Getting my script from yesterday to work almost went into day three. But at 5.17 pm, after writing, testing, and debugging 983 lines of code, all errors and typos were corrected, and the script worked like a charm. Sadly, there is not much for me to show, yet (also because first I have to double-check the results that all calculations are correct), so in place of graphs and maps, this is what my two monitors looked like for most of today and yesterday.
On the left is Safari running R Studio, which I write code and manage files with. On the right are three blue Terminal windows and a data viewing app. Terminal is a Mac OS tool that emulates a so-called command-line interface, which I use to tell the computer what to do (for example, to run my code) and to see some results. The fourth window is Panoply, a very handy app by NASA to view NetCDF data, the type of data I work with.
Despite the looks, my computer didn't actually do that much work. Instead, all of my commands and every line of code are sent 360 miles north to the South Central Climate Adaptation Science Center at the University of Oklahoma. All our data and most of my code is stored on a data server there, and they have NCL and several other programming languages installed, all of which makes our live here a lot easier.
A good day always becomes better when it ends well. On the third Wednesday of every month, the Texas A&M Postdoc Association organizes what they call a "networking event," basically a fun hangout with fellow postdocs chatting over snacks and drinks at a bar or restaurant in town courtesy of the organization. It's a great way to meet peers and make friends, to bring up workplace problems or just talk nerdy to fellow nerds. I always enjoy these gatherings! However, today I had to pass it up for an even better ending – a date night at an Italian restaurant with my wife.
Here are Monday and Tuesday.
Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I join a group of colleagues for what we coined "The Write Stuff," a writing group. We meet down the hall from my office in a conference room with large windows that overlook a beautiful garden, and spend two hours not chatting (mostly), but working on whatever everyone is working on. It sounds banal, but it's incredibly effective. The peer pressure of "Everyone else is working!" really makes you push through and avoid distraction. Also, the room is a pleasant change from my sad, windowless office situation.
My goal for today was to write a script that analyzed rainfall projections for the next 80 years (2020 to 2099) and find years with extremely high and extremely low amounts of rainfall in the Great Plains. We found previously that rainfall variability is very different across the Great Plains. For example, in the Southern Plains, annual rainfall can vary a lot more than in the Northern Plains. Now we were interested in whether these super dry and super wet years will occur more or less often in the future. Specifically, we wanted to see if the frequency of years and the number of consecutive years with rainfall of more than 20 percent above and below the decadal average will change over time.
Two assumptions were important for us going into this. We assumed that ranchers are used to some degree of year-to-year variability - that they could handle some wet and dry years. But the really bad ones, especially when several occur back to back, like the droughts around 2012 or in the late 1980s, would be a real challenge. Because of that, we chose a threshold of 20 percent above or below the decadal average. It's an arbitrary value, really, and we'll change it once we find a more meaningful number that's based on previous studies. But for now we'll run with it. Why use a decadal average, which will change every decade, instead of one for the whole 80 years? Because of our second thought: whichever way things will change, even if it continues to get drier, ranchers will find ways to adapt over time, just like they have in the past.
Now, a drought of course is more severe the hotter it is, so looking at rainfall without temperature will only give us half the picture. But it is the first step of many in our project to understand the effect of climate change (and climate variability) on ranching.
Once we had this figured out, the real challenge was writing the script, telling the computer what to do. I am using a programming language called NCL, which stands for NCAR Command Language (and NCAR is short for National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado – we really know how to complicate things), and is a language for climate and model data. I had written a script a few weeks ago that did something very similar, only with monthly data that were compared to rainfall observations, and three thresholds, 10, 20, and 40 percent, instead of one. So this should be similar, but simpler. It's always easier to have a foundation to work from than to start from scratch, because some parts stay almost always the same. Most scripts have three parts: (1) open a data file and extract the necessary variables, (2) process the data in a certain way, and (3) save the result in a new data file. Some scripts create graphs or maps instead of data files, or in addition to it.
