Arguably the biggest problem scientists face today is their ability to communicate about science with the public. It’s easy to forget that while we’re doing our lab work, trying to catch up on the latest research relevant to our work, and trying to meet deadlines that the vast majority of people are not scientists. We get comfortable talking to our colleagues who are also scientists, but at a public university, our research is only possible because of government funding, and government funding is only possible because of the taxpayers.
We must therefore always be prepared to justify why we do our research. As a new graduate at Nicholls State University, the most irritating question I’ve been asked over and over is, “Why is this important?” My research project involves the gut bacteria and population genetics of Formosan termites in Louisiana feeding on different wood species. People often ask me why I would want to study that. If I’m honest, the real reason is because I think it’s interesting. I think it’s interesting because there are so many factors at play and it would be deeply satisfying as an intellectual exercise to find out if diet can cause changes to a microscopic ecosystem which would cause their termite hosts to diverge.
But that’s not the answer I give to that question because my intellectual satisfaction is not worthy of taxpayer money. What is worthy of funding is the fact that pest controllers are always looking for ways to control Formosan termites in Louisiana because they cause billions of dollars in damage every year. The bacteria and protozoa which live in the termite gut are responsible for digestion, supplementing the diet with nitrogen, and nestmate recognition and are therefore a potential target for future pest control, and if populations differ based on their particular wood diet, it could make it easier to find out how to kill them. All of this is true and a good enough reason to justify my research, even if it isn’t the real reason I’m doing it.
Formosan termite colony in the lab
This brings me to the Coastal Connections competition, put on by Louisiana Sea Grant this past Monday at Nicholls State University. Contestants were challenged to convey their research for a general audience and explain what it had to do with Louisiana’s degrading coast in three minutes, using two slides. With a little “gentle” persuading from my advisor, I submitted an abstract, and much to my surprise, I was selected as a finalist to compete, along with a few of my incredibly intelligent and arguably better prepared colleagues.
So, to recap, I’m researching termites. I was selected to give a talk about what my research has to do with Louisiana’s degrading coast. For those of you unaware, termites are strictly terrestrial animals. This made coming up with a justification for my research to Louisiana Sea Grant difficult. It was easy, or at least I imagine it was, for other people involved in this competition. My friend Megan’s research involves shorebirds on the barrier islands. My friend Kellyn’s research involves the implications of mussels and periwinkle snails in restoring salt marsh degraded by the BP oil spill. Justification for these projects is obvious. What could I come up with?
Giving my presentation. Photo credit to Ellie Wallace
The Formosan termite began its invasion in port areas of Louisiana and Texas. Studying an invasive species dispersing from port cities creates a small connection to the coast, but the Formosan termite has been wildly successful in colonizing the southern United States and can be found feeding on many different wood species. When presented with a choice, Formosan termites prefer softer wood with little chemical protection. Many people used to believe that Formosan termites would not feed on baldcypress, and yet it turns out that with no other option, they will resort to less ideal diet choices. Because of how easily they attack living trees, Formosan termites could potentially undermine restoration efforts in Louisiana’s wetlands and barrier islands.
This connection isn’t intuitive and is mostly speculation on my part, but that’s what scientists do. We speculate and justify our speculation to the rest of the world with sound reasoning. Are Formosan termites a threat to Louisiana’s wetlands? Maybe so. Regardless, participating in Coastal Connections was a valuable professional exercise for me. It made me remember that, as fascinating as my research might seem to me, people from many different backgrounds might not see things the way I see them. If there is to be a good relationship between the scientific community and the rest of the world, we need to remember that most people aren’t professional scientists and we can’t just get frustrated when they don’t understand us when we patronize them with jargon.
-Seth Van Dexter