Science and science communication: why we can’t win and what we can do

Times are changing and it seems like a scientist just can’t win. In the era of fake news and “alternative facts”, where people dismiss what an engineer says because he’s not a “real scientist” (regardless of the science not changing just because it was an engineer who shared it), where diseases long-thought dead are resurging thanks to parents thinking autism is a fate worse than death (and the “study” they keep bringing up that “links” autism to vaccines was disproved many, many years ago), it seems like searching for evidence and the truth is out of fashion.

The irony is that we need science (and scientists!) more than ever. We’ve got climate change, biodiversity loss, coral bleaching, and melting ice caps. We’re emptying the oceans of fish and replacing them with plastic. We’re clearing rainforests but wonder where the fresh air has gone. Stronger typhoons are battering our coastlines but we don’t have the mangroves to keep them at bay. There are areas of the deep sea where our trash got there before we did. If we want to keep living on this planet (and I’m assuming that we do, considering that we haven’t developed interstellar travel yet), we needed to start protecting it yesterday.

fish visual census
Counting fish underwater

Scientists can’t save the world on their own. Because they’re very much in the minority – in 2013, the Philippines only had 189 researchers in R&D per million people – scientists are banking on the results of their research making its way to the general public, thus educating them about pressing environmental and health issues and provoking planet-saving action along the way. If only it were that simple.

First, great scientists are not always great communicators. We are sometimes so used to talking to our peers that the idea of talking to “regular” people and using minimal jargon stumps us. I used to work as an environmental officer for an eco resort located in a protected area and it took me years to figure out how to talk to people. The first time I trained tour guides in basic biology and ecology was a harsh lesson: people are under no obligation to be interested in what you find interesting. My first attempts at writing, shooting, and editing nature videos earned me an A for effort and content but a C in actual production value and “interestingness” from my video producer husband. Over the years and after much trial and error, our team of three Biology grads learned to use used bingo games, underwater scavenger hunts, and selfie contests to make science fun. I’ve also given talks at our beach bar during Happy Hour, ruining quite a few childhoods in the process of explaining protandry in clownfish.

This is us at our 12th episode. Check the link and compare it against our first episode.

There’s also the potential bias within the scientific community as well, wherein scientists who dedicated chunks of their time to public outreach were historically seen as being “less dedicated” and “less capable” of doing good science (see: Sagan, Carl). The annoying thing is that it’s not even true! On the flipside, in a “publish or perish” world, there’s no incentive for scientists to do outreach. How are we supposed to inspire the next generation of scientists if we’re not out there promoting how awesome science is? We can’t let Neil deGrasse Tyson do all the heavy lifting.

Scientists need to go where they’re needed. In this case, talking to fishermen underneath a tree by the roadside.

When scientists do communicate, those who do it well have to struggle against the public’s perception of what a credible scientist should look like. While a quartet of adorkable, socially awkward researchers makes for popular TV, it further cements the stereotype of the bumbling professor. A recent study showed that researchers who are physically attractive and appear friendly generated greater interest in their work, but were also seen as producing lower quality science. In comparison, researchers who are relatively plain-looking and look unapproachable were seen as producing higher quality science but generated less interest in their work. Can you please make up your minds? Their test subjects were also more interested in reading news articles featuring the work of “interesting-looking” scientists compared to those who looked “uninteresting”. I didn’t realize I needed a good headshot to accompany my research.

While communicating science in today’s environment feels like a combination of pushing a boulder up a mountain and preaching to the choir, we have to do it anyway. We owe it not just to ourselves, but to the ones who will come after us. But we have to work together!

General Public, good science is inescapable and undeniable. Don’t attack just because the science doesn’t fit your world view. As a great man once said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” Attack the science if the methodology and the data used to arrive at that conclusion is wrong.

Good science is also good science, regardless of who is doing it (as long as they adhere to ethical standards, of course). While there are scientists who are admittedly weird and dorky (myself included), others climb mountains, star is musicals, play with fire, and race dragonboats. We’re a pretty diverse bunch. Judge us on how good our research is, not on whether we look good in a lab coat.

Once upon a time, I joined fun runs.

Governments, use good science to shape good policy. It’s hard, I know, but that’s the only way to do it. Fund not just the actual research, but the outreach efforts as well. You want an educated population, right?