Writing a script is like giving a blind person directions for where to go. The computer knows basic operating rules, but it doesn't know what you want to do. It knows pre-defined commands that are hard-wired into the language, like how to open one or more files and how to add or subtract, and basic rules, for example don't divide by zero. But from there it is up to the programmer to make sure the computer does what it should. The smallest typo, a comma instead of a period or a space where there shouldn't be one, can crash the program, or even worse give out wrong results without anyone notice. I went step by step, wrote some code, ran it, checked the result, debugged if necessary, ran it again, checked again, wrote some more, ran it, checked it, and so on, until eventually, the script is complete.
This process can take all day, really ... or depending on the size of the task, more. After 687 lines of code and eight hours of staring at a screen, I was square-eyed and decided to go home for the day and unwind on a run.
Tomorrow is another day. I was so nearly there. Oh well.
Here is Monday, and if you wonder what this about, here is the intro blog post.
The nice thing about working at a big university is there is always something happening, even during summer break.
This morning, a professor from Ethiopia, Dr. Seifu Tilahun, who was visiting the college, gave a seminar about irrigation challenges in Ethiopia at the Borlaug Institute, one building over from my office. It's always fascinating to hear what research is being done in other countries, and to discuss ideas and challenges. Similar to the U.S., water quality in agricultural areas is a big problem in Ethiopia. Heavy rainfall washes crop fertilizer into streams and lakes and pollutes the groundwater. But adoption of practices that can reduce erosion and over-fertilizing, like no-till farming, take a long time to get adopted, no matter how much they make sense to ecologists and economists.
Back in my office, I had to sort out two things before I get started with coding. The first involved some bureaucracy and physical activity, two things I got used to quickly in a department as big as mine. I needed to register for a coding workshop on campus in August, but I didn't know how pay for it. Most faculty have work credits cards, but for some reason I didn't. So, a quick walk to our business admins in another building, and a few signatures later I had a credit card (sadly, I'll have to return it tomorrow) and could register for the workshop.
The second involved Dr. Cait Rottler, a fellow postdoc with the Agricultural Research Service, the research branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cait and I are planning a small science communication workshop for a rangeland conference next February in Colorado. And today was the deadline to submit proposals for sessions at the conference. Good communication is important in research, so that scientists from different fields understand each other and work well together. Cait and I both work in climate change adaptation and know what a challenge this is. More than probably most areas, climate change is one where collaboration between disciplines is key to get things done, from engineering to social sciences to economics and ecology. And our workshop will help with that – or at least that's what we think. We should find out around September if the conference organizers agree with us.
Eventually, after a late lunch and much later than I had hoped, I sat down to work on my data analysis. I only had about three hours before my day was over, but that was enough time sketch things out and get started. It's important to know what the bigger picture and to determine individual goals, before zooming in and start writing code to get there. That's what I did today, and tomorrow I can home in on this more.
Here is Tuesday. Wonder what this is about? Here's the intro blog post.
High school students on Skype a Scientist have asked me a few times what an average day looks like for me. But it's hard to find an "average" day, so what I'll do instead is describe an average week. This week should fit pretty nicely.
If you read my About Me page or my Research page, you know I study how climate change affects cattle production in the U.S. Great Plains, a large agricultural region in the central US, between Canada, Mexico and the Gulf Coast, the Rocky Mountains, and the Mississippi. I study data to understand how future changes in temperature and rainfall affect where and how well natural vegetation grows in the Great Plains. Because we're concerned about ranching, I'm not so much interested in shrubland and forests, but mostly grassland, which ranchers use as feed for their cattle.
I'm mostly a data analyst, and our first goal is to publish our work in scientific journals so other researchers can read about it and use it in their own work. These journals are like newspapers for scientists, except they're much harder to understand. We also go to scientific conferences a few times a year to present our work, meet colleagues, and learn about their research (and we get to see some fascinating places, too). We just finished working on two papers, about how past droughts have affected cow numbers in the Great Plains and how grasslands in the Great Plains will change in the future, and we submitted them to two journals for review. It'll probably take a month or so until we hear back from them.
As one of the leaders in our project, I am also interested in the bigger picture, and I am responsible to determine what to do next. Last week, after we finished our second paper, my postdoctoral advisor and I brainstormed about what to do next.
One thing we are trying to understand is what our projections mean for ranchers and their operations. Our data are really just millions of numbers, for every year from 2020 to 2099 arranged in a raster grid across the Great Plains. They can be really abstract if you don't organize them in a smart way.
