Polar early career scientists are not just researchers, but storytellers | Polarjournal
Field work for Polar research is very fascinating to see for the general public. But once that part is over, people tend to loose interest in the results. Therefore, researchers should train their storytelling skills. (Image: M.Schiller, AWI)

Polar regions play a vital role in the global climate system, but they are rapidly changing due to climate change. The acceleration of these changes is increasing at a pace that it becomes imperative to bridge the gap between the complex scientific knowledge surrounding those regions and the broader public understanding. But how can we do it?

Looking at the recent Paris Call for Glaciers and Poles back in November 2023, a lot of attention was brought to the Poles. It also underscored the critical need for education and outreach efforts to raise awareness about the challenges that these vulnerable regions have been facing. In this opinion piece, I want to highlight the crucial role that the Early Career Researchers (ECRs) have in this matter.

Climate change isn’t just a distant threat — it’s unfolding before our very eyes, and polar regions are being alarmingly impacted. But it could be hard to quite understand and explain to someone what climate change is. Usually, it is easier for a human being to understand a concept when he sees it with his own eyes, and directly impacts him. I believe climate change has this side. If we listen to the news, frequently we pay attention to the retreat of Arctic sea-ice or to the melting of glaciers in Antarctica. Despite the magnitude of these changes, effectively communicating the nuances of polar science to the wider public remains as one of the biggest challenges. There are a lot of barriers associated with scientific language starting with terminology or even jargon. But this is where early career researchers (ECRs) can and are emerging as assets.

Public engagement can be conducted in many ways. Some researchers use citizen science projects and inform about their research work on the spot, such as the project “Fjordphyto”. (Photo: Rutger Bianchi via IAATO)

Fresh from their academic training, ECRs are being encouraged to also look for soft skills that could make a difference in the scientific community. One of those skills is scientific communication – the art of translating complex scientific concepts into engaging narratives that resonate with diverse people. Through the years, this skill has been increasing in the curriculums of the ECRs. In a digital world like ours, with young generations being exposed every time to a digital world, communication is the key – if our grandmother understands it too, it’s because we are doing a great job, right? Currently, ECRs are not merely researchers as they are becoming storytellers who can bridge the gap between the world of science and the everyday lives of people, transmitting the urgent need for action to conserve polar regions.

However, it isn’t only in digital platforms that they have an impact. ECRs are actively engaged in educational initiatives (e.g., workshops, conferences, public talks) aimed at bringing polar science directly into schools and communities. Our young generations are the future of the planet, so we should put extra effort in our education systems. But how can we explain to a kid what is climate change? They know climate change is the increasing of the temperature or the melting of the ice, but how can they understand the “real consequences” beyond that? One approach, and the best one that I found so far, is to understand what sparks feelings in people. That spark will link them to the message, and kids (and people) love animals. Climate change isn’t only the increasing of the temperature or the melting ice, climate change is also the suffering of animals. There are a lot of images and videos of phenomenal people who have the power to transmit this, and the kids are super keen to understand it.

Informing about Polar research can be done even on a school level like the Swiss Polar class project, here at the Cerny Museum for Contemporary Circumpolar Art in Berne, Switzerland. But it’s important for early career researchers to train such skills. (Photo: Michael Wenger)

Besides, there are a lot of initiatives serving to promote inclusivity and diversity within the field of polar research. Some examples are the “Women in Polar Science” initiative aiming to connect and support women in the polar regions, or the “International Polar Weeks” initiative to take scientists to schools. Even organizations like the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) provide platforms for ECRs to share their work and collaborate with educators. Together, innovative resources in education have been developed – “Open Science” rubric from APECS Portugal (APECS Portuguese branch), a one-page summary of a scientific article accessible to the broader public, or even “The Polar Resource Book” project from the Polar Educators International, which aims to make polar science accessible to every classroom, and is going to receive an update.

In a world facing unprecedented environmental challenges, ECRs are more important than ever. Their role in polar science outreach cannot be overstated as well as their dedication to bridging the gap between scientific knowledge and public understanding of polar regions. Through ECRs efforts, we can inspire future generations to act and preserve our polar regions.

Hugo Guímaro, a young polar scientist from Portugal, is currently a PhD student at the Marine and Environmental Science Centre of the University of Coimbra (MARE-UC – Coimbra, Portugal), and at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS – Cambridge, United Kingdom). His research focuses on Antarctic marine ecology, particularly on understanding the ecological dynamics between climate change and emperor penguins. Aside from his scientific work, he actively engages in science communication, delivering lectures on polar science’s significance and contributing to science journalism. He also uses photography to raise awareness about polar regions, having participated in an Antarctic expedition by bringing first-hand experience to his advocacy efforts. He has held leadership positions in the Portuguese Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS Portugal) and currently serves as Vice-President of APECS International.

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