Fellow scientists, we need to learn how to communicate better. While reaching out to the public may not be your life’s work, your life’s work depends on the support of the public. People can’t support what they don’t know about. The public are our partners in discovery, not our enemies.

Let’s also remember that we don’t have to do this on our own. There are media professionals out there who can help us craft our messages and present them in a manner that will get us the most buy-in from the public. Guide the professionals but let them do their thing.

Science shouldn’t stay cooped up in the lab and we have got to get better at setting it free.


Author’s note: I wrote this last year for the Asian Scientist Writing Prize. Obviously I didn’t win but I wanted to post this anyway with some minor edits.

Macy goes to ICRS 2016

I attended my first-ever International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) last June 20-24, 2016 in Honolulu, Hawaii (!!!). Basically, ICRS is the biggest gathering of coral reef and reef fish nerds on the planet. I felt right at home 😀 <3

Here’s me presenting my study Abundance patterns of coral-dependent reef fish in select sites in the Philippines, co-authored with my boss and Denmark [another research assistant]). Fortunately or unfortunately, our session was scheduled in the theater so I presented on a sizable stage with a huge screen and the attendees had stadium seating. Other attendees said it was a plus because people could go in and out of the theater without the presenter noticing. Me, I was mostly concerned about presenting to a noticeably sparsely populated room.

02 ICRS1

My presentation was scheduled at 9:30 am – not exactly primetime for scientists 😛 Iris (a fellow Filipino who’s based in the National University of Singapore) joked that she thought of attending my talk but opted not to because of the early schedule. Don’t worry Iris, it’s all good 😛 I had two people ask me about the study, though I don’t think the second one counts because she was more interested in the aquarium fish trade rather than the coral reef-reef fish patterns. Referred her to my labmate Jem though 🙂

This is me thanking those who made my study and the trip to ICRS possible: our source of research funding (but not of travel grants) DOST-PCAARRD, my awesomesauce labmates, Dr. Ting Nanola of UP Mindanao of his insights, and Pinky’s Goodies bakery for the travel grant <3 Actually, that travel grant thank you should have been Pinky’s Goodies, Bar Pintxos, Alma Javelosa, Virgie Sorita, and friends and customers of Geekerie. THANK YOU!
03 pinkys slide

Before ICRS though, I attended a two-day workshop on coral identification at the Waikiki Aquarium taught by Russell Kelley of BYO Guides. Attending the workshop was more to confirm and shore up my existing coral ID skills rather than learning from scratch. It also showed me how to run a coral ID workshop, which is something I’m likely to use in the future 🙂 Plus it was fun!

01 coral ID training group pic

ICRS was a great experience. I learned a lot from the different sessions and the sessions reminded me of how much I miss working on corals 😛 The ones that stuck with me the most were the status reports on the 2016 mass bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef and the update on the West Philippine Sea scenario (the wholesale destruction of the reefs by the Chinese, the illegal extraction of giant clams, sea turtles, and other endangered species, the arbitration case in the Hague, etc.). It was interesting to hear about the case from Dr. Kent Carpenter (he served as an expert witness for the Philippine delegation), whose testimony included citing a paper that showed that the Spratlys may be a significant source of coral larvae (and by reasonable extension, fish larvae) for Palawan and some isolated reefs in the West Philippine Sea. I also thought of looking out for Dr. Morgan Pratchett but decided against it because I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to ask him about butterflyfishes and coral reefs, even though they’re my two favorite things. I did get to interview Dr. Terry Hughes (THE Dr. Terry Hughes!) though for an article about the mass bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, which will hopefully be done by this week.

No word yet on where ICRS 2020 will be as no one bid to host it. ICRS 2012 was in Cairns, Australia, then 2016 in Hawaii, USA. Maybe somewhere in South America for 2020? Let’s see 🙂

EDIT: The United Nations Arbitral Tribunal rules in favor of the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea dispute.

Traversing Tawi-tawi

Doing research on the field isn’t easy, but one of the things that make up for it is being able to travel all over the Philippines. There’s something about being able to peek inside the nooks and crannies that most Filipinos don’t get to see that sometimes makes all the effort and exhaustion worth it. I got to tick a major milestone off my travel bucket list when we surveyed the islands of Tawi-tawi last October.