And that's what I'll do this week.
Every year on the last Saturday of September, the University of Oklahoma hosts a five kilometer run, the Fun Run. Every year around 650 runners participate, and each of them have their own goal. Some just want to push their strollers in more of a five kilometer walk and have a good time, some enjoy the community of runners and maybe push themselves a little. And some switch to race mode, eat pasta the night before, put on their Dri-Fit running clothes and their GPS watches with heart rate monitor, and run like they’re trying to set a new world record.
I fall into this last category.
I’ve been running for about 13 years now, ever since I started college and my class schedule and homework made it difficult for regular wrestling practice. Running is something I can do on my own, at my own pace, whenever I like it, and wherever I like it. I most enjoy running in the morning, through parks and side streets, when the air is crisp and cool. There is nothing more beautiful than to start the day with a run. I like hearing birds chirp, and I watch the world around me slowly wake up. It motivates me, it floods my brain with fresh air and energizes me for the day ahead.
I didn’t use to care much about pace, or technique, or food, or racing, until I realized I was actually quite good at it. Four of my five Fun Runs I finished among the first ten. My first half marathon in 2015 I finished twelfth out of over 1,100 starters. And in my first marathon this year, in Oklahoma City, I finished 37th out of 2,200. I only signed up to run a half marathon, but because Mr. Geography lost his sense of direction … whatever. I ended up running the full marathon.
Finishing my dissertation and applying for jobs is all I can think about these days. And as I was running this year’s Fun Run, I noticed it felt a lot like working towards my defense and applying for a job. Think about it: You learn new things, delve into new techniques, push yourself to the limit, practice and improve for a really long time, and eventually it comes down to meeting expectations and doing better than your competition.
At the Fun Run, I lined up at the front of the race with a group of other fast runners, and we quickly pulled away from the rest of the field. By the first corner, I was in ninth place. I overtook a guy who started out too fast and couldn’t keep his pace, and another one who also couldn’t keep up with the rest. About two miles in, another runner, let’s call him Dr. Evil, came breathing up my neck. I tried to shrug him off, but he slowly inched his way past me. Energized by him, though, I up’d my pace and was now breathing up his neck! He overtook another person in a blue long-sleeve jacket, I followed. Why do you wear long-sleeve in a race?! Eventually I caught up with Dr. Evil, and we ran side-by-side for like half a mile, unable to pull away, unwilling to give in. Things stayed that way until the final stretch when both of us were overtaken by our fashion genius from earlier. Dang it! What’s more, Dr. Evil suddenly unleashed his last reserves, pulled away, and finished 10 seconds ahead of me in fifth place.
Losing on the final stretch, I’m sure we’ve all been there. But even more than outpacing our competition, running teaches you a lot about life and mastering challenges. I was disappointed that I wasn’t as fast as Dr. Evil or Calvin Klein, but in the end trying to keep up with them made me run faster and improve my time from last year by 30 seconds. This challenge made me become better. In grad school it’s often easy to be disappointed by comparing ourselves to others. But the key is to recognize our own personal growth instead of being put down because we didn’t finish first.
Other people’s victories are not my losses. And my losses don’t mean I’m unfit.
Running a marathon is no small thing, but neither is finishing a thesis or getting a job. It requires perseverance and a lot of outside support to achieve either of these. You have to manage your resources to make it to the finish line. Just like a cheering crowd can incite me to keep running when my feet hurt and my muscles are on fire, so can friends and family help us get through hours of tedious number crunching or stressful job interviews.
Running my first marathon was a unexpected challenge that I really wasn’t prepared for. But that’s life sometimes. Things can take unexpected turns, be harder and take longer than we anticipate. My dissertation certainly is, and getting into the job market will be, too. But knowing that I’m good at what I’m doing, that I enjoy running and believe in my own abilities, combined with the encouragement of those around me, made me achieve something that I had no idea I was able to do.
For the last two years I have been studying decision making in winter wheat farming in the Southern Great Plains. I want to help forecasters provide seasonal climate forecasts for farmers that do a better job of warning farmers of bad conditions, such as drought, extreme rainfall, or heat.
Now, seasonal forecasts are nothing new. The National Weather Service has been issuing them for decades. But farmers don’t use them very much because they are hard to understand and overall don’t contain the sort of information farmers need to make decisions.
