Communicating in the world of hazards

On this week's #MeetAScientist, get to know Beth Bartel, a geoscientist, communicator, and coordinator for 500 Women Scientists' Boulder pod. Beth talks about how she combined her passion for geoscience with her love of language to become Outreach Specialist at UNAVCO supporting earth science around the globe. Along the way, she has some great tips for members looking to branch out into science communication, along with some insights into being an effective pod coordinator. If you're feeling inspired, be sure to follow Beth on Twitter @EatTheCrust!

When did you first identify as a scientist? How do you support and further science today?

This is actually a complicated question. In my current work, I often think about what it means to be a scientist and to identify as one. As one of the most indecisive people I know, I surprised myself by falling in love with and declaring a major in geology my very first semester of my first year of college. So that's the simple answer. But I still felt like I was a student studying geology, not a geologist. A mad fascination for natural hazards my senior year led me to earn an MS doing research measuring the changing shapes of volcanoes and what that can tell us about their changing magma systems. I felt like a scientist, but also so much more. Now, I focus my efforts on science outreach. I hesitate when people ask me if I’m a scientist because I am not actively engaged in the process of research. However, my scientific knowledge, background, and perspective shape everything I do at work. I share not only the science, but the scientific process with experts and non-experts alike. Am I a scientist? Yes — and a communicator, an educator, a writer, a goofball, a community organizer, a speaker, a ...


How did you get into your work as an Outreach Specialist? What advice do you have for scientists looking to broaden their reach to the public?

I’ve always been a language person. I actually thought I’d be an English major in college, and alongside my geology classes I took a creative writing class and earned a double major in Spanish Language and Literature. After my geophysics master’s working as a field engineer, I gave public talks and blogged from the field about the stories behind the data collection (, but you have to go back, erm, a few years). I decided I so wanted to focus on communication that I picked up some part-time work in our education & outreach group. And then I went back to school for an MA in journalism. I found myself covering topics from immigration to homelessness — but also a lot of science. I volunteered on our community radio station's weekly science show, took science writing and environmental reporting classes, and focused on science or hazards content for several video projects. For my capstone project, I dove right back into volcanoes. When I finished my degree, after a summer off, I was back full-time at UNAVCO where I had worked as a field engineer in my current position as Outreach Specialist. It's not what I had gone back to school expecting to do, but it was a perfect fit of my experiences and expertise. I've been lucky to work in a scientific community I know, to communicate the science that most excites me.

My advice for scientists looking to broaden their reach is to jump in. Seek opportunities for training and for practice — or make your own. Many of the activities I mentioned above are accessible to anyone, not just journalism students (look at the offerings in your journalism department, for example, if you’re still in school). Up your game on social media. Get published in a non-academic outlet. I've posted a list with some ideas and concrete options for outreach and training on the UNAVCO Science Communication page. If you want to be a good communicator to non-experts, regardless of whether you want it to be your full-time job, work on it. Even for those of us who feel these skills are intuitive (and many are not), there is always room for improvement, and we all have our blind spots. I have several worksheets on that same page linked above to help you think through talking about yourself and your research. Identify your jargon, know how to boil down what you do, and be clear on why your work is relevant or potentially interesting to your audience. And, most importantly, listen. We often love to explain. (Me included.) But we'll win a lot more hearts by listening, as well. We can't be trusted sources of information based on the information alone — we need to be trustworthy humans, too. And, we have a lot to learn from others, scientists and otherwise.


If your thinking about it, please do it! Do it for science! Do it for the taxpayers who are funding you, and the decision-makers who need to apply what you know! Do it for everyone who may be a scientist or a voter someday! Or just do it to help us all appreciate this wonderful planet that we share.

Do you have a favorite communication project that you've worked on?

My favorite communication project that I've worked on is hands-down my capstone journalism MA project. It was also probably the most challenging. A dream of mine since graduating from college had been to explore how people deal with natural hazards in different cultures and contexts. Many years later, I interviewed and photographed people living around an active volcano in Ecuador — from citizen scientists to priests and hotel managers — and these interviews became part of a webpage of audio slideshows called Living with Tungurahua. I don't know how I feel about the actual product, but I learned a ton — not only about volcano monitoring, but also about individual and community resilience, information flow, trust, and risk perception. This is a pretty selfish case because I most like what I gained from it, but I feel better equipped to work in the world of hazards understanding both the physical and social science around them. I strive to communicate both — and how resilience requires the marriage of the two.

You're also the 500 Women Scientists pod coordinator for Boulder. Can you talk about your organizing philosophy and some of your successes as a group?

This past year has been an amazing learning opportunity. We've worked to define our identity and priorities as a group, determine a structure, and get to know each other. As newcomers to organizing, it's been a bit of an experiment. My philosophy is to roll with that experiment and see what comes out of it. My biggest goal as a coordinator is to enable whatever pod members want to do. If it's nothing, I have to be okay with that. But it’s been far from nothing; we have marched together three times in Denver now, tabled at three public events, written two op-eds, and are in the process of planning a Science Salon to better connect with our community. I am also (maybe not-so-secretly) a huge fan of leading discussion, exercises, and training, both to generate ideas for action and to strengthen our group as a team. Yes, I’m the person with the notecards, pens, and post-it notes. Bring on the brainstorms!

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When you're not working to broaden the reach of science, how do you unwind?

Although I’m pretty extroverted, my most blissful place is probably at a cafe table (anywhere in the world) with a coffee and something to write on and with. Creative prose is my jam, both to write and read. I also spend a lot of time with friends, preferably over brunch, hiking, or traveling. Did I mention the one-person dance parties? I love those too. I've also dabbled in improv and lots of other things, because I appreciate a good dabble. Mainly, I’m a generalist in both my professional and off-the-clock life. There are so many things to try, and to be curious about!


Beth Bartel is a geoscientist and communicator, currently working as the Outreach Specialist for UNAVCO, a non-profit supporting earth science around the globe. She has master's degrees in geophysics and journalism, both of which focused on active volcanoes and the people who live around them. Between the two degrees, she spent several years as a GPS field engineer working with scientists on problems ranging from glacier dynamics to fault behavior. Her primary interests are natural hazards and societal impacts of science. She looks for creative means to communicate science to the public, and trains other scientists to do the same. Find her on Twitter at @EatTheCrust for tweets on plate tectonics, diversity, #scicomm, and photos of chickens