On January 11-14, 2011, we hosted our first Research Ambassador Fellow, Katie Renwick.  Katie is a junior scientist, embarking upon her doctoral studies with the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University.  Katie’s research focuses on disturbance dynamics in Lodgepole Pine forests, particularly the ecosystem interactions of fire and pine bark beetles.

For three days, Research Ambassador staff members Nalini Nadkarni and Amy Stasch presented innovative ways for Katie to engage in science outreach.  We considered about how events in forests may parallel events in human lives.  Although people cringe at the sight of a charred hillside because of their “Smoky the Bear” training that fire should be suppressed, ecologists understand that fire is a natural disturbance in forest ecosystems that perpetuates a healthy cycle of renewal and re-growth.  Similarly, although illnesses and life’s struggles cause difficulty, we learn and grow from the experiences, often putting our own lives in perspective.  This idea of disturbance became the central theme of Katie’s visit – the parallel message that we could use to relate her science to new audiences. During her visit, we met with hospice staff – nurses and social workers who ease the final days of people’s lives.

Katie Renwick (left) and Nalini Nadkarni (right) brainstorm creative outreach ideas

Katie studied models of outreach that the Research Ambassador Program has gathered. Scientists routinely present their research at conferences, in classrooms, and to peer groups, but it is quite different to present their works to public audiences that are unfamiliar with statistical techniques and field sampling methods.  We carefully studied each image, graph, and technical term used in her presentation, figuring out which strengthened her talk, and which might confuse people.

On Thursday, we headed to Mission Creek Correctional Center for Women, outside Belfair, Washington.  In the past few years, The Sustainable Prisons Project has organized a lecture series at Stafford Creek Correctional Center and Washington Corrections Center for Women, but hadn’t yet stretched into Mission Creek. After going through security, leaving keys and cell phone in the locker, we entered the cavernous room used for physical education. About 50 people attended – both staff and inmates. For nearly an hour, Katie described her scientific work on Lodgepole pines, the fire cycle, mountain pine bark beetles, disturbance and recovery.  The audience showed tremendous interest and eagerness, enthusiastically peppering Katie with insightful questions. At the close of the talk, the audience took some time to reflect upon the disturbances in their own lives, and their capacity to learn and grow stronger.

We returned to campus, and prepared for a scientific seminar with faculty, students, and staff of The Evergreen State College.  Having both events on the same day allowed us to directly compare the experience of communicating with a prison audience and an academic audience.  Although the core of her talk remained the same, with the Evergreen audience, Katie more fully explored research trends and findings.

Throughout the week, we also facilitated opportunities for Katie to informally interact with faculty, students, and our Research Ambassador Program and Sustainable Prisons Project teams.  It was a valuable week for all involved, as Katie deepened her outreach skills, we realized that the Fellowship model can be successful, and faculty, students, staff, and inmates interacted with current science and an emerging scientist.