Limelight: Stories about being the voice of science

This week we present two stories about scientists who became the face of the scientific community.

Part 1: When conservation scientist Laura Kehoe writes about a surprising chimp behavior, the media takes it wildly out of context and the situation spirals out of control.

Laura Kehoe is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia & University of Victoria, where she's busy developing a cost-effective conservation plan for the over 100 species of concern in the Fraser River estuary, Vancouver. Laura’s research has the overall goal of finding pathways to balance human resource use with the conservation of biodiversity. To do this, she develops & applies approaches grounded in spatial statistics, spatial ecology, & conservation decision science. Laura is the founder of a campaign to regenerate degraded farmland via planting trees. To date, her initiative has planted over 100,000 trees (visit 400trees.org to find out more). This story is about her first job in conservation with the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation in Guinea.

Part 2: When The Colbert Report calls about her research, marine biologist Skylar Bayer finds an unexpected collaborator and friend in the fisherman helping her get scallops.

Skylar Bayer is a marine biologist, a storyteller, and a science communicator. She completed her Ph.D. in the secret sex lives of scallops, a subject that landed her on The Colbert Report in 2013. Since then she has dabbled in a diversity of science communication activities, all of which you can read about on her website. She's an alum of the D.C.-based Sea Grant Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship program. Currently, she is a National Academy of Sciences NRC post-doctoral Research Associate at the NOAA Milford Laboratory and is the Secretary of the Ecological Society of America's Communication & Engagement Section. Her heart, husband, house, two dogs and a grumpy cat all reside in Maine. She also enjoys Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, the gentle art. Follow her on Twitter @drsrbayer.

Episode Transcript

Part 1: Laura Kehoe

As a scientist, I study the ways to conserve the most species for the least amount of money.  But, unfortunately, that’s not what I’m most well known for.

It’s 2011 and I've got my first ever conservation job.  I’m thrilled because I got to study wild chimpanzees in the Republic of Guinea.  This isn’t Papua New Guinea, it’s not Equatorial Guinea, it’s the Guinea you probably never heard of.  It’s in West Africa and it’s beside the Ivory Coast. It’s home to one of the last strongholds of West African chimpanzees in the world.  

And so - super excited - I get out there but it’s not smooth sailing.  I can model chimp population dynamics pretty well from my desk but, it turns out, I can’t even actually walk properly through the savannah.  It’s covered in thorns. I’m covered in thorns. Everyday I’m ripping up my clothes on these thorns. I’m covered in duct tape, actually, because I don't have the time to sew the clothes back together.  The group that I’m supposed to be leading I’m more often than not, because of this, found at the back.

But on this particular day, I’m happy because I got to catch up to the group because they've stopped at this clearing in the bush.  Our guide, Mamadou Alioh Bah, he's the local chief of the village and farmer, he notices some markings in the bark of a tree. They're basically scratches.  There's pieces of bark missing from the tree.

Some others in the group think that it’s just wild pigs, others think it’s teenage boys messing around, but Alioh has a hunch.  And this guy, he can spot chimp hair on the forest floor. He can spot chimps kilometers away with his bare eyes that I can’t find with my fancy-schmancy binoculars.  He even found chimp pee once on the forest floor under a chimp nest in a leaf. This guy is incredible. So when he has a hunch you listen to that hunch.

So myself and Lucy, who’s the other foreign researcher in the team, we look at each other and we think, yeah, let’s put a camera here.  

Laura Kehoe shares her story on the Story Collider stage at Fox Cabaret in Vancouver, BC in October 2018. Photo by Rob Shaer.

Laura Kehoe shares her story on the Story Collider stage at Fox Cabaret in Vancouver, BC in October 2018. Photo by Rob Shaer.

So we have these camera traps and, basically, they record any movement in front of them.  They're handy for spying on wildlife for that reason because they don’t intrude on the wildlife.  So we put this camera trap on one of the trees and we leave it for a couple of weeks, and I always get excited when we leave a camera trap because who knows what we might find.  Nobody has ever studied this area before so maybe we find a new species. Maybe we find a completely new behavior to science.

But these are total daydreams because, actually, what we generally find is just tree branches swaying in the wind setting off the motion sensor, or cows walking past who just love licking the camera lens.  So we have all these close-up videos of tongues just back and forth, leaving the whole thing completely covered in saliva and not useful for the rest of the time we stayed there.

Anyway, we get back to this spot, to our mystery tree and we pick up the camera card and we get back to camp.  Excitedly, we put it in the laptop to see what we found. What we find is actually kind of cool.

So this big, male chimp, he ambles up into view.  You know he's male because he has these huge balls knocking back and forth.  Chimps have massive balls. You should just look it up when you get home. It’s impressive.  Three times the weight of human balls.