So all we need are better tailored forecasts and crop failure is a thing of the past? Unfortunately that’s not quite the case.
Hailey Wilmer, a Ph.D. graduate from Colorado State University who currently works as a postdoc at the USDA Northern Plains Climate Hub in Ft. Collins, Colorado, and María Fernández-Giménez, a professor at CSU, studied ranchers in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona to gain deeper insights into the social dimensions of ranching decisions related to drought. The two researchers found that besides the weather forecast, decisions are often shaped by many factors, for example traditions, personalities, relationships and interaction with fellow ranchers, risk aversion, or financial goals of the individual rancher.
Conducting 38 interviews with male and female ranchers, Wilmer and her co-author found four reoccurring patterns of how these social factors affect decisions and adaptive actions to mitigate drought on the ranch.
1. Security over profit
Some ranchers, learning from peers and past experiences, prioritized maintaining a financially viable ranch over the long run by not overstocking their ranch in good times and maintaining feed and a minimum number of “seed cattle” even through bad droughts. “If you will stock conservatively when the severe droughts hit you will be able to stay longer and maintain your seed stock to where everyone else has already sold their seed stock or they are all leasing additional pastures somewhere else,” as one New Mexico rancher put it.
2. Facing drought with efficiency
To prepare for bad times, some ranchers use good times to build financial buffers that would carry them through droughts. During drought, they reduce the number of cattle or change grazing patterns so that existing grassland vegetation lasts longer. Although these ranchers tried to avoid risk, if they saw other ranchers succeed with a risky decision, they were inclined to try it, too. In times of need ranchers also help out each other, share expertise, or find additional forage. When the quantity of cattle went down, improving their quality was the top priority for most of these ranchers.
3. Diversified income
Not all ranchers were ranchers all their lives. Some bought ranches after retiring from another career, knowing it is a great risk. During drought, they relied on a range of income, for example on their pension, and they seem to prefer playing it safe. “I think we’ve decided that we’re going to play defense as far as the climate risk goes, as opposed to try[ing] to maximize stocking or to continue to grow or expand the operation,” explained one rancher. They also plan ahead, for example by using weather and climate data to bump up or reduce stocking rates. “We don’t like to do crisis management. We like to sort of prepare.”
4. Living with the “new normal”
The largest group of ranchers, thirteen, seem to have mastered the art of drought management, and was not shy to show it. They boasted experimental approaches to drought management, savvy business management practices, emphasized their successful careers as quality cattle producers and natural resource stewards, all while not relying on consultants or agricultural extension. “Trying something new” and “not being stuck in a rut” were their guiding principles. If drought forces them to reduce their herd, these ranchers, like many of their peers, try to improve quality. “If drought is going to cut me back two hundred calves or three hundred calves, or whatever the number is, I have to make that up with quality.” All this, however, seemed to be essential, as many of these ranchers said living in drought for them is the “new normal”. “Well, we kind of been in a drought ever since we’ve had this place.”
These findings show that decisions in the real world are often a lot more complex than we as scientists think. And it is a particular struggle for those of us who work in boundary organizations understand both scientists and users and to help both sides understand each other and facilitate collaborations. “This paper pushed me toward looking at how different groups ‘know what they know’ and how that influences not just management practices, but also how we interact and set goals,” says Wilmer.
Despite the limitations of this study — small sample sizes, for example, always make it difficult to generalize results to a larger population — it showed me how diverse and complicated the world of agriculture is, and how little we understand of it. Quantitative or technological approaches are not always enough to make a positive change in agricultural decision-making. If we want to help farmers and ranchers, not only do we need to know how to create better forecasts, but also how important these forecasts are among everything else that plays a role in the real world of farming and ranching.
Hailey Wilmer and María Fernández-Giménez (2015): Rethinking rancher decision-making: a grounded theory of ranching approaches to drought and succession management. The Rangeland Journal, 37, 517-528.
Photo: Toni Klemm
This article was originally posted on the Early Career Climate Forum in June 2017.
We’ve all heard the phrase that science should be explained on the level of sixth- to eighth-graders to be understandable for a general audience, right? But who has ever tried to explain science to actual sixth- to eighth-graders? I can proudly say now I did, and I’ve only suffered minor bruises.
