The importance of storytelling in science

Contributed By Taylor Chalstrom and Hannah Jackson | AGC 470 studnets

In the world of scientific research, many stories go unsung and many figures go unnoticed. While scientific research is always published, the actual stories behind the research don’t always get told. These stories are important, though, because they tell the true meaning and significance of the research. Without knowing the significance of something, many often have a difficult time understanding the purpose and what something truly means.

The main point of storytelling in science is to clarify confusing information and tell it in an engaging and understandable way. Typically, research papers are long and don’t use lament wording, leaving the average reader confused. Storytelling offers the ability to not only shorten the amount of information being presented but also to make it easy-to-consume.

Dr. Shashika Hewavitharana’s career is an example of an interesting story about scientific research. Dr. Hewavitharana is a professor of plant pathology and a researcher at Cal Poly, splitting her time between the classroom and the Cal Poly Strawberry Center. Her research involves soil fumigation in strawberries to find out if the fumigation kills good and bad soil microorganisms or just bad ones.

Without further investigation, a majority of students at Cal Poly are likely unaware of Dr. Hewavitharana or her research in general. Even more so, they are definitely unaware of how she got to where she is or her motives for doing research. Dr. Hewavitharana feels strongly that her work and research need to be beneficial for others, and this is where storytelling becomes a helpful tool. Telling the story about Dr. Hewavitharana, her career path, and why she feels this way can shed light on something the average person would have never found out. In general, human beings are interested in hearing the stories and journeys of other human beings.

A more in-depth example of science storytelling at Cal Poly is the story of Dr. Wyatt Brown and Jim Green. Written for the school’s renowned AgCircle magazine last year, this story details scientific research for a new, patented cut-fruit preservative. Dr. Brown is a professor of post-production physiology and researcher while his partner, Green, is a laboratory technician. Together, they collaborated on this research for almost a decade, working tirelessly behind the scenes to revolutionize the industry.

Of course, the average student or faculty member would not be aware of this research being conducted. The story details the origin of the project: current cut-fruit preservatives didn’t last as long, and there needed to be something better. Dr. Brown took on the challenge and, with the help of Green, tested over 400 different chemical combinations in the Crop Science laboratory until the best one was found. Now, the preservative has been patented, approved as GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) by the Food and Drug Administration, and is being marketed to various companies within the agriculture industry.

Streaming Science is an educational website that makes it easy for these types of stories to be told. Made specifically for communicating about science in agriculture, Streaming Science allows college students to “introduce public audiences, especially middle and high school students and teachers, to real-world scientists and agricultural and environmental research through multiple interactive communication platforms.” These platforms range greatly, including videos, podcasts, live electronic field trips, Adobe Spark pages, and even photo essays.

Without websites like Streaming Science and other storytelling mediums, stories like Dr. Hewavitharana’s and Dr. Brown’s would likely not come to fruition. They would exist, but most people would not be aware of them. It is important for their stories and others to be told to create a better understanding of the scientific research happening every day.

To see more of Taylor and Hannah's work, and more stories like Dr. Hewavitharana’s and Dr. Brown’s, visit Streaming Science.