park (Portugal). Photo by Rajarshi Saha.

Rajarshi: I must say I am intrigued, Sofia! But, what has inspired you to choose science communication as a career path instead of mainstream fields of biology?
Sofia: Hmm…That’s a hard question. I think it is because I am passionate about so many fields of science and I cannot imagine limiting myself to only one of them. And I bet all scientists can understand what I am saying. When you research something, you get specialized in a very, very narrow scientific field. And I don’t want that for myself since I love so many topics in ecology and biology. Science communication provides me the opportunity to learn about all those different areas and to transmit my passion for science to others. So, I end up studying a broader scope of fields instead of focusing on a single one. That’s why I decided to go with science communication. But I still do a bit of ecology fieldwork in my science communication activities.

Rajarshi: Again, very interesting. But, Sofia why should funding agencies provide funding to science communication projects instead of applied science research, such as cancer biology, infection biology, and renewable energies?
Sofia: I think there is space for everything. Space and, most importantly, need. We need both. And I can name several reasons why science communication is needed. First of all, through science communication, we can transmit to the public scientific information that is relevant for their everyday lives. For example, which is the most healthy or sustainable food. Another reason is, science influences political decisions, so citizens need to be more aware of scientific facts to understand the impact of such decisions on their lives and on the environment. Science communication is key in that regard. Besides, science is part of our culture, so people are entitled to be informed about what is being done in science. Specially, because a lot of scientific research is funded by taxpayer’s money. And there is yet another reason. We need to generate interest among people about science so we can inspire the next generation of scientist as well as to get more funds for science. We can do that through science communication.

“Science is part of our culture, so people are entitled to be informed about what is being done in science. Specially, because a lot of scientific research is funded by taxpayer’s money.” – Sofia Oliveira on @ScienceStationS

Rajarshi: Our planet has been tormented by human behaviour. As a science communicator, what results has your research yielded so far to enhance people’s knowledge about biodiversity and its importance?
Sofia: My PhD work is not finished yet, I am in the last year now. So, most of the results are still not analyzed. But I can tell you this. I worked a lot with kids, and most kids I contacted with were only aware of one or two threatened species in Portugal: the Iberian lynx and the Iberian wolf. For them, there were no more species in Portugal in danger of extinction. Through the science communication activities I implemented during my PhD, I have been able to show them otherwise. And I saw the results of my efforts by talking with them after such activities as they could name many more threatened species from different taxonomic groups, including reptiles, amphibians, and birds.

 Iberian lynx cub and adult Iberian wolf

(1) Iberian lynx cub (Lynx pardinus). This species is critically endangered in Portugal. Photo by Iberian Lynx Ex-situ Conservation Program (CC BY 3.0 ES license). (2) Iberian wolf (Canis lupus signatus), a subspecies only found in Portugal and Spain. Iberian wolfs are endangered in Portugal. Photo by Arturo de Frias Marques (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Rajarshi: Do you think science communication is getting the attention it deserves in the scientific community or is it still at its infancy?
Sofia: Well, I think it depends on the country, but I would say science communication has built a reputation globally. People, including researchers, are starting to understand its importance, nonetheless we still have a long way to go. In Portugal, in the last few years, we have experienced a boom in science communication, especially regarding citizen science projects, which basically consist of empowering non-expert people to participate in research alongside scientists. That’s the most important part in my opinion: scientists are starting to trust the data collected by the public and are actually able to publish them in very reputable scientific journals. So, yeah, I think we are on a good track.

Rajarshi: Last question. What is Sofia Oliveira’s message to aspiring science communicators?
Sofia: There are so many advices I would like to give, but the most important one is: excite people about science and make sure they enjoy it, because it makes everything easier. If people enjoy science, they are more receptive to our messages.

Rajarshi: Thank you for your time. I hope people find your interview as inspiring as I do.
Sofia: That’s very kind, I appreciate it. It was a pleasure!

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