A few weeks ago I was invited to a middle school in Norman, Oklahoma, where I live, to talk about climate change. Laura Vaughn, the school’s science teacher, and her social studies colleague had organized a two-hour guided inquiry lecture for their 280 seventh-graders, investigating with little guidance from teachers how climate change affects our lives and what we can do about it. Me and 11 other researchers and city employees had a table each in the school’s gym where we set up demonstrations to show, for example, how CO2 increases air temperature and causes ocean acidification, what tree rings can tell us about the earth’s past climate, and how clogged up stormwater runoffs can increase flood risk. I wanted to explain how climate extremes like drought, flood, or heat impact our agriculture, what climate change does to this, and what farmers can do to maintain a good harvest. Or, I should say, that was my plan.
Explaining my work to peers is often hard enough. But talking about it to non-scientists — policy-makers, managers, or the general public — always seems infinitely more difficult for me. To help me become a better science communicator, I recently started a course with Toastmasters International, a non-profit that teaches public speaking and leadership skills. (I blog about my experiences with Toastmasters on my personal blog.) In every meeting, I throw myself into situations that improve my ability to speak clearly and coherently, to spot unnecessary jargon and then avoid it, whether it is a prepared speech or an spontaneous answer during a round of questions. I also participate in discussions with students, talk to people outside my discipline, and of course present my own research to people outside my field. But unlike these situations, Toastmasters feels like a more safe environment to make mistakes. We evaluate each other, comment on grammar, use of fill words, applaud what went well and give suggestions for what didn’t. No one is perfect, and everyone is there to improve.
At a geography conference in Boston, I recently learned about the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. The ten-week long program, which run every summer, funds travel and housing for its participants, many of which applied at an REU program at a different university. The program doesn’t focus on collaborative research or communication per se but is meant to give undergraduate students a general taste of research and let them explore other disciplines, for example for graduate school. That said, some schools do run programs in which interdisciplinary work and communication are very much part of the deal. The REU program at the University of Central Florida, for example, sends student from different fields in groups to coastal communities in Belize to work with locals on environmental problems, like disaster management and ocean waste. Not only do students have to speak Spanish to participate. These supervised projects also train students to be open about their work and to avoid jargon when communicating with the public. A similar approach takes Clark University in Massachusetts with their REU program called HERO (Human-Environment Regional Observatory). Undergraduates study the impact of a tree planting program on wildlife, noise pollution, or air quality through tree surveys and interviews with residents, and present all their findings to the public, improving their own knowledge about human-environmental interaction and qualitative analysis, as well as their communication skills. At the University of Oklahoma (for example at the South Central Climate Science Center), REU students from any discipline can study weather and climate topics, like tornados, severe weather, or societal impacts of weather and climate extremes.
Back to our middle school event. With 280 rambunctious students roaming around my station for two hours and throwing questions at me, my brain was constantly in the ropes trying to answer questions like “What part of climate change do you work with?” or “What are some solutions to prevent climate change or even reverse it?” Often I just didn’t know what to say. Not that I didn’t know the answer. I didn’t know how to simplify it enough. To reassure myself I often ended with “Does that make sense?”, upon which one student admitted “Well, not really…” throwing the ball back at me for a second attempt. Convoluted sentences with more than 15 words seemed to confuse students, and most jargon whatsoever threw them off immediately. To buy myself time I often kicked the question back to them: “What do you think how we can reduce climate change?” — which made magic happen! They would suggest reducing pollution, I asked them how we could do that, and together we went from talking about air quality and eating more veggies to biking to school instead of being driven by their parents. It was mentally exhausting but instead of preaching the monologue of bad fossil fuels and polar bears far away, I used their knowledge and focused on solutions they can contribute to. It was mentally exhausting, but what they eventually wrote down were not my answers but theirs. Laura Vaughn, the science teacher, later emailed me to say that some of her students told her my station was their favorite.
Two weeks later I got invited again for presentations by the students. Each seventh grade science student designed a poster or powerpoint presentation of their favorite topic, and their social studies colleagues evaluated them. Many used the websites and online databases I had shared with the teacher, and some chose agriculture as their topic. One girl told me irrigation can be both be a blessing for farmers in times of drought but also a curse because it depletes the aquifer if farmers irrigate too much. I was delighted about how much they learned, and I was surprised how much I had learned, too.
