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Researcher Spotlight – Rachel Atkins

2015 Global Change Fellow

Graduate Student, Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
Advisor: Dr. Karen McNeal
Every year the SE Climate Science Center funds a cohort of Global Change Fellows. They represent numerous disciplines across NC State University. Here is an example of the applied research being conducted by 2015 Fellow, Rachel Atkins.

Please describe what you do

I work with climate change communication. I’m looking to understand how students interact with and understand climate graphs. I essentially compare the navigation of students (novices) to experts in the field, so I can determine where there are differences and where we can make them better. Essentially the question I am looking to address with my work is “What can we do to have novices, in this case students, understand graphs better?”

How did you come to study climate change/ corridors/ fish/ population ecology/ toxicology/ anthropology?

I knew I wanted to study a current issue and something that affects a lot of people, and climate change is definitely one of those topics. I have a background in geology and education, and I can use those in the process. My advisor, Karen McNeal, said she had an interest in this project, and I was interested in the communication aspect of climate change. It’s a huge issue because there’s the science of climate change, and what gets communicated. There is often a disconnection between the two. If I can do research to help improve communication, that’s my goal. I think that the interaction between the science, the scientists, and the public is such a key interaction. As scientists, we’re geared towards communicating with other scientists. A lot of the time, not always, but a lot of the time when communicating with the public or with students, we use a lot of jargon or we make assumptions about what they (non-scientists) actually know.

Were you interested in nature as a child?

I was always outside. I was always either hiking, camping, on the four wheelers, or playing sports outside. I just loved being outdoors. I grew up playing sports so even in the summers and winters, I was outside as much as possible. That led me to study geology. Being a geology undergrad, a lot of the field work that we do is outside. Class is hands on and we’re doing things in the field. It definitely catered to my love of being outside.

May 2013 Seminar Flyer

What is the most unusual “tool” you use in your research?

I use a method called “eye tracking.” It’s basically a device we use to determine where and when an individual is looking and for how long. It uses low wave infrared radiation to look at your pupils, which can locate where you’re looking. We can measure different metrics, depending on the goal of your study. We can also analyze different areas of interest and can determine which areas are visually salient, and gear our research towards that. If you have a specific area in mind, we can run statistics on those locations. It’s kind of an all-encompassing strategy, where you can do a lot with eye-tracking. It’s definitely different, but I think equally engaging as being outside in the field collecting data. Instead of working with nature that is often unpredictable, you’re working with human subjects, which are also as equally unpredictable, so there definitely are some similarities. Yes, I do miss being outside and in the field, but I can still find ways to do that as well. I do feel like my research I’m doing right now will have a positive impact on a lot of people.

Have you had a personal experience that brought the consequences of global change home to you?

I’m from New York, the Buffalo area. With the exception of individual weather events, when it comes to the overall climate, we haven’t seen a lot of those ‘disaster’ effects because we’re not coastal or one of those high variability locations. Although the consequences have been around me. I knew it was happening, but I didn’t directly observe it, so I did a lot of reading on my own. A lot of non-scientific books, but books about how climate change affects different areas. I had to educate myself on the science along with the political side of things. Coming from a geology background, I didn’t have the same climate change background. It was interesting and I like learning all the time. It was just something I could do on the side.

What is the threat of global change that you are most concerned about?

Applicable to my field, I am most concerned about the ignorance of humans about climate processes, how it affects daily lives and how it will affect future generations. Research shows that there’s a lack of understanding among the general public of basic concepts about how our Earth’s climate works. Without the knowledge base and the understanding of the basic concepts, it’s hard to understand where we’re going when you don’t understand where we’ve been and how everything functions as a system. Some of the people I’ve talked to who are non-scientists have almost a linear understanding of climate and how climate change works. Really it’s more of a system with many input factors, and that’s what makes it so complicated. That’s why there are tons of scientists doing research to understand the system. It’s not a simple, “this is going to happen.” You have to understand the system in order to understand and make predictions about Earth’s future.

What do you think most people misunderstand about global change?

I think it’s a lot of the processes. The Earth is a system with multiple inputs. Climate is not a separate entity that’s unaffected by other things. It’s affected by lots of different things intricately in different ways. One of the topics that probably gets the most attention with climate is the role of anthropogenic modifications, that is, how humans are contributing to the climate system I also think it’s important to understand how the whole system works.

What is your favorite paper that you have written? Why?

