VIDEO: A Tale of Two Networks: Women, Social Media, & Sustainability

On February 12, 2013, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) welcomed Dr. Gillian Bowser of Colorado State University to present the SESYNC Seminar "A Tale of Two Networks: Women, Social Media, & Sustainability." Watch the video below, and find it on our YouTube channel here.

VIDEO: Sensing Risk for Resilience: Heat Waves in Urban America

On May 14, 2013, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) welcomed Dr. Sabrina McCormick of George Washington University and Evidence Based Media to present the SESYNC Seminar "Sensing Risk for Resilience: Heat Waves in Urban America." Watch the video below, and find it on our YouTube channel here.

VIDEO: The 4th Paradigm: Connecting Learners to Complex Science

On March 12, 2013, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) welcomed Dr. Stephen Uzzo of the New York Hall of Science to present the SESYNC Seminar "The 4th Paradigm: Connecting Learners to Complex Science." Watch the video below, and find it on our YouTube channel here.

A Citizen Army for Monarch Butterfly Science & Conservation

June 3, 2013

Monarch butterfly

Research Fellow

One of the great things about working with monarch butterflies is that people care so much about them. In fact, people care so much about monarchs that they have become the focus of a vast network of citizen-scientists that collects data to understand their population dynamics, which is very useful for conservation science.

Why are monarchs so beloved? Unlike the target species of other conservation efforts, monarchs aren’t known for providing critical ecosystem services or direct monetary benefits for people. Rather, it is the story of their fantastical migratory journey that captures the attention of scholars and “backyard scientists” alike. Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) overwinter in dense colonies in very specific mountain locations in Mexico, then follow a multi-generational migratory pathway that brings them all the way to southern Canada. At the end of each season, the final generation undertakes a truly phenomenal migration—up to 4,500 kilometers (more than 4,000 miles)—back to those same mountains in central Mexico.

Because monarchs are one of the most common types of butterflies in North America (although their population numbers are likely declining), people see them regularly, depending on where in North America they live. This familiarity has opened the door for citizens to become actively engaged in their protection—that’s where I come in.

At SESYNC, I work on a project that links together various groups that have initiated citizen-science monitoring programs. I am also part of a synthesis group that is integrating data from multiple citizen-science programs to track the monarch’s large-scale dynamics. Citizen-scientist projects, which have been monitoring monarchs intensively for decades, have provided the opportunity for these types of in-depth studies by the scholarly community. Currently, citizen-scientists spend nearly 100,000 hours each year collecting data on this fascinating species.

Butterfly tagging

Monarchs are an exemplar of how citizen-science can transform the way we conduct—and use—environmental research. Citizen-science has recently become a major focus in both social and environmental research. This popularity is due in large part to an increasingly engaged citizenry that is eager to document its interactions with nature, and now has the tools to do so (like smartphone technology enabled with GPS, cameras, and web access). This effort complements the science community’s need for biological data at large spatial and temporal scales. The widespread data collection of citizen-science has also inspired widespread action: thousands of people now plant monarch “way-stations” in their gardens, which replaces some of the habitat lost through large-scale spraying in agricultural fields that has taken place since genetically-modified crops have become the norm.  Here at SESYNC, we’re working on how to maximize both the social and environmental benefits of this transformative enterprise.

You can check out more information about monarch monitoring and how it contributes to our understanding of the species’ biology and conservation by visiting and watching the recent Google Earth Tour on monarch migration. I was contacted by Atlantic Public Media, a group that is working on a new way of using Google Earth to demonstrate the wonders of “species on the move.” The result is a pretty cool video that can be seen below.

Top photograph: Tim Hamilton / Flickr, Creative Commons
Center photograph: Katja Schulz / Flickr, Creative Commons

Goin' Fishing for a Solutions-Driven Community

May 23, 2013

Learning Exchanges for Conservation group

Communications Coordinator

What does sustainability mean to you? To SESYNC, it can mean meeting human needs in an equitable way, while supporting the natural systems upon which present and future life depends. This concept of sustainability is especially relevant when applied to our appetite for seafood: in many instances, we are harvesting fish stocks faster than they can reproduce and catching unwanted or unsellable species, called “bycatch,” that are discarded.

Overfishing is a major socio-environmental problem within the marine realm—it’s jeopardizing both ocean ecosystems and the food security of the billion-plus people that depend on seafood as their primary source of protein. Over the past several decades, we have come to understand that the oceans’ bounties are in fact highly sensitive and terminable. People from every corner of the globe have responded by making positive changes from ocean to table, implementing sustainable fishing practices and making informed, sustainable consumer choices at restaurants and stores.

One of the most effective tools for improving the vitality of fisheries has been to foster communication between fishers and other fisheries stakeholders. That’s where SESYNC researchers Lekelia (Kiki) Jenkins and S. Hoyt Peckham come in.

Earlier this month, Drs. Jenkins and Peckham hosted a workshop at our Annapolis facility to identify lessons learned for how to best organize and conduct fisher learning exchanges—meetings that provide fishers with the opportunity to share challenges and solutions—and to develop a research plan for determining which elements of these exchanges lead to conservation outcomes. Because fisher exchanges are produced all over the world, Drs. Jenkins and Peckham were also interested in conducting comparative analyses, as well as bridging these communities—from Mexico to Malaysia and Madagascar to the Caribbean—to establish an international network of learning exchange practitioners.

