Science Outreach Team goes back to basics to complete mission

In 2020, the Sea Grant Science Outreach Team delivered seven publications and a whopping 15 webinars. But other than a final webinar in January, nothing new has appeared on, the website that hosts the team’s work. So what have they been up to? The short answer is what they’re always up to—they have been busy synthesizing science. The longer answer is that they’re part of a larger synthesis effort by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI), an organization whose $500 million investment over a span of 10 years produced much of the literature the team shares.

Team members are no strangers to synthesizing science. Originally formed as the Sea Grant Oil Spill Science Outreach Program in the years following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, this team of extension and communications professionals has worked together for seven years to share relevant findings from a large body of scientific literature with those who rely on a healthy Gulf of Mexico for work or play. They do this by reading the body of publications on a topic of interest, paring information down to the most important points, and then sharing these findings either via an outreach publication or by hosting a seminar on the subject—or both.

“Although we have created multiple outreach products answering stakeholder questions about oil spill impacts, this series of synthesis products will allow us to showcase the breadth and depth of scientific knowledge gained through GoMRI-supported research over the past 11 years,” explains Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium’s (MASGC) Missy Partyka, one of four team oil spill science specialists based across the Gulf states. Partyka is joined by Texas Sea Grant’s Dani Bailey, Louisiana Sea Grant’s Emily Maung-Douglass, and Florida Sea Grant’s Monica Wilson. Communicator Tara Skelton and manager Steve Sempier, both with Mississippi-Alabama, round out the team.

At an event honoring GoMRI’s contributions around the Gulf of Mexico last fall, Research Board Director Rita Colwell explained that her organization’s investment into scientific research “led to a huge uptick in publications . . .well over 6,800 published papers.” She added that while the bulk of the work centered on oil spill science topics, the funding also led to advancements in general knowledge about the Gulf and its inhabitants.

Because of the sheer volume of literature produced by GoMRI funding, the Research Board decided as part of its mission to invest in a synthesis effort to help cement the organization’s legacy. First the research board identified subsets within the larger study of oil spill science covering different oil spill science topics ranging from wildlife and habitat impacts to improvements in response tools and operations.

Leading GoMRI-funded researchers within their fields and other experts formed committees to comb the body of literature and discuss their work in each area. These groups met from 2018 to 2020, both in-person and virtually, to consider the state of the science before GoMRI formed, discuss what had been learned, and deliberate on what knowledge gaps still existed. They reflected on how the new information could best be applied in real-world scenarios and debated the age-old question, “Where do we go from here?”

Each committee produced documentation of their conclusions in various forms, becoming the foundation for the work the Science Outreach Team is now embarking on. Some committees published journal articles, while others created standalone reports. Because the subject matter could be so dense, some synthesis products ran into the hundreds of pages, creating a substantial task for the team to boil it all down to a series of eight-page extension publications.

It’s a challenge team members relish, says Emily Maung-Douglass. “While each and every scientific finding is in and of itself both valuable and fascinating, the core of our work this past year has been this partnership with GoMRI scientists to understand how the past decade of discoveries all fit together in the bigger picture—and how to best communicate that big picture perspective to our audiences in a way that is understandable and relatable.”

And just who makes up a typical Sea Grant audience? Readers of the team’s publications and attendees at seminars come from a wide array of sectors. Often the only thing they have in common is that all are important stakeholders around the Gulf. And whether academic researchers or natural resource managers, commercial fishers or tourism professionals, oil exploration engineers or oil spill responders, they often need information the program shares to better do their jobs.

To that end, the team is currently in various stages of drafting eight synthesis publications, with the varied topics representing the breadth of GoMRI research. As Rita Colwell alluded to in her speech, the findings encompass traditional oil spill science topics and more. Human, wildlife, and ecosystem impacts are covered, as are what scientists have learned about how oil degrades. But the subjects also delve into oil spill response topics, such as advances in modeling techniques and what scientists now know about dispersant use. Moreover, one publication will focus on microbiology and what we now understand about communities of microbes and genetics as a result of related GoMRI research.

“Not only is the wealth of knowledge over the past 11 years amazing but the collaborations and partnerships have also been phenomenal,” says Monica Wilson. “By creating these products, we have front row seats to seeing how folks from many different universities and locations are working together to share a decade’s worth of science.”

In addition to the core area synthesis products, the team will produce a publication outlining its own work since 2014. This document will not focus on research findings, but on science extension best practices the unique program has developed during its run.

“Though large oil spills are exceeding rare, spills continue to happen in marine environments in the U.S. and around the world,” says Partyka. “We are working on creating legacy outreach products of GoMRI’s work that both show the depth of knowledge gained over the past 11 years and the work that remains to be done in advance of another large spill. “


Featured image: Monica Wilson (l) and Tara Skelton of the Science Outreach Team answer questions about the program at the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill & Ecosystem Science Conference in February 2020. (MASGC/M. Partyka)

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