06 Panglima Sugala

The houses of Panglima Sugala

10 SHINE 3 in Simunul

The seagrass and mangrove team in Simunul

This wasn’t my first trip to the southernmost province of the Philippines (that happened last year) but it was my first time to go beyond the main municipality of Bongao and visit the outer municipalities: Simunul, Sibutu, Panglima Sugala, and Sapa-sapa.

tawi-tawi map regular See the map? That’s how close Tawi-tawi is to Sabah.

It was also my first time to do a research cruise. Since the islands are pretty far from the mainland, the only practical way to move four research teams around was to base out of a liveaboard ship, the Sea Glory. It was also my first time working with such a big team! The NACRE program is composed of five projects, and four out of the five were present in Tawi-tawi: the corals and seagrass and mangroves teams from DLSU and the fish and physical oceanography teams from UP MSI. All in all, there were about 50 people onboard, including the lantsa crew. It was a tight fit but we managed to make it work.

00 our home outside

Our home for a week

11 the team

The research teams that managed to fit in it

01 SHINE 3

Off to do some research!

A research cruise was definitely something to remember. First, I had to share a small boat with 50 other people. I’m not the most sociable person so having to share my space (or the lack of “my” space) for days on end weird but workable. Most of us shared the top deck area but over the next few days, we realized that it was breezier outside. Some of my labmates brought their sleeping bags outside and slept under the stars.

00 our home inside

Then there’s the issue of water. Small boat = small water tanks (around 400 gallons for everything: bathing, cooking, washing plates, washing equipment, etc.) but 50 people = lots of water. We’d initially hoped to stretch the 400 gallons for the whole trip but it just wasn’t possible. We emptied the tanks after only 3 days then refilled them when we went back to Bongao to pick up the oceanography team. We also relied on the generosity of the island barangays, who let us take a bath using water from their common wells.

It was also a bit strange to have Marines and the Maritime Police escorting us. I felt a bit awkward having them around because I thought that they were making us even more conspicuous but with such a small community, we were going to stand out no matter what. So yes, better to have the extra layer of security. And they were really nice too 🙂

05 leaving for Panglima Sugala

This is PO1 Ali of the Philippine Maritime Police. He was our escort when we went diving around Bongao. Absentminded me had forgotten my booties at the inn *facepalm*. I was fully prepared to stick my bare feet and slippers into my open heel fins but he so generously offered to lend me the socks off his feet so that my feet wouldn’t get scratched up by the fins’ rubber straps. Call it a small gesture, but it really mattered to me.

15 diving without booties Bongao

We also got a closeup look at seaweed farming. The Kappaphycus seaweed is tied to rope lines using plastic straw, with Styrofoam or empty plastic bottles as floaters, and grown in very shallow water. The Philippines exported Php 4.7 billion worth of seaweed in 2009, with Mindanao accounting for 64% of the production, with Tawi-tawi as the main producer. Unfortunately, the seaweed farmers – majority of whom are small-scale – receive only a tiny portion of the profits. There’s no seaweed processing plant in Tawi-tawi, so the farmers have to sell their product to local buyers, who then send the seaweed to Zamboanga and Cebu.

04 lines and floaters Sibutu

02 seaweed in sibutu

Spending an extended amount of time in Tawi-tawi was definitely an eye-opening experience. All of the members of the local community that we met said that Tawi-tawi was safe and that it was a source of frustration that Jolo’s reputation affected Tawi-tawi as well.

Musings in Masbate

This past weekend marked my first visit to Masbate province. Truth be told, I didn’t know much about the province aside from the rodeos it hosts.

Masbate province is composed of three major islands: Masbate, Burias, and Ticao. The provincial capital is Masbate City, located in Masbate island. Our assessment site is Cawayan (the blue marker), about an hour and a half south of Masbate City.


How you get to Masbate province depends on your time, budget, and which island you want to land on.

The easiest and fastest way to get to Masbate island is by taking the only Manila-Masbate City flight, operated by Philippine Airlines. Of course, since it’s the only flight and the plane is small (a Bombardier turbo prop with 81 passengers capacity), a last-minute one-way ticket can cost upwards of Php 7,000. Other options include taking a Roro (roll on, roll off) ferry from Cebu City (more on that later) or a Roro or regular boat ferry from Pilar, Sorsogon.

