Keywords: climate change, global change biology, reptiles, science communication, narrative
Andrew Saintsing: Hi, you're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by Sara ElShafie from the Department of Integrative Biology. Welcome to the show, Sara.
Sara ElShafie: Thanks for having me.
Saintsing: It's so great to have you here. So, Sarah, you're a paleontologist. Is that correct?
ElShafie: Yes, I'm a paleontologist. I always introduce myself as a global change biologist, which just means that I study how climate change and environmental change impact life over time, and paleontology is part of it.
Saintsing: Right. So, would you say you're first and foremost a global change biologist?
ElShafie: Yeah, just because I don't only work on fossils. I also look at stuff that's around today in order to understand how climate change and stuff impacted life in the past and also what that tells us about where we're headed now and in the future.
Saintsing: Okay, cool. So, you're looking at like our current climate change?
Saintsing: Yeah, but also, so the climate has changed a lot in the past, you'd say.
ElShafie: Yes, and, and there have been really dramatic events of climate change before, some of which kind of mirror what's going on today, so I look at how those past climate change events impacted life that lived millions of years ago in order to try to better understand what we might expect from climate change today and how it will impact animals that are currently around and also people.
Saintsing: What were kind of the outcomes of past climate changes? Is it looking bad for us?
ElShafie: Well, in terms of like how climate change now is going to affect society, yeah there are a lot of concerning ramifications that we're already seeing. In terms of how it's affected life in the past, it has all kinds of effects. It can affect where things can live. It can affect what they eat or what's available for them to eat. It can affect how big they get. So, I kind of look at all of those factors in a big picture.
Saintsing: You look at all animals, all plants, all organisms? Or, are you looking at specific things?
ElShafie: Specifically, I focus on reptiles because reptiles are especially susceptible to changes in climate and changes in their environment because they can't generate their own body heat metabolically the way you and I can
ElShafie: Most of them can't and I look at lizards and, and crocodiles and their relatives specifically because they're really abundant in the fossil record, and they have a lot in common with lizards and crocodiles that are around today, so I can use the lizards and crocodiles that are around today to understand the ones that are in the fossil record.
Saintsing: Okay, and so, you are looking at how their bodies change over time basically? You're looking at how big the fossils are at certain periods compared to other periods, before and after climate change and how big they are compared to today?
ElShafie: Yeah, pretty much body size is the main metric that I use, the main kind of factor that is influenced by climate change because I can use the partial skeletons that I find of lizards and crocodiles in the fossil record to figure out how big they were in the past at any given point before, during, or after a major climate change event. And, I can use lizards and crocodiles that are around today to try to estimate how big they were in the past using only a piece of a skull or a piece of a limb, for example, because it's actually very rare to find whole skeletons in the fossil record of these things.
Saintsing: Right. That must be really frustrating.
ElShafie: Yeah, well, it also means that I get to I have an excuse to study lots of stuff that's around today in order to understand the fossils, so it gives me a more holistic research experience which I enjoy.
Saintsing: So, do you actually get to study living animals? Or, do you mostly look at the bones of the living animals?
ElShafie: I do. I study living animals, the living lizards and crocodilians, to understand their body proportions and how I can estimate like the whole length of the animal from just one element, like one piece of the skull or the jaw or the arm bone or something and also to understand how the animals live today and is there any relationship between their morphology, how they look, how their bones look, and what part of a habitat they might live in or what they might be eating or what their physiology might be like.
ElShafie: So yeah studying the living animals is really important for understanding the fossil animals.
Saintsing: Right, and so you study specifically reptiles and crocodiles? So you say you studying global change across time, but is there specific period you're interested in, or are you just comparing all the different periods?