Well, I’m just finishing up my master’s thesis, so I’m writing up my first publication right now! I’m also working on a study determining the effectiveness of a REU (research experience for undergraduates). We did pre and post testing for the students using eye tracking techniques as an extra measure of how much they learned, what they are learning, and how effective this training was for them. I especially like it because we’re collaborating with Dr. Anne Gold and others at CU Boulder. A lot of people are really interested in this eye tracking method and how it can be applied to various problems and research questions. It has been applied to usability studies for a long time, but in terms of being applied to research, it is a much more recent technique, especially in the geosciences. A lot of the eye-tracking research has been on reading, comprehension, and psychology. In terms of geosciences, there’s not a lot of eye tracking that’s been done and published on. We’re hoping to bring it into the graph-reading realm, focusing on data interpretation and understanding. I think that there’s a lot of unexplored territory, so I’m really excited about that.

Who had the greatest impact on your professional life?

I would have to say my undergraduate geology professors were fantastic. They are super passionate about what they do and really effective in terms of content delivery and relaying their passion to the students. They made all of the students in the department want to learn more. It encouraged me academically. Now that I’m in grad school, I always keep that in mind. Currently and in the future, I would like to do the same for my students and emulate their passion.

If you were to start your career again today, as a young undergraduate student, what would you study?

I would do exactly the same thing. I love what I do. Honestly, I didn’t know that geoscience education and the communication aspect of science were topics that were studied until I put in some research into grad schools. I stumbled on this program and it combines my love of education, geology, and science in a research context. It puts all my interests together in one research program. I wouldn’t change a thing. I am very happy where I am.

Do you have a species whose fate you are particularly attached to or concerned about?

Is it a cop out if I say human beings? I guess I’m a little biased because I am a human. Having people in my studies really made me a little biased there. I want to see us survive and thrive. If we’re here, we can help other species, but if we’re not here, it might fall apart.

What would you do if you were given $500,000 to spend on something significant to the world?

It’s a small amount of money, but I would do my best to put it in the education systems. Maybe into informal education because I think a lot of learning happens informally. You go to school and you sit in a classroom where you learn, then you leave school, but there are so many hours that you’re not sitting in school. I think that’s when a lot of learning happens. I think it would be really cool to create informal programs that are interesting and people want to go to. They could make people want to learn about science or learn about science without even realizing it. Museums are a perfect example of that. The North Carolina Museum of Sciences is great for that because it’s free. It allows so many people to go in as many times as they want for whatever length of time because it’s free. You can go in for five minutes and leave if you wanted. Because of that, they attract so many more people and its fantastic way of informally educating about a lot of different things. They have so many great exhibits. You can go in there and learn about so many different topics. You could spend days in there. It’s a great education tactic. You get people to go there and people want to go there because it’s convenient and there are other things to do.

In what ways do you work with SECSC?

I have a fellowship with them right now, and for the past year. They sent us to this structured decision making workshop as a fellowship group, there were a bunch of us. We learned about this process of structured decision making. It’s a science itself, this process of making decisions. It was really interesting seeing the different aspects. We were also there with people who weren’t students, stakeholders and other types of decision makers. It was awesome to see the different perspectives people have. Taking a step back and how that affects me, researching climate change, you have to take into consideration these other stances. The places people come from affect them when they’re making decisions about climate change or whether or not they’re deciding to believe in it. There are other factors that go into their decisions. We also are all in these classes each semester. The one last semester was a brief overview of climate change in general, talking about the dynamics of it. It really helps to network with the other fellows who aren’t necessarily in my field just to see what they’re doing and pursue potential collaborations.

Do you have any dream collaborations or dream projects? Money is no object, everyone is excited to help.

I’d like to do a research study with the public. It’s really hard to study the public for many reasons, and funds are definitely a part of that. You have to get people to your study location and the logistics of organizing the public are harder to do than students in a classroom. I’d like to study the public and their perceptions of climate change. I want to understand what they don’t understand about climate change so we can truly communicate the science that people are working super hard to understand. How can we better communicate this to this audience? When I mention that I do climate communication research, people often say, “Oh. Do you believe in climate change?” Well that in and of itself is like “okay, we have to take a step back.” It’s almost as if people should instead be asking, “do you agree with the science or do you disagree with science?” That in and of itself is a social issue. Essentially, a lot of people do not understand the science. I would like to do a study on if they understand the science, I think it would make a huge impact on their “belief” of climate change. Maybe it would change their opinion from it being a belief to agreeing or disagreeing with science.

Much of environmental science work, research, outreach, and stakeholder engagement involves the public. What is one way you hope to make your research publicly available and involved?

I’d love to do research with the public. I like to interact with the public as much as possible, so stuff at the museum. I talk to a lot of people informally about research, having conversations. I have plans to go into a K-12 classroom in the spring to talk to students about what research is being done. This makes them aware that research is being done and that they can do it too. I think a lot of it is because scientists are behind their office doors, a lot of people don’t know what’s going on or they know it’s there but don’t want to interact. Being seen and heard in the community is very important to me.