All photos by Toni Klemm.
Welcome to part two of the series.
My overall goal of being at Toastmasters is to be less nervous about public speaking. And while the study book is great at teaching me all kinds of things that help me be less nervous, there is nothing more effective than to actually doing a speech. You don’t learn to swim if you don’t get in the water.
The ice-breaker (which I did several weeks ago, sorry about the delay) is a gentle way to get your feet wet without fearing to drown. It’s the first prepared speech everyone gives, and it’s by no means impossible. My assignment was to introduce myself (in four to six minutes), something we’ve all done over and over, but to create a talk with the basics of any speech: a beginning, body, and ending.
The key was to not get carried away in details be selective to create an interesting theme, like unusual jobs during college, places you lived while growing up, or stories about boy- or girlfriends in school if you feel brave. Some dry (self-deprecating) humor also never hurts. And thankfully, notes are totally fine.
I drafted my speech somewhere between midnight and 2 am (just like this blog post), read it aloud to my girlfriend to make sure things make sense and I stayed within four and six minutes, got her feedback, and improved over time.
I decided to talk about growing up in East Germany (communism always seems like an interesting topic in the U.S.) and what traveling around Europe and the world meant and means for my family and me after the end of the wall. You can read the final version below.
I’m happy to report that not only did people enjoy the talk (and asked me lots of questions after the meeting), but I was glad to see my jokes working and people laughing at the right moments. After four minutes and 32 seconds, everyone applauded and I sat down again, happy and relieved.
Presenters, me included, often make the mistake of speaking faster or skipping slides when their speaking time runs out. We can never present all the information in as much detail as we would like to. Even if we had all the slides and all the time, our audience would just stop listen. But simple steps like focusing on a few things and keeping a basic structure can help people remember what’s important about my research. And if they found it interesting, maybe they’ll ask me for more.
Toastmasters Lesson #1 , Feb 13, 2017
Growing up Behind the Wall
I grew up on the third floor of a farm house, surrounded by big trees and lush fields of green on the edge of a small town in East Germany, called Pausa. Making hay, feeding sheep, and walking to school, much of growing up for me and my younger brother meant being outside. My hometown claims to be at the center of the earth, the place that everything else spins around, proudly symbolized by a huge, rotating, stained-glass globe on the roof of our town hall and proven by the earth’s axis sticking out of the ground in the basement underneath it. We even have an organization that takes care of lubrication, the Erdachsendeckelscharnierschmiernippelkommission. (I’m going to make that the word of the day one day!)
Being at the center of the entire world, naturally there is adventure lurking in every direction. Sadly, our mode of transportation was far from ideal for long-distance traveling. This Trabant [holding up the Trabant model car] was literally one of two car models in East Germany, and with four people inside it felt about as small as this model. Of course, traveling in East Germany was also limited for another reason. Without formal invitation from a relative or friend “in the West”, there was no way we could get past the Iron Curtain. My mom remembered that every time her parents would take her and one of her three sisters on a vacation to Hungary, my grandma would point to the right as they went through Czechoslovakia and say to my grandpa: “I wish we could go to Austria.”
When I was in second grade, someone decided, for reasons that were beyond my little mind, to combine East Germany and West Germany, which I liked because it meant I didn’t have to go to school on Saturdays anymore. With no wall to keep us from traveling (and soon better cars, too), my family started exploring the rest of Europe. Five years later, when I was 12, I had seen Florence, London, and Stockholm and most countries in between, some of them even two or three times. In 1995 — maybe because we ran out of places to see — my parents decided to book plane tickets for all of us across the pond to North America. I had never been inside of an airplane before, so I was very excited. In fact, all of us were, so we kept coming back, and the next few summer vacations were filled with road trips through national parks, gorgeous landscapes, and buzzing cities with skyscrapers and lots of people. We were stunned by the Grand Canyon, which looks even grander when you’re little, we watched Old Faithful in Yellowstone, we drove across the Golden Gate bridge and around the Great Lakes, visited Plymouth Plantation, and saw New York City from the top of the World Trade Center, twice. The second time during a visit in 1999, but the first time we managed do get up there and back to the airport despite only having a three-hour layover at JFK. German precision planning. By the time I graduated from high school, I had visited Canada, Mexico, and 39 out of the 50 US states.