ElShafie: Yeah, so specifically I look at a period of time, geologic time called the Paleogene which was from about 66 million years ago to about 23-ish million years ago. So, this is right after dinosaurs went extinct up until about 23 million years ago, at which point we had ice at the poles again. We actually didn't have ice at the poles earlier right after the dinosaurs went extinct, and so, during that whole timespan, climate change was happening. The world started off pretty warm, and then it got super-hot relatively quickly right around fifty-six million years ago when there is this incident called the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum. So, within a relatively short span of time, a few hundred thousand years or so, the world got really, really hot really fast. Like it increased five degrees Celsius or so, and that's actually even hotter than the warming that we've experienced just in the last century or two, but the rate was actually not even quite as fast as what we're experiencing now, so it is a really powerful analogous event to look at and to better understand what we can expect with the rapid climate change that we're experiencing today. So, it got super, super-hot and around that time the world looked very, very different. Like, there was no ice at the poles at all and the interior of North America actually looked like a jungle if you can picture Utah which is now a desert looking like the Amazon. That's how different it was, which is really crazy to think about. So, to find fossils of crocodiles and these huge lizards and like the first primates and crazy horses and all kinds of stuff in the deserts of Utah and Wyoming and Colorado, and, and it seems it's all from a jungle that looked more like what South America looks like today, which is really awesome, and then over time it kind of dried out and got more arid and more grassy after that.
Saintsing: Thinking about what I've grown up thinking about, you know, the extinction of dinosaurs, right? You get this picture in your head that the asteroid hits and then things get really cold.
Saintsing: There was this drop in temperature that led to the dinosaur extinction still?
ElShafie: Yeah, I think it got cold for a while. Right after the asteroid hit event it like, you know, blocked out a lot of sunlight and stuff, but then after that, you know, about 10 million years or so or not even that long. Then the world had largely recovered, but it also looked very different.
Saintsing: So, it was an overall pretty warm climate?
ElShafie: Yeah, it's – the earth has gone through a lot of changes over millions of years, and it's cool to look at those changes on a timescale of millions of years rather than just, you know, a few hundred years or even thousand years because, since climate is changing so rapidly today, and it's, it's different than anything that humans have experienced in human history. We really have no analog for it in our own history, so looking at much older events in the past and the rate that that happened and the changes that happened and at what pace they happened helps us try to anticipate what we can expect in the future.
Saintsing: Right, so what brought about – why did the ice appear again at the poles?
ElShafie: At that point Antarctica became isolated, and it was isolated by a current that still flows now around Antarctica. I think it's called the circumpolar current or something, but it keeps, it basically keeps Antarctica refrigerated and that's part of what contributed to it.
Saintsing: Just having Antarctica in the place that it's in was enough to give us the climate we have today?
ElShafie: Well, yeah. Cuz it's almost like having two giant freezers at each pole of the globe so to speak, and, that you know, they don't exist in isolation either. The ocean currents travel all over the world. They pass by the Arctic or the Antarctic and they bring cold water and that affects the like nutrients and upwelling in other parts of the world including the California coast, and it, you know, it affects how climate and temperature play out over the entire Earth. So, yeah, it's all connected.
Saintsing: Yeah, I guess we're dealing with how connected we are right now, right?
ElShafie: Mm-hmm. Exactly.
Saintsing: So as a climate change scientist – or a global change scientist but you, you know, you're really interested in climate change, I guess. A lot of your work is focused on informing the public on climate change and about science in general. I know you've done a lot of work on improving science communication as a student here, right? Or, at least studying it to understand how it can be improved. So, yeah, can you tell us a little bit more about the work you're doing on that front?
