We all communicate every day – or do we? The words we choose may make perfect sense to us, but do our readers or listeners understand? Interestingly enough, communications in the natural world can be less ambiguous. For example, did you know that lionfish communicate with coloring or other physical characteristics? This month, we meet a lionfish expert who tells us more about this fascinating animal in our scientist profile. Best wishes to all for a Happy Thanksgiving.

Ciaran Clayton
Director, NOAA Communications

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Meet our staff

James Morris

In this issue, meet James Morris, National Ocean Service ecologist who works in the Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research.

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E-mail jana.goldman@noaa.gov

Jana Goldman
NOAA Communications &
External Affairs

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Issue 22 - November 2012

"You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother."

~ Albert Einstein, German theoretical physicist (1879-1955)

Welcome to the NOAA Communicator!
Here are articles, tips, and other resources to help you communicate effectively.

Talk to me...


Ah, the holidays. When around dining room tables gather family and friends who eagerly await a good meal and the chance to catch up with those who are not their Twitter followers. But, wait, what's this? Raised voices? Baffled looks? A drumstick dripping chestnut gravy tossed across Aunt Lucia's heirloom lace tablecloth?

It's a classic case of people talking at each other instead of to each other. No one is really listening as no one really understands what the others are saying. And it doesn't just happen at the holidays it happens every day.

Sure, they are speaking the same language be it English, Spanish, French or Urdu. But they are not communicating.

The words we choose speak for us. They can say "I want to show you how smart I am, so I'm going to dazzle you with a string of very long words that you don't understand and I can feel superior to you." Or, they can simply say, "I know how to talk to you."

I never understood algebra until I read Stieg Larsson"s "The Girl Who Played with Fire." When I was in junior high school, I struggled because I didn't understand what x and y and z were supposed to mean. "Just pretend that they are numbers," said my frustrated algebra teacher, who, I understand, decided to become a Trappist monk the next year. I'm sure it was just a coincidence. "Well, please put numbers there," I would implore, to no avail. We were not speaking the same language.

Finding a common ground for communication is not easy. My job at NOAA includes translating scientific terms into everyday language. This often requires a friendly back-and-forth with scientists as we find words that accurately convey the work but are also understandable to a non-scientific audience.

Susan Joy Hassol, who has made science communication a career and a crusade, did an enormous service when she created a table of different terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public. With her kind permission, I offer some of them below. You might try these out at your next family gathering, but watch out for flying drumsticks!

Scientific term Public meaning Better choice
enhance improve intensify, increase
aerosol spray can tiny atmospheric particle
positive feedback good response, praise vicious cycle, self-reinforcing cycle
theory hunch, speculation scientific understanding
uncertainty ignorance range
error mistake, wrong, incorrect difference from exact true number
bias distortion, political motive offset from an observation
manipulation illicit tampering scientific data processing
scheme devious plot systematic plan
anomaly abnormal occurrence change from long-term average

— Jana Goldman, NOAA Office of Communications & External Affairs

Table above used with kind permission of Susan Jay Hassol, director of Climate Communication http://climatecommunication.org

Meet our staff

James Morris
National Ocean Service Ecologist

James Morris

James Morris, National Ocean Service Ecologist,
Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research.

James Morris, a National Ocean Service ecologist, works in the Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research in Beaufort, N.C., conducting research on invasive species, aquaculture, and other issues that affect coastal ecosystems. The center is one of the NOS National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. In 2011, Morris received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for his research on invasive species and marine aquaculture. His studies of invasive lionfish in the western Atlantic and Caribbean helped marine ecologists better understand how lionfish physiology drives the invasion. His studies also helped define the ecological impact of lionfish on reef fish communities and better understand the global threat lionfish pose to biodiversity. In addition, he contributed significantly to developing and improving low-impact aquaculture practices for coastal areas. He talks about his work to a variety of audience, from his peers to non-scientists to students.

