The following is a guest post by Perrin Ireland, a Senior Science Communications Specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. If you were at any of the recent Science Online conferences, you may have noticed her in some sessions stationed at the front of the room, taking notes in her dynamic "sketchnoting" style.
My name is Perrin Ireland, and I’m a science scribe. When I hear, read, or think about science, I see pictures, and I draw about science to understand and communicate it clearly. Sometimes this manifests in sketchnoting, also known as scribing, or graphic recording. I attend conferences (Science Online being the most recent) and visually capture each session, translating the science speak into images that anybody can understand.
Sketchnoting is a powerful memory enhancing tool, and a way to make information more accessible. Sketchnote guru Mike Rhode says that he started sketchnoting so that his notes from an event would be more appealing to him after the fact, encouraging him to keep learning and remembering the event. When our brain sees images and text paired together, we use both our language processing skills, which are analytical, deductive, and translational, and our more guttural response to images, which leave an immediate impression requiring different processing. This dual processing has the effect of emblazoning visualized concepts in our brains. Sketchnoting is a great way to stay present in a lecture when our minds might otherwise wander.
In addition to being a science scribe around the country, my home turf is the Natural Resources Defense Council’s San Francisco office, where I serve as Senior Science Communications Specialist. Science is the bedrock of NRDC’s work on behalf of people and the environment, and my job is to connect with scientists at NRDC and effectively portray their work to the public. The goal is better public understanding of science, which impacts our policies, our health, and our environment.
I first learned about flame retardant chemicals while chatting with Sarah Janssen, MD, PhD, a Senior Scientist at NRDC who researches flame retardants, cosmetics, plastics, breast cancer and threats to adult reproductive health and child development. She was excited when we spoke, because a new and improved California Flammability Standard was in the works, and scheduled to be released in mid-December. She also was eagerly awaiting the results of a study by Dr. Heather Stapleton of Duke University, who was analyzing flame retardant chemicals in couch samples and to whom Sarah had sent a chunk of her couch for the study.
As a science storyteller, this seemed like the perfect story opportunity: flame retardants are, at first glance, perhaps a little unglamorous. But what better opportunity for a story than to have a researcher with an actual piece of her own couch under scrutiny in a scientific study? I try to show general audiences the personal side of science, and to encourage and empower scientists to tell their own stories.
Since I’m a visual science storyteller, there’s no other way to tell an “animated” personal story than with an animation. My sister told me after watching the video that she wouldn’t have spent four minutes reading about flame retardants, but was delighted to watch a visual story about them for that same amount of time. This is why I work in my chosen visual media.
For the flame retardant story, we chose to focus on Sarah’s personal narrative around her own couch to make the story human and accessible. The history of flame retardant chemicals in America is a complex one that reads like conspiracy theory, and it was challenging to decide what details to include. Our hope was to provide access to the research alongside sharing the video that told this compelling story of a mother (who happens to be a scientist) and her concerns about the chemicals in her couch.
We’ve gotten great feedback on the video thus far; who doesn’t like an animated cat? In comments on YouTube and ReddIt, the public seems to be split between skepticism and concern, and we’ve gotten some pushback from a chemist on the “chemophobia” front.
It’s my position that in communicating effectively toward a wider public understanding of science, communicators have an important duty to translate some of the research points into digestible, accessible, pleasing language. Part of my job is to push back on scientists who want to include every shadow of scientific doubt, and to avoid overly scientific language that means something else to the public (or makes them tune out.) I’m not about dumbing down, but I am interested in meeting people where they are. I work to carefully choose language in scripts that is not sensationalist, and sticks to the facts, but does so with brevity and a nod to mass appeal.
One of my goals in my science communication products is to teach the way science works, whether subliminally or explicitly, in every story I tell. Sometimes that takes the form of asking the public to question the policies that affect them, and to use common sense. The documented evidence of the out of control history of industrial chemicals is rigorous enough for me to conclude that we might use restraint in soaking our furniture in known toxics.
NRDC is about action informed by sound science, and this piece focuses on the action consumers can take to tell Governor Brown they support the new flammability standard. It is not about addressing each flame retardant in detail. Those that are one-time visitors to this kind of science can come away more informed on sound data that these chemicals are probably not great for us. More seasoned researchers can feel free to explore additional resources for a deeper look.
Related: My Toxic Couch's Days Are Numbered: New Furniture Flammability Standard Proposed - by Sarah Janssen on the Scientific American Guest Blog