ElShafie: Absolutely, yeah, science communication and outreach has always been a big passion of mine and that really started in college, and by the time I got into my master's degree, I realized that I not only wanted that to be a big focus of my career, I actually wanted it to be my primary career direction, in fact. So, I actually came to Berkeley with the intention of pursuing a career in science outreach leadership and science communication, and I knew that I wanted that to be a big part of my activity while pursuing my dissertation here in integrative biology because I also wanted to get the highest scientific training. So, while I've been here working on my dissertation I've also been doing a lot of work in science communication which started as just an attempt to improve my own skills because I realized a couple years into my program here that I myself was really struggling to explain my research to my own family members…
ElShafie: In a way that was at all meaningful to them. It really bothered me that I was struggling with that, so I decided to work on it, and I realized that I wasn't the only one that seemed to be having that challenge, and probably a lot of my peers could benefit from it as well, so I got really interested in storytelling, in story development because I figured, well everybody likes stories, so if I can talk about my science in that context, you know, and using storytelling, good storytelling then maybe I would get somewhere. And, I've always been a huge film buff and especially a huge fan of Pixar movies, and I knew that Pixar Animation Studios was actually only a couple miles from our campus. Pixar is in Emeryville, which was just south of Berkley, and so, I just decided to email them one day and actually got a response from a couple story artists who were really interested, and I invited them to come chat with grad students at our UC Museum of Paleontology. We’re based in integrative biology. And, it was going to be just a kind of pilot seminar conversation, let's just see where this goes with some grads, and it's turned into everyone from undergrads to emeritus faculty crammed into our little seminar room to hear from this story artist who was just talking about bread-and-butter stuff of the kind of strategies that they use to develop stories for their films at Pixar. And then, we had a conversation about how some of those strategies might apply to how we can talk to the public about science in a more effective and engaging way, and that was about three and a half years ago now, and since then, you know, that one seminar totally changed how I was thinking about science communication, and everybody else who was in the room responded really positively to it and remarked how useful it was, so that sparked an ongoing conversation and more and more artists at Pixar got involved volunteering their time, and now it's become this whole workshop series called Science through Story that I've been running for about three and a half years now. It started here at Berkeley on campus and has since, we've gone to other campuses, conferences, museums, organizations. So, yeah it's been a really, really fun experience and very helpful.
Saintsing: Yeah, that sounds really incredible. So, you, you've taken this on the road. Is it still mostly Pixar is the main partner involved, or do you have like other studios, other artists involved?
ElShafie: I've worked with other artists at this point, and the workshops, it's not a formal program of Pixar. Pixar doesn't sponsor it or anything financially. They've just been very generous in allowing their, some of the artists that work at the studio, anybody who wants to be involved to volunteer their time. So, several artists have come and run workshops with me here at Berkeley and at a few other campuses and conferences, and I meet with artists there periodically to learn from them about the creative process they use and how they approach story development, and then I adapt that into strategies that scientists and science educators can use to talk about science and an engaging way, using storytelling techniques, so Pixar people from Pixar have been involved. I've also worked with an artist who works at Industrial Light and Magic and a couple artists from DreamWorks Animation as well as an artist who was working at Double Fine productions and a guy who's a gentleman who started his own graphic design firm. Improv people, all kinds of artists through these workshops, and also we ran actually a full-day symposium called Science through Narrative: Engaging Broad Audiences, and that took place at a major biology conference, the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology last year in 2018, when the meeting was here in San Francisco. We had a full day symposium on this topic, on science storytelling with speakers from both the scientific community and from different artistic disciplines all weighing in from their different perspectives and experiences on how to engage the audiences with science through storytelling and in different avenues, different media, different disciplines. It was really, really awesome because, to my knowledge, I think that's the first time that scientists and artists have spoken together on the same platform at a major biology conference, and we also had a lot of early career presenters involved as part of that, and out of that symposium we not only had the event itself but we also ended up publishing a whole volume of papers in a peer-reviewed biology journal, Integrative and Comparative Biology, which are now available online, and these are all peer-reviewed papers in a biology journal, but they are all written to be accessible to any reader even a high school student. Actually, we had some high school students in the past read it for some workshops that I've done at high schools in the area. We use papers from that symposium with REU, research experiences for undergraduates, program just this past summer. So, anybody can read them and get something out of it, and I, my own paper that I contributed to that volume is just called Making Science Engaging for Broad Audiences through Stories, something like that, and I wrote that paper for myself three years ago for any grad student or any student who wants to start doing more science communication or wants to get involved with science outreach and doesn't know where to start. If you're looking for a place to start, if that, if that sounds like you, then I encourage you to check out these papers because it's not just, you know, it's grad students, its scientists, its animators, it's video game developers, it's people who work in Hollywood, it’s people who work with data visualization. All kinds of voices weighing in on this, and, and they're really a fun read.
