Sunday, June 8, 2014

Mermaid Inspiration

Her eyes widened and sparkled as an adorable smile spread across her face.
All she could whisper was an awe-struck “Wow.”

Waterlust had just released a teaser for their “Fountain of Youth” Florida springs video, which involved mysterious music and about 10 seconds of a mermaid swimming in the impossibly crystal clear sky of Blue Spring. I had driven out to Jax beach to hang out with Greg while he was dog-sitting for his friend’s sister and before she left, we showed her 3-year-old daughter the quick video.

Having not been around kids on a regular basis for several years, I had forgotten that mermaids are totally mesmerizing to little girls. That being said, I’m not sure if the feeling of wonder ever dwindles for a girl raised by the sea – I’m going on 25 and definitely didn’t think my ocean-and springs-filled life was even remotely close to being complete until I first swam in a tail in May 2012. 

The mermaid in the video is me, and I will certainly never forget my magical first swim 2 years ago nor will I ever forget the wonder in the little girl’s eyes as she looked up at me after seeing the video. Nobody at any scientific meeting, water outreach event, or casual conversation involving water or my research over the past 3 years has ever looked at me with such wonder or interest. In the eyes of this little girl, I was better than a celebrity - I was a mermaid. And whatever I had to say was pure gold.

This all unfolded a few months ago, but right now I’m fresh off a cover-to-cover non-stop reading of Randy Olson’s awesome book Don’t be such a scientist, 1 and I can’t help but let my imagination run wild. One of the main themes of the book is that in order to be more effective communicators, scientists need to (among other things) become more likable; the book gave me insight into what a general audience will take away from a presentation, interview, or argument, and I learned that it doesn’t necessarily have to do with what is said. In fact, being a successful communicator doesn’t always involve being the one who can rattle off endless accurate facts or present the most data, or even present the most logical argument. Olson reiterates a point by Richard Lanham, 2 arguing that “today, style is the substance.”

I began thinking of this mermaid encounter when Olson brings up the hypothetical idea of a clown on stage at a scientific conference. He says that scientists have an uncanny ability to see through the clown costume and get at what the clown is saying – if he is presenting falsifiable hypotheses, rigorous science, and legitimate results, scientists can somehow be okay with his crazy appearance. But it’s not this easy in more mainstream media - people have information overload and are often too overwhelmed or busy to pay close attention, so they really just rely on their gut instinct i.e. who seems to come across as being more likable. In order for heady and academic scientists to gain the interest of the masses (and not just preach to the choir), they need to get the attention of those who wouldn’t normally care about their topic. They must do what Olson calls “arouse and fulfill”- this involves creativity, skilled storytelling, and maybe some charm.

Preaching to the environmental choir in regards to water issues in Florida has proved to be a big dilemma, as is springs science communication. Meeting after meeting, I see basically the same people. There is fascinating and cutting edge springs and river science going on (a lot of it at UF), but when you talk to people about water - even those who are genuinely interested in the springs and water resources - they don’t necessarily know about a lot of the science. This is understandable because it’s not exactly readily available.4

Last week, I tweeted an article in the Gainesville Sun titled "Lack of springs funding upsets environmentalists." The article upset me... maybe more than it should have. Don't get me wrong, the article itself was great - very informative and an accurate snapshot of what the funding and money side of things looks like for springs. What struck me was that the lack of funding upset only "environmentalists" - shouldn't we all care that our springs and water are not getting a lot of funding? Shouldn't everyone ("environmentalist" or not) be upset and fighting for one of the most (if not the most) basic human necessity? The "crazy" upset environmentalists need to find an effective way of making everyone care and get upset as well - this is when real change will happen.
There seems to be a genuine disconnect between most Floridians and our water – we literally live on top of our water in the underlying aquifer and we should be protecting it as if we were mermaids who depend on clean and abundant water to survive – while we are not in fact mystical underwater creatures, we are inextricably tied to water; we depend on clean and abundant freshwater for drinking, agriculture, energy, recreation, etc. Over 90% of Floridians rely on groundwater, whether it comes from their own private well or from a hookup to city water. Just as endless shopping at grocery stores somehow make it seem as if broccoli is grown in the produce section (how dare they not have broccoli and fresh salad greens in the summer when it’s actually too hot to grow them locally?!), we see water as originating from our tap – BUT where did that water come from? “A pipe” or “city water” are not good answers – it came from the aquifer. Therefore what else is “competing” for this water? Our beloved springs, which are also fed by water from the aquifer under our feet.

So, what does this have to do with mermaids?
I’m not saying I’m about to quit my day job as a PhD student and start swimming around in a tail every day, but I do think this, as well as other creative and interactive ideas,5 have tremendous potential for engaging the public – specifically in outreach and education events with elementary school kids. Talking about water isn’t just about communicating facts and trying to wow people with intellect and cutting edge science – it’s about inspiring. We must inspire others to love the water and instill a love for our threatened water resources in the next generation. We must find out what water means to people individually6 and play to their emotions so that they understand what is really at stake if we pollute and overpump our water.

