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Associae professor, Center for Environmental Studies
As a scientist, Daniel McGarvey, Ph.D., knows the importance of communicating findings clearly and effectively. But where’s the flair?
“Go to the library and pick up a science journal,” McGarvey encouraged. “Look at the kinds of infographics you find there. Sure, they’re very informative, but they’re black and white, they’re very dense, they’re hard to read and, let’s be honest, they’re a bit boring.”
It’s a common jab at the science community, but when you have one of the top art programs in the country in the form of the VCU School of the Arts right across campus to partner with, it doesn’t have to be that way, McGarvey said.
Through a Quest Innovation Fund grant and support from the VCU Inger and Walter Rice Center for Environmental Life Sciences, McGarvey and Robert Meganck, chair of the VCU Department of Communication Arts, have developed a course — dubbed eESP 2.0, which stands for Ecological and Environmental Science Perception — to be offered fall 2014 to graduate environmental science students that can teach them some basic tools they’ll need to present research and data in a more engaging way.
McGarvey said the immediate and most tangible impact for students is that, with stronger visualization and representation of their data, they’ll be able to better compete for fellowships, grants and awards. However, the ramifications of pairing the arts and the sciences can be much more far-reaching.
While students can immediately build this skill set into their career paths, their teachers are the ones competing for grants right now. McGarvey said he hopes that once the program begins to build a track record of success with students it can open up to VCU researchers looking for ways to make their own findings stand out.
“It’s not just about communicating information effectively,” McGarvey added. “It’s about being able to get an audience to agree to give you five minutes of their time, whether that’s the National Science Foundation, colleagues or the general public, and that’s going to be much more likely with something that’s visually interesting.”
As a researcher currently working on projecting shifted distributions of fish species in West Virginia due to the warming of the state’s rivers and streams, and how those shifts might bring more species into closer proximity of mountaintop mining operations, McGarvey said he can certainly see the benefits of a more artistic approach to the presentation of his own research as well.
“If we get information out there in a compelling way, we can help the public visualize the real effects of these ecological shifts,” McGarvey said. “We can use science to empower the people who live there to have fruitful conversations about the future of their resources.”