Saintsing: That sounds like a really great resource.
Saintsing: I hope everyone takes the time to check that out. You started by talking to people at Pixar, and that was like obviously, Pixar's really close to Berkeley, and so that's sort of a matter of like convenience, right? But also, I just noticed that a lot of the people that you mentioned kind of are involved in special effects or animation or things like that? Is there a reason why that's more relatable to science, or is that just a matter of, like, you went down this avenue of talking to animators or people who are involved in animation and then that snowballed into more and more people who were involved in that side of the story developing process?
ElShafie: It's a good question. Honestly, I think that scientists can learn something valuable from any type of artist, no matter what discipline because artists and scientists actually have a lot in common in terms of how we approach problems and, and what we're all trying to produce might seem very different, but ultimately the approach that we take is very similar. Both scientists and artists have to use their observation skills. That's very, very important for both conducting science and for doing art. It's all about observation. Both of us are trying to distill complexity out of a whole bunch of material that we could use, and we're trying to distill the most cogent, most cohesive, most compelling version of that story, of that study as we're presenting it, of that thing that we're trying to capture in some, some visual form or a musical form. So, it's distilling complexity. It's using the power of observation, and in terms of the artists that I ended up working with, that was just, it kind of was a combination of who I happen to meet through my networking, people that were introduced to me by colleagues that expressed interest, and we were really wonderfully fortunate that we got such a great variety of people involved. And, that was also part of it that we, you know, if we already had someone who is an animator, then we tried to get other disciplines that we didn't yet have represented for that symposium in particular. So, that was kind of how we went about it, but I would encourage scientists to talk to any and all kinds of artists because you can learn something valuable from anybody and any and all kinds of scientists.
Saintsing: This is just a reminder that you’re tuned into The Graduates. Today I'm speaking with Sara ElShafie from the Department of Integrative Biology. So, you mentioned that you came to Berkeley with the intent of being a science communicator?
Saintsing: Of pursuing some kind of leadership position in science outreach?
ElShafie: When I came to Berkeley my, my long-term goal was to become like the director of a major science museum or science outreach nonprofit, something along those lines, and I knew that to do that I would, it would be really helpful if I had a PhD in science. People in those positions tend to be either previous professors or curators at museums or past CEOs or university presidents and I wasn't interested in the latter two so much, but I really wanted I wanted to learn more science. I wanted to get the highest scientific training, so that's why I came here to do my PhD because I was very upfront about my career aspirations in my interviews for PhD programs and when I came to Berkeley, they were just totally supportive of that. My advisor was very supportive, the people at the UC Museum of Paleontology that I spoke with were very supportive. So, I, that's why I came here and also because being in the Department of Integrative Biology, which has this wonderful resource, the Berkeley Natural History Museums. We have a paleontology museum; a zoology museum, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology; plus an herbarium, the Jepson Herbarium; and the Essig Museum of Entomology with all the insects. We have all of those in-house, right in our own department, and, and all those museums, especially UCMP, is very, very active with science outreach. So, I realized that by coming to Integrative Biology at Berkeley, I could not only be doing my dissertation, which, Integrative Biology was perfect because I wanted to do research that integrated several different fields together, but also, I could be learning from these museum educators and people who do a lot of science outreach and community outreach. So, it was kind of like getting training in both areas at the same time.
Saintsing: Right, so you graduated from undergrad knowing that you wanted to do science communication then, or was that more of a kind of developing process?