1. Why is your research important?

My work primarily focuses on addressing research questions on invasive species and aquaculture. The study of invasive species is important because invasives can cause devastating impacts to the environment. These impacts can cost the public billions of dollars, affect quality of life, and cause irreversible changes to the world around us. The study of aquaculture is important because our future depends on a safe and sustainable supply of seafood. Globally, we have reached the limit of the harvest of wild-caught fish. As the human population continues to grow, our reliance on farmed fish and shellfish is becoming increasingly important. My work on aquaculture focuses on developing tools to aid coastal managers in siting and management of aquaculture in coastal and offshore waters. These tools are critical for growing an environmentally sustainable marine aquaculture industry in the United States..

2. How do you help wider audiences to understand and appreciate NOAA science?

It is increasingly important that the general public understand the impact of NOAA science on conservation and stewardship of our natural resources. We have many new tools for communication. The use of social media tools has revolutionized the way we communicate. A single headline that historically required days and weeks to ripple throughout the nation can today be read by millions of people around the world in seconds. When developing science outreach, I try to develop succinct messages that can be understood in small sound bites. I also speak frequently to the general public about NOAA science and the impact is has on our everyday lives.

3. What do you enjoy the most about your work?

There are many aspects of my work that I enjoy. Foremost is the thrill of discovery and solving problems that bring us one step closer to a brighter future of environmental stewardship. I enjoy helping others grow in their careers and get excited when they discover something new. I enjoy breaking through bureaucracy and getting things done and the day-to-day challenges that come with being on the edge of science.

4. Where do you do most of your work?

I am fortunate to work with my colleagues at the NOAA Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research in Beaufort, N.C. Beaufort is one of America’s coolest small towns and a popular destination for sun, surf, fishing, and coastal living. While most of my work is accomplished in my office and the laboratory, I still love getting out in the field and working in the water.

5. What in your lab could you not live without?

Great people! I am very fortunate to work with the some of the best and sharpest minds in marine science. Our laboratory has a rich history in marine science dating back to 1899. I have learned so much from many past mentors, and I learn new things every day from my staff and colleagues. I truly believe that people are NOAA's greatest asset!

6. If you could invent any tool to make your work more efficient and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?

I would invent a magic wand that makes bureaucracy and pessimism disappear. I like positive learning and "yes-we-can" attitudes. If this wasn't possible, I would settle for a fish trap that catches only invasive lionfish.

7. When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in science?

I was raised on the eastern banks of North Carolina by a family of commercial fishermen who have worked the water for over six generations. I grew up in a world where at any given time I could look out on the water and see my father, uncles, and grandfather working. As a child, I was fascinated by marine life and as I grew older I gained a passion for its intrinsic value in our lives. I don't remember making the decision to pursue a career in marine science, it has always been what interested me most.

8. How did you become interested in communicating about science?

I am motivated to communicate about science when I hear the many public misconceptions about NOAA science. Too often, the media focuses on the negative and avoids the positive. We have many great stories yet untold about how NOAA is making a difference in fisheries management, weather and climate science, and stewardship of coastal and marine resources.

9. What's at the top of your recommended reading list for a young person exploring career options?

Science blogs. They are a great way for young folks thinking about a career in marine science to follow day to day experiences of marine scientists. To view our science blog visit http://noaaoceanscience.wordpress.com.

10. What part of your job with NOAA did you least expect to be doing?

So much desk work! Who would have thought that marine science would involve so much desk time? Unfortunately, that is what is required to write proposals, journal articles, reports, and to develop the outreach materials to communicate effectively about our science.

11. Do you have an outside hobby?

I have many outside hobbies, but the one that takes up most of my extra time is oyster gardening. I love learning how to grow oysters, but most of all I love watching others eat the oysters I raised!

12. What would you be doing if you were not working for NOAA?

I would probably be working in the water somewhere. Where else is there?

James Morris holds a bachelor's and master's of science in biology from East Carolina University, and a doctorate in biology at North Carolina State University.