Communicating Science as Stories

By Rachel Smiley  and Brittany Wagler
University of Wyoming and Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources Graduate Students

Every scientist strives for their work to have greater impacts than simply answering questions about their study system, and for many, they hope their work will be used in management and policy decisions. From the onset of the Northwest Wyoming Bighorn Sheep Project, we hoped it would have important implications in the management of bighorn sheep and further knowledge in the field of pneumonia research. Furthermore, we wanted the information to reach audiences beyond wildlife managers and researchers. The nature of sheep—from their striking appearance to the incredible habitats they live in—serves as a connection between different groups of people such as hunters, naturalists, and wildlife watchers from different cultural and recreational perspectives. Studying bighorn sheep is challenging at times, but those challenges bring us into amazing country and push our physical limits, which makes for some interesting stories.

In December of 2019, Emily Reed, a conservation associate at Greater Yellowstone Coalition and freelance writer for Modern Huntsman asked if she could join us on some of our adult bighorn sheep captures in the Wapiti, right outside the east gate of Yellowstone. Emily, a science communication expert, wrote an amazing story about our day capturing sheep, interlaced with the important details of the project overall. What felt like a routine capture run to us was transformed into a compelling story about what it takes to study these critters and why the work is so important.  Modern Huntsman published Emily’s article, where it reached a much broader audience than the people, we often communicate our work to and we received great questions and feedback as a result. By framing our science in the form of a story Emily was able to shed light on a serious conservation issue to a broad audience. Reaching beyond the scientific community and involving many interest groups can be key to addressing some of the most pressing conservation issues we face.

As scientists, it is easy to share our work within the scientific community; it is comfortable. We know that conference attendees are already interested in our work which is why they showed up to a listen to talk or look at a poster. Often, we lack communication with people outside of the very specific field we work in. Though this type of science communication is difficult, there is great progress being made in Wyoming. Deer 139, the film led by Sam Dwinnell at the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources serves as a great example of how we can use the adventurous side of the work we do as biologist to reach a broader audience. Deer 139 was accepted into many outdoor film festivals, where it was able to both connect with avid recreationists and draw their attention to the conservation of mule deer. Anna Ortega, a student in the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit, is a model for how to use social media to engage with people who find her work fascinating. The film 92-miles, led by Pat Rodgers at the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit, uses a strong emotional connection with the audience as the story line, bringing the notion that ‘scientists are people too’ to the forefront. There are many other examples of Wyoming researchers using stories to share their science. The more we can continue to tell our stories in conjunction with our science, the more value people outside of our field will find in our work.

Across the board, people care about wildlife, and want to hear the amazing stories about the critters we study. Often, the hunters, wildlife watchers, and citizens of the state who own the wildlife are highly invested in the well-being of our wildlife and are the people most interested in hearing the stories we have to share. Not only can we share the amazing things we learn about the animals we study, but we can also share our perspective on the need to study them. We who study the wildlife are not the only ones fascinated by our study species, and we should strive to share our stories to keep people updated on what we learn from our research and how we learn it.