Thinking back, when the little girl looked up at me, maybe I should have said something like “did you know that just like mermaids, we rely on water in the springs to live?” and “did you know that we are using too much water from the springs?” Or was the connection and shared love for water enough?

I had her attention – she was all eyes and ears, and I can’t help but wonder if it would be the same for other young kids. Would kids listen to a mermaid at a summer camp or school field trip? Would swimming with a mermaid at the springs (and maybe hearing the mermaid mention a few things about her watery home afterwards) inspire them to learn more about water and grow up with an appreciation of our fragile and endangered water resources that they will soon be tasked with managing and (hopefully) preserving for future generations?

Jacques Cousteau’s famous words “we protect what we love” are ringing in my head. If we can raise a generation that loves springs and cherishes our water and the creatures (mystical or not) that live in it, we will have done something truly revolutionary and amazing. As of right now, we are pretty much on track to kill off all of the mermaids that live in the springs (and simultaneously our drinking water and tourism economy which is based on our springs and rivers) – but I’m not quite willing to let that happen and I’m not sure that other Floridians are either.

So don’t take water for granted - think about what water means to you and share it with others: inspire your friends, neighbors, and coworkers to understand how important water is to them personally and our society as a whole. You really don’t need to be a scientist to do this. I did ask the little girl if she’d like to swim in a spring with me, which I think has the potential to change someone’s world – I can tell you firsthand that even minus the mermaid, it changed mine.

This little boy at Blue Springs yesterday was adorable - he had an engaging smile and a love for mermaids and water.  He and his dad were standing in the shallows as I was swimming around and seeing how engaged the little boy was, I went over to say hi. Thanks to Greg for capturing this amazing moment - I was talking to them and asked if he wanted to touch my sparkly blue tail - his eyes lit up just like the little girl who saw the video. I hope it's kids like him to grow up to protect our water and save our springs.

1 I couldn’t put the book down until I had read every word – it arrived in the mail one afternoon and later that night, I found myself staring at the last blank page, ready for more. It addressed many of the themes of a Science Communication course I took during my senior semester at Brown as well as the Scientific Thinking in Ecology course I took during my first fall as a grad student at UF. It is both witty and inspirational – it is a book about science communication that has you laughing, contemplating, and learning from page one, and I highly recommend it to all fellow scientists/wannabe science communicators.

2 Richard Lanham is the author of The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. He coined the "substance is style" catchphrase that Olson talks about in his book - Olson basically says that Lanham means there are two different parts of a message: the substance and the style. You can either look at a what is being communicated or through it - if you're looking at it, you're getting caught up in the style of what is being said, whereas if you're looking through the message, you're getting past the style directly to the substance (see p. 141 in Olson's Don't be such a scientist). Olson goes on to say that scientists are well able to look through appearance to what is actually being said, but this is not necessarily the case in the mainstream media (Olson p. 141-142).

3 The "arouse and fulfill" strategy - basically, get peoples' attention and get them interested in what you have to say then give them information (i.e. fulfill their expectations). Olson's alternative shorthand version is "motivate then educate" (Olson p. 69). He also discusses limitations and exceptions to this model (i.e. academia and the "pre-aroused" audience of students).

4 The science isn't necessarily readily available to the general public, but Cynthia Barnett's wonderful books about water should (as I've said before) be required reading for everyone in Florida. She is a gifted storyteller and does an amazing job of relaying scientific and historical information in a readable and enjoyable way. Also, this is not to say that scientists and outreach programs are not starting to do great things in Florida - the Springs Eternal Project spread springs and water awareness via an exhibit at the Florida Museum of Natural history, the Urban Aquifer project, and the website; the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department (along with other organizations) does a lot of water education and outreach with local elementary and high schools; there are many springs working group meetings open to the public, etc.

5 Springs Challenge - Carmine (from the Florida DEP) has an awesome interactive exhibit that he brings around to different outreach events and environmental fairs that helps people see that we have a very limited supply of water and a seemingly endless list of things that require a lot of water. It sheds light on the important and often forgotten things that require water: electricity, meat and dairy production, paper products, local produce, etc. Each participant gets 4 votes (i.e. 4 ways to use their precious limited amount of water!) and has to pick their top 4 uses of water out of 9 choices. Votes are tallied by seeing the amount of water in the jar for each designated use. I've seen him at many outreach events and his Springs Challenge is always a hit - educational and fun at the same time.

6 Waterlust is doing a cool project called #watermeans in honor of World Ocean's Day (today, June 8). They reached out to all of their Instagram followers and asked them to share a photo of themselves, one word describing what water means to them, and their hometown. Check out Waterlust's Instagram page and the #watermeans tag on Instagram to see what water means to different people worldwide. And stay tuned to see what Waterlust does with all of the submissions - they've promised something cool!

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