ElShafie: I would say it was an ongoing process. I did my undergraduate work at the University of Chicago. I'm from Chicago originally, and, and I had a great experience at U Chicago. I was working in, at the UC, a new Chicago fossil lab there for years as an undergrad, and I did some research for a thesis and everything, but through that fossil lab, I also had the opportunity to participate in a lot of science outreach with Chicago Public Schools after school and summer science programs, and I really enjoyed that and I loved seeing the transformation that the students would go through just coming in not really sure if science is for them and then leaving much more empowered in general. Not just in seeing themselves as scientists. So, I knew that I wanted that type of work to be a big part of my career as I was graduating undergrad, and then when I went into my master's program which was at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, coming in I knew that I wanted to pursue more scientific research and get my graduate degree, but one semester in I realized I think I actually want the outreach to be my main focus. I was really jazzed about the research I was doing. I was really enjoying it, but I was starting to realize that my primary passion was not just doing the science but actually sharing the science with other people who might not have access to it yet or might not be familiar with it or see themselves as, as scientists or understand the role that science plays in their lives. That was really my, my main focus that I wanted to take, but I also know I wanted the scientific training so I finished my masters in Nebraska, and fortunately my, my master's advisor in Nebraska was very supportive of that realization in that aspiration, and he basically said, hey if you want to be the bridge between science and the public, awesome. We need more people like that. Get your masters in science first because that'll open more doors to you down the road, but while you're here start exploring and figure out what that career path might look like for you. And, I was doing a lot of my data collection for my master's thesis in collections at natural history museums around the country, and through that, I was kind of reminded how much I love working with museums and loved being in museums and because that was a big part of my childhood growing up in Chicago which has great museums and zoos and aquaria and such. So, I knew that I wanted to work with museums and an informal education in some capacity and kind of by the time I finished my Master's, I had realized, yeah, I think I want to pursue a leadership position with a museum or some science outreach program because there seems to be a really big demand for people who can fill those positions, people who can wear the science hat but also have a lot of outreach, education, communication experience and also who understand how to manage a team and manage a budget.
Saintsing: So, you would say that as a child it was probably your experiences going to museums that sparked this whole career interest in science and in science communication?
ElShafie: Definitely, I would always be begging my parents to take me to the Field Museum or the Shedd Aquarium or the Brookfield Zoo or the Museum of Science and Industry. Growing up in Chicago those were like my favorite places to hang out, and, and in addition, I would visit my parents or my grandparents down in the Florida Keys every winter. They would spend the winters down there, and my grandfather was a fisherman, and he used to take me out on his fishing boat, and I would snorkel off of his boat and we would see dolphins jumping around, and I just, I think that's, that's the earliest memory that I have as a child, when I was like six and he took us out on Christmas Day and all these, this whole pod of dolphins came and jumped all around us and it was just the most magical thing I've ever had in my six-year-old memory. That's when I really fell in love with nature and animals, and I've been hooked ever since, and, and the specific focus has kind of changed over the course of my life from marine biology for a long time to paleontology to herpetology now, working with reptiles and, and kind of global change more broadly. And then, science communication and science outreach I think has always been part of my interest because I love to share my passion for nature with other people, and so, now it's kind of it's all come together now, working on my PhD and even tying in my interest in film, working with film artists and different kinds of artists as part of the science communication work. So, it's been a lot of fun.
Saintsing: All right, I was gonna ask, so as a kid you really liked talking about science?
Saintsing: So, you're probably just telling everybody non-stop about all the cool scientific things you were learning?
ElShafie: Oh, sure. Anybody who wanted or didn't want to know about dolphins and sharks and lizards and whatever I was reading about at the time. Yeah, I love that stuff.
Saintsing: But then, you mentioned earlier, part of the reason why you started getting more interested in, at least the, what you wrote the article that you published with the symposium, that was partially to help you understand how to communicate science in some ways.
ElShafie: Yeah, absolutely.
Saintsing: So, would you say that maybe it's harder to communicate the science that you're actually doing than just to share scientific facts you're learning?
ElShafie: Definitely. You've hit the nail on the head. I think it's, it's really fun and easy to just like share cool facts about animals because animals are very cool and there's lots of cool facts that you can share about them just you know in, in conversation, but when you're doing scientific research, especially, you know, long term in-depth scientific research, the specific questions of which might be a little bit more removed from people's everyday experience, it is a lot harder to figure out how to share that in an engaging way with other people you know. When I started my program here, if you asked me what's your research about, I would have jumped immediately into a detailed, jargon-laden explanation of how I study these lizards that lived 45 million years ago, and, and their body size got much bigger as the mean annual paleo temperature got a lot hotter in the Eocene and, and etc. And, you know, when I used to give that explanation to my family members, who are like farmers in rural Maryland, or my family members in Egypt on my dad's side, they would nod politely and, and be excited for me because I was clearly excited about it, but they couldn't relate to it at all because I wasn't connecting it to anything that they could relate to. So, now when people ask me what do you study I just start with, I study how climate change impacts animals over time. That's it.