How you get to Burias also depends on where in Burias you want to go. If you want to go to San Pascual (the northern municipality), then you fly to Naga City (Camarines Sur), travel to Pasacao, then ride a boat to San Pascual. If you want to go to Claveria (the southern municipality), then you fly to Legazpi City (Albay), travel to Ligao City, then Pio Duran, then ride a boat to Claveria.

Ticao Island is accessible by flying to Legazpi City, taking a bus to either Pilar or Bulan (in Sorsogon), then taking a ferry to Monreal (if from Pilar) or San Jacinto (if from Bulan) municipalities.

As I mentioned earlier, our assessment site is in Cawayan in Masbate island. What little tourism there is in Masbate is concentrated in Burias, Ticao, and Masbate City. Also, we needed to find a route via Cebu because we’d be bringing in dive tanks and vans and our supplier is in Cebu. As such, majority of the information I got from scouring travel blogs was inapplicable. Add that to the outdated Roro barge information I found online and you’ve got a recipe for a logistics headache.

My main source of frustration was the conflicting details on the existence of the Roro route between Bogo City, Cebu and Cawayan. All the websites I found said that Asian Marine Transport plied the route, but their office said that they stopped that route two years ago. Okay, the websites are outdated then. However, Mr. Butchoy Presado of Masbate provincial tourism said that the route was still running. Fine, I’ll take the provincial tourism officer’s word for it. As it turns out, the route still exists but is run by a different company. Argh. Thanks Sir Butchoy for the information!

Pro tip #1: List of functional Roro barges operating between Masbate and Cebu (schedule as of September 13, 2015):

Bogo City, Cebu to Cawayan, Masbatedaily12 midnight5.5 hoursD. Olmilla Shipping Corp. (used to be run by Asian Marine)
Cawayan, Masbate to Bogo City, Cebudaily12 noon5.5 hoursD. Olmilla Shipping Corp. (used to be run by Asian Marine)
Bogo City, Cebu to Cataingan, Masbatedaily12 midnight4 hoursMontenegro Lines
Cataingan, Masbate to Bogo City, Cebudaily12 noon4 hoursMontenegro Lines
Cebu City, Cebu to Masbate City, MasbateSunday only12 noon10 hoursAsian Marine Transport Corp
Masbate City, Masbate to Cebu City, CebuWednesday only12 noon10 hoursAsian Marine Transport Corp

After meeting with the Mayor and the Municipal Agriculturist, we went around to our target barangays to introduce ourselves and the PEARRL project. The ride to and from Naro Island was on the rough side. I wasn’t afraid – I’d dealt with similar waves in El Nido – but fieldwork veteran me was cursing myself for not bringing a waterproof bag. What kind of noob marine biologist goes to fieldwork knowing that she’s going to visit island barangays and doesn’t bring a waterproof bag? @_@ Luckily, our boatman said that the waves will be calmer when we return in November because it will be amihan season (northwest monsoon) by then.

01 boat from Naro

We exited Cawayan via Roro at 12nn and landed in Polambato, Bogo City at 5:30 pm. Pro tip #2: if you want to rest, the ticket for the airconditioned cabin is worth it. At least you get a semi-comfortable bunk and you can sleep. Unfortunately for me, I spent extra for the bunk because I needed to work and I didn’t want salt spray on my laptop. Special mention for the aircon cabin having a working outlet so I could charge my laptop! I finally stopped working when we neared Bogo.

02 roro to Bogo

Polambato is three hours away from Cebu City via bus. We were told that the trip takes two hours. Lies! 😛 We grabbed snacks from the terminal stores and settled in. Both ordinary and aircon buses make the trip so you can choose.

We left Polambato at 6pm and arrived in Cebu City at 9pm. Add travel time to Mactan so we’d be nearer to the airport so we finally settled in at around 10pm. And our Cebu-Manila flight was the next day at 5:05 am. Cheers!