Exploring places must be in my family’s DNA. A few years later, before my mom went on a one-year journey across the Asia-Pacific region, my cousin and I hiked through a remote national park in Australia, with 40-pound backpacks and nothing but a small map with a dot that marked a cabin in the woods where we would spend the night. After finding our accommodation, by a pristine lake surrounded by mountains, we spent a night literally in the middle of nowhere, enjoying tranquility after a long day of travel.
I eventually studied — no surprise — geography, like my mom did, because I wanted to learn more about this complex world we live on. After seven years in classrooms, though, the travel bug bit me again and I ended up here in Oklahoma, with a lot more geography to study and a lot more places to explore.
As I am nearing graduation, I am reminded of the glass globe on our town hall slowly turning and watching the little dot that marks Pausa as it moves around, and being amazed by just how much of our world there is that I haven’t seen yet.
This is the first part of a blog series.
If you ever had to speak in front of a large audience or a small group of really important people (like say, your committee), you probably know how tough that can be. Talking coherently, avoiding fill words, and following a storyline or reasoning that people understand — speaking well is hard.
I realized how much I had to work on this for myself last December. I had applied to be a student speaker at the University of Oklahoma's annual TEDx conference every January. I’ve been involved with TED for many years behind the scenes, translating subtitles of TED talk from English into German, and doing photography at TEDxOU since I started my Ph.D. in Norman. This was my moment to shine on stage — and I failed big time. Despite planning and preparing for over 6 months, collecting information and developing a storyline, the audition session went anything but smoothly. I stuttered, lost my trail of thoughts, forgot key points of my talk, and even went overtime. Not surprisingly I was not selected as a speaker. What did surprise me, though, was that the selection committee liked my topic, science communication, and I got invited to speak at next year’s TEDxOU as a regular speaker.
All I need to learn until then is how to pull off the perfect TED talk. But being a good speaker helps for more than TED talks. I can become better at presenting my research at conferences, deliver elevator speeches, be more confident in my dissertation defense, or simply get a point across at a party or on the plane. So, in this blog series I will share some of my experiences, lessons learned, and funny stories along the way.
In mid-January, I decided to take become a member of Toastmasters International, a non-profit that teaches speaking and leadership skills. I joined a group that two of my coworkers were already part of, at first as a visitor, and after a few weeks as a (paying) member. (Just to be clear, this series is not sponsored or endorsed by Toastmasters. I’m paying my membership fees just like everyone else and don’t get any special treatment for writing about it.) Toastmasters is a bit like school for grown-ups. Our group is a cheerful mix of a dozen or so researchers, business managers, and retirees, and in each of our weekly meetings there are one or two prepared speakers, a round of table topics — themed questions on topics like traveling, Christmas, or gardening that people need to answer on the spot — and the word of the day, selected by a group member for people to incorporate into their speeches. Someone leads the meeting while others carefully evaluate all speakers, keep an eye out for grammatical errors, fill words, if the word of the day was used, by whom, and how many times, and most importantly of all if people went over their allotted time. Or under. The rotating schedule is meticulously planned, to say the least.
A few weeks after becoming a paid member I received my learning materials with ten projects on organizing a speech, choosing the right words, using body language to emphasize, or inspiring my audience. To finish all ten in one year I will need to do about one every month.
So much for starters. Here we go.
This article was originally posted on the Early Career Climate Forum in December 2016.
On November 2nd and 3rd, the first ever National CSC Early Career Training was held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. For two days, students from across the U.S. heard about peer reserach ranging from butterflies in North Carolina, paleoclimatology along the Gulf Coast, to the impact of wildfires on wild berries in Alaska, along with so much more. In case you missed it, Andrew Battles wrote a short summary a few weeks ago.
But because a picture is worth a thousand words, here is a short video I made showcasing the training to give you more of an inside look and let some of the participants and organizers speak about their experiences and the purpose of the training and of the research conducted at the Climate Science Centers. Enjoy!