This workshop, comprised of participants and organizers from the fisheries, as well as the academic, NGO, and governmental sectors, had actionability on their minds: workshop products should have a real application beyond their research relevance. In their 2½ days together, participants outlined a guide for practitioners to create their own learning exchanges, as well as a research plan to empirically identify best practices through comparative research of ongoing exchanges. Both address the ultimate socio-environmental goal of improving both marine ecosystem health and the wellbeing of fisher communities.

At SESYNC, the other core staff and I had a lot of fun as flies on the wall, watching the interactions between group members and how they used the open space of our facilities. In one of the most meaningful moments for participants during the workshop, the group collected around the kitchen to share personal stories about their experiences with learning exchanges, and the successes they’ve seen borne of them. The profound, shared impact of these individuals’ work laid the framework for building communities amongst fishermen and organizers of fisher exchanges—the central objective defined by Drs. Jenkins and Peckham in their workshop proposal.

We’ll be sharing final results and products from this workshop as they become available, so watch our website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed for updates

Learning exchange stories
Participants gather in the SESYNC kitchen to share personal stories about learning exchange successes.

Picking crabs
Participants enjoy a night of picking blue crabs, the Maryland state crustacean!

Endangered Species Day 2013

May 16, 2013

ES Day

Postdoctoral Fellow

In 2006, the U.S. Senate designated the third Friday of May as Endangered Species Day to raise awareness about imperiled species and the successes in species recovery due to protections by the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the ESA.

Endangered species recovery is a socio-environmental issue because species conservation involves not only the species of concern, but also the human populations that interact with the species. For example, people may depend upon the use of resources, such as timber in an endangered species’ habitat, and protection of that habitat may change or even eliminate that resource’s availability. Wildlife managers must balance these social and economic considerations with the species’ ecological requirements when creating recovery plans to conserve species.

Because each species has a unique combination of specific biological needs, threats, and social context, management actions and recovery goals can vary tremendously among species. However, that does not necessarily mean that recovery plans are inconsistent or not based on the best available science. As a postdoc at SESYNC, my research aims to understand to what extent the recovery targets for endangered species are based on species’ needs, which are relatively transparent, compared to social, political, or economic factors, which are often not explicitly stated in the recovery plans. One of the goals of this work is to encourage more transparency in the managers’ decision-making process. This research would also quantify relationships between recovery targets and various species attributes, which may be used to establish targets for species with too little biological data to set species-specific targets. There are many such species, including the majority of the 338 Hawaiian plant species that are listed under the ESA.

Celebrate this year’s Endangered Species Day by learning about the endangered and threatened plant and animal species in your area, or listening to the success stories about species that have improved their status on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website. To find out more about Endangered Species Day, including events in your area and podcasts by the Endangered Species Coalition, visit If you are in the Washington, D.C., area, consider attending the Endangered Species Day events at the U.S. Botanic Garden on May 17.

Click here to learn more about Judy.

Google Earth Tours: Monarch Butterflies Migration

As a part their ongoing collaboration with Encyclopedia of Life and a Google Outreach Developer Grant, Atlantic Public Media has produced four Google Earth presentations for their series One Species At A Time: Stories of Bio-Diversity on the Move.

SESYNC researcher Leslie Ries contributed to the Google Earth Tour on monarch butterfly migration. Every year, monarch butterflies begin a journey north from their wintering grounds in Mexican forests. Watch the video below:

SESYNC at White House Easter Egg Roll

April 5, 2013

SESYNC at Easter Egg Roll

Assistant Director, Education and Outreach

Cynthia Wei, SESYNC’s Assistant Director of Education and Outreach, was invited to participate in the 135th annual White House Easter Egg Roll earlier this week.

The Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) participated for the first time in the annual White House Easter Egg Roll on Monday, April 1, 2013. ASTC joined Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to provide hands-on science activities at the festivities. The challenge for all these organizations was how  to get kids interested in science amidst egg rolls, egg hunts, hula hooping, concerts, story-telling, and celebrity sightings.

The answer: start with fun. At the ASTC area, kids were enticed by hearing strange kazoo-like noises and the prospect of making a fun craft. Once the kids had come over to the tables, I introduced the science with questions: Did you know that a rubber band could be a musical instrument? Do you know how sound is created? After we made the “sound sandwiches,” I had the kids experiment by applying pressure at different points on the sound sandwich to discover how the sound changes.

What is the impact of making approximately 2,500 “sound sandwiches” on public understanding of science? That is difficult to quantify. But I can say that the impact extends beyond the kids: just as many parents and older siblings that accompanied the kids to the ASTC tables were engaged by the activity and learned a little bit of science. “Sound sandwiches” may be a long way from socio-environmental synthesis, but it illustrates how science can be incorporated into the public sphere and how interest in science and inquiry can be encouraged early and often. This is critical to all science.

SESYNC at Easter Egg Roll


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