Around the Philippines in 7 months

Our fieldwork for Year 1 of our research project started in earnest last January then proceeded nonstop until July. In those seven months, I’ve been to 11 municipalities in nine provinces all over the country. My Philippine map is looking pretty good!

It’s been an exhausting seven months, filled with interviews, focus group discussions, market surveys, fish landing surveys, fishery intercepts, fish visual census, and benthic cover surveys. Oh, and report writing. Can’t forget the dreaded report writing.

Continue reading “Around the Philippines in 7 months”

So what does a marine biologist do, exactly?

A typical conversation with someone I just met:

New Person: “So, what do you do?”
Me: “I’m a marine biologist.”
New Person: “That’s so cool! So what do you do exactly?”
That question always stumps me for a moment or two. How does one condense one’s job/career into one sentence? In the end, I usually go with “I go diving and count fish”, which doesn’t really help all that much. After six months of relatively intensive fieldwork, I now have enough visual aids to answer that question with! (Thank you to my awesome teammates for the photos. Whee!)
So, what does a marine biologist do, exactly? In my case, being a marine biologist involves:
Diving and counting fish using fish visual census. We then use the census data to estimate the total fish biomass in the area. We also use the list of fish species found to see if the area is overfished or not. Still learning to identify my fish but I’m getting there. The Philippines has over 1,800 species of marine fish so cut me some slack 😛 Photo by Jem Baldisimo
fish visual census

Continue reading “So what does a marine biologist do, exactly?”

And so field season starts.

The last week of January marked the start of our research lab’s field season, AKA the time of year where we spend half the time out on coral reefs, markets, and community groups and the other half preparing for the next trip. Thought it gets exhausting, I love it! 😀

Our first trip of the year took us to Bolinao and Anda in Pangasinan. They’re logical starting points because everybody in MSI does research in Bolinao. Working out of the Bolinao Marine Laboratory is the perfect starting point for a new lab because it provides practically everything we need, thus easing us into the hazy maze of logistics, finances, permission letters, and the myriad other things involved in organizing a trip.

Bolinao and Anda basically served as our training grounds. Our lab head and one of the project’s Project Staff demonstrated how to conduct focus group discussions (FGD) with the local fishermen. Since historical data regarding Philippine fisheries is pretty spotty, we rely on the community’s expertise and historical knowledge to fill in the gaps. And since we don’t want to make coming to the FGD difficult, we go to where is most convenient for the community to gather. Whether it’s the barangay hall:

00 fishers at FGD

Or underneath a large mango tree in the Barangay Captain’s backyard, we’re there 😀

01 fishers at Pilar FGD

After a day of demonstrations, we were on our own. I don’t think we did too badly 😛

03 Carot, Anda_Jan 2015_FGD_001_small

This FGD was done in the middle of the road! We couldn’t fit inside the kagawad’s house so we had to bring it outside. We had tricycles passing through our group every now and then. After the FGD, we got to go around and observe the community at work.

There were fishermen and women beating their nets to remove the fish they caught:

05 fisherwoman_small

And women preparing rabbitfish (Family Siganidae) for drying.

06 preparing danggit_small

Danggit, or dried rabbitfish, is a popular Filipino dish. The most common rabbitfish in the Bolinao-Anda area is Siganus fuscescens.

04 Siganus fuscescens danggit

We also intercepted fishermen at their landing sites and asked if we could measure and weigh the fish that they caught. The fishers were really nice and allowed us to do this.

09 Siganus guttatus caught

We had to wake up before dawn to meet the fishers. We looked pretty happy though.

06 team at sunrise

Aside from the fishermen, we talked to the market vendors too, asking about their prices and where they got their stocks. Two of our labmates used to do this type of work with the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) so they were old hands at charming the ladies. It also helped that we were there during the off-peak market hours and that we bought something from practically every seller we interviewed.

04 market survey

Some dried flying fish:

08 dried fish

And Bolinao’s famous danggit:

07 danggit in market

We have several more monitoring stations to go: Lian in Batangas, Sablayan in Occidental Mindoro, Taytay in Palawan, and Samal Island in Davao. Those don’t include the random areas that we’re going to visit only once for the national assessment project. Here’s to more science and how local communities can benefit from scientific research 🙂


On our way back to BML! #work #sunshine

A photo posted by Macy (@theislandergirl) on