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Faculty Spotlight: Erika Schielke's new science podcast

May 12, 2016

Erika SchielkeEager to share the secrets of the scientific realm through her own podcast series, Biology instructor Erika Schielke sits down to discuss her plans for this summer’s Storytellers' Institute, regional coyote species, and walking the line between fact and fiction.

Professor Schielke’s background has a stronger creative influence than expected of scientists. Growing up with a strong interest in the worlds of both the language arts and the hard sciences, balancing the two ways of knowing the world certainly influenced her emphasis on communication in academia, moving into teaching biology and ecology from having been a bit of a “dabbler” in her undergrad years.

“I initially viewed those areas as distinct and not really having a lot of overlap or interaction. But I took one or two nonfiction writing classes, and began to realize that there was this really nice interface between creative writing and science. Plus, I could take this love of language that I had and write about science in a way that was accessible for people. So, I dabbled in that a bit, stayed focused mainly on science in my graduate work, but also began to think again about the role that communication could play. So, during my graduate work, I sort of started exploring how I could get involved in science communication. When I finished my PhD, I did a fellowship as a mass media fellow (through the American Association for the Advancement of Science). They take a lot of recent PhD graduates and actually place them as science reporters in different areas of news media. So, I worked as a science reporter at an NPR affiliate studio in Colorado.

I had a really great experience producing radio stories. I love the aspect of sound. I like the idea that you can listen to a podcast anywhere. You don’t need to look at a screen, you could be running, you could be walking, driving, cooking, and you can actually be hearing a story and be immersed during the smaller moments of our lives.”

Taking this knowledge of audio documentary along with her, Professor Schielke joins MDOCS for the 2016 Summer Storytellers' Institute. The Institute brings together documentarians from a variety of backgrounds to collaborate in an open academic setting. Professor Schielke is bringing her very own podcast series to the table. To put her personal and professional spin on it, each episode will focus on a freestanding ecological topic.

Coywolf“They’ll all be sort of loosely related in the sense that they’ll all be related to regional environmental issues. So, for example, how might climate change be affecting lake ecosystems? Or maybe, what’s happening with rattlesnake populations in the southern Adirondacks? They’d be 4-minute segments, similar to something you’d hear if you listened to a news feature on NPR.

Part of the timing of this is great, because I’m teaching a course called ‘Ecology of the Adirondacks.’ So, to give you a particular case study (and something that may be featured in one of these podcasts), we just had a class focusing on what’s been termed the ‘coywolf.’ This is a northeastern coyote which researchers are finding actually has a significant amount of wolf DNA. There’s actually a proposal to list them as a new species. There’s a lot of debate about this. So, that’s one topic that I have thought about exploring further. I also am hoping to do a story looking at rattlesnake populations in the Southern Adirondacks. We’ve also had a particularly crazy winter and spring, so I’m looking to tie in some issues that will discuss climate change on a more local level.”

Thinking about questions from a scientific standpoint comes with its own set of challenges, which ties right into this year’s institute theme of “Fact and Fiction.”

“In my specific podcasts, I’m going to stick to the factual element. These podcasts are very data driven and evidence driven. I’m interested in broadly the question of where is that line between fact and fiction. So, I guess for me in this institute, the fictional element will be something I experience through the other events and speakers and collaborations. I think this theme, the line between fact and fiction, is very unique for me, because I’m used to looking for the facts. That said, I’m really looking forward to learning from the other participants. I hope my particular background brings a bit of a useful perspective, but I would say that I’m certainly looking forward to learning as much from the other participants as I expect to give them.”

The Storytellers' Institute offers a collaborative and supportive "laboratory" experience for its Institute Fellows and Skidmore Scholars to explore and develop their work.  Outside of the program, there comes the question of who the work will reach on a broader scale.

“I am hoping to reach non-scientists. When you’re in academia, you spend a lot of time talking to scientists, and that’s exciting and engaging and really interesting, but I think that I do see a real need for communicating science to the public in general. So, I would hope that my grandmother, and my sister-in-law, and the high school student who lives next door to me would see this as the sort of thing they want to listen to. I’m hoping to capture something that will communicate the interest, but be accessible to the general public. So you could be driving in the car and think ‘wow, that’s interesting, and now I know a little more about this certain scientific topic, and it didn’t feel like work.’ I think for me, a lot of it comes down to recognizing that gap between great science and public understanding of science.”

- Written by Sam Grant, ’18