ElShafie: And then, if they're really that interested, then maybe I would get into that I also use fossils, and if they're more interested, then maybe we get to the point of: I study reptiles and some of the details that we discussed earlier. But, it's, you know, it's, you almost have to unlearn a little bit of how you're trained to talk about your science as a graduate student. I think that's why it's really important for science communication training to be part of any graduate training program, no matter what your field is, especially if you're, if you're in a STEM field, if you're training to be some kind of scientist because it's when we write our, you know, technical papers we have to talk about science in a particular way, but even there having some story structure can really help the paper flow, but when you're talking about science with broader audiences, especially non-specialist audiences or even scientists outside of your own field, it really helps if you can start at a more general level where everybody can, can clue in and, and relate to what you're saying and then you get into more detail from there as, as needed. But, you don't even need to go to that level of detail in most cases. People just want the general sense of what you're doing. I think the most important thing to keep in mind is who is your audience, who are you talking to, and what is your goal for that audience, what do you want them to take away from your interaction with them, and that might be something specific like, I want them to understand what's really cool about this method I'm using. It might be more general like I simply want this person to understand that I'm a human being who cares about the same things that they do.
Saintsing: Right, we're coming up at the end of our interview. Typically at the end of the interview we just offer our guests a moment to speak on any issue they'd like to speak about, about social issues or about their topic, their research area in science, or really anything you'd like to address to the listeners.
ElShafie: Sure. Appreciate it. I would love to say to anybody listening who is not currently in a science graduate degree program but if you're interested in science in any capacity then I hope that you pursue that interest in some form, whether it's pursuing a degree in science or even just learning about whatever scientific field you're interested in, and, and I encourage you to bring your other interests into that as well. I think the, the best scientists I know who are the most creative about how they approach their science are those who are interested in lots of different things, and, and, and vice versa. So, I think combining interests in lots of different fields is actually a really, it's, it's a great way to enrich your work no matter what you do, and, and scientists want to meet you, and scientists want to talk to you no matter what it is you do. We love, we love talking about science, but we also love learning about other things other than science because that just enriches our perspective about how we approach science. So, if you're an artist, if you're an educator, if you're a farmer, if you are whoever you are no matter what you do, please come chat with us because we'd love to meet you, and if you're a scientist listening, I really encourage you to step outside of academia as often as you can, especially if you're a graduate student or postdoc, you know. Don't wait until you finish your degree or until you get your career up and running. It already is running, and I think the more you meet and interact with people outside of science, the better scientist you will be because it will, you learn how other people think and that's really important for science communication, but it also just enriches your perspective and enhances your appreciation for what you do, and it's also a lot of fun, and especially if you have interests outside of science whether it's a hobby or another field or whatever it is, don't wait to dabble in that. Get involved with it. Take a class. Read a book. Join a group. Whatever it is, get involved with that now because being involved in lots of different things and expanding your horizons while you're in grad school is really great for your mental and emotional health, and, and it also just gives you a broader sense of how you can use your scientific training in the world, whether you want to pursue academia or potentially something else.
Saintsing: Right, open dialogue with people who don't study the same thing as you, who are coming from different backgrounds, that would be good not just for scientists but for everyone, right?
Saintsing: Yeah, but yeah especially for scientists. That's a great message, Sara. Thank you so much for being on the show. It was really great.
ElShafie: It was a lot of fun talking to you today. Thank you so much for having me.
Saintsing: I've been speaking with Sara ElShafie from the Department of Integrative Biology. We were speaking about her interest in global climate change and how she communicates her science to the public. Tune in and two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.