Anyway, so he pauses in front of our tree and he picks up this huge rock and he goes [makes monkey noise] and he flings the rock at the tree.  Bam! It smacks the tree and falls down. Question answered. That’s what’s going on.

We’re shocked for like what the hell is this.  We got shivers down our spine. Our guide is standing there smiling, proud of himself that he was correct, but we don’t know what the hell this is about.  

You might be thinking, “All right.  I've seen monkeys throw stones in the zoo.  What’s the big deal?”

Well, actually, when we told the rest of the researchers and everybody began searching for this, we found that it was happening on these distinct sites only in West Africa, only in four countries in West Africa.  The chimps were revisiting these same trees and doing this again and again, and only at specific trees in the landscape so not just any old tree. It was very strange.

So what are they up to?  Well, the first thing that we thought was maybe it’s to do with a male display.  Male displays are all about looking big, looking cool and so maybe picking up a heavy rock, making a loud noise.  That’s cool. That’s going to impress the lady chimps.

Or maybe it’s long-distance communication.  So chimps actually use, they drum on the roots of large buttress trees and that drumming travels long distances.  It’s kind of like Morse Code so others in the group might change their direction or they might meet up in a certain time and place.  So it’s pretty cool in itself. And in this area, there weren’t many large roots for them to do that on so maybe they were doing this as another form of long-distance communication.  

But the thing is we got footage of juvenile chimps just quietly placing stones inside the hollow tree or at the base of it so it doesn’t really fit with those theories, right?

Other researchers they think maybe it’s to do with landmarking.  Maybe we get these piles of stones at the base of trees to indicate a chimp’s territory.  This is an important stage in human history and it was how we used to landmark things. Maybe chimps were doing the same thing.  

But we also have footage of a female chimp with a juvenile placing the stones in these piles.  And it’s weird for a female with her kid to be out in the boundary of the territory because that’s actually a dangerous spot to be.  That’s where fights break out between different chimp communities.

So it’s a mystery.  We don’t know what it is but we describe the behavior.  Over 80 other researchers worked really hard on this and together we published the scientific paper on it.  

When the paper comes out, I think, “I really care about science communication so I should write something about this,” because I want to bring more attention to our guide, Alioh.  Without him we definitely would not have found this.

And I also want to bring attention to chimp conservation because the chimps are in trouble in the wild.  So it’s a good platform to bring some attention towards conservation.

So I write the blog and I talk about Alioh and I talk the behavior and what it could mean.  And I also talk about something that I learned from the other researchers on this, the anthropologists, that actually the piles of stones they also resemble human sacred sites, where humans would create these kinds of stone piles and they would form these special sites in human culture around in the world.  

So I put a line in my article and I say, “Maybe what we found here is the first evidence of chimps creating a kind of sacred site.”  That was a mistake. It was a big mistake.

The article, it gets republished like almost immediately in many different news sites.  What you don’t know when you see an article online is, actually, the editors can change the title.  So my article gets reposted but the title changes to, “Is This Evidence of Spirituality in the Wild?”  

And it culminates when a friend of mine sends me an article in the Daily Mail, that’s a widely-read tabloid in the U.K., front page, Daily Mail, across the top, “Is This Proof Chimps Believe in God?”  

I’m sitting in my office and I open the article.  It’s funny now but it was not funny at the time. I’m sitting there looking at it and I could feel like my heartbeat just pumping in my eardrums as I read this because I see my name.  They've actually pretended to interview me for this.

And they say, “For many scientists, they have a professional dread of foisting human ideas on non-humans.  And the idea of religious animals is about as farfetched as you can get. Yet Kehoe,” that’s me, “stuck to her guns.”

Laura Kehoe shares her story on the Story Collider stage at Fox Cabaret in Vancouver, BC in October 2018. Photo by Rob Shaer.

Laura Kehoe shares her story on the Story Collider stage at Fox Cabaret in Vancouver, BC in October 2018. Photo by Rob Shaer.

Then they put that one line completely out of context as if I'd said it, as if I believe that chimps are religious.

I’m Irish, right?  I know. But I’m not even religious and I definitely don’t think chimps are religious, but this is how it appears.  

I start to get really worried.  I’m coming towards the end of my PhD and I kind of like to have a job after my PhD.  I’m imagining future employers Googling my name and the whole first page of Google search results is covered in this madness.  

So I think, “Okay.  I need to clear my name.  I need to clarify the science and I need to bring the attention back to chimp conservation.”  

So I do more interviews with journalists.  I talk on podcasts. I try to get the word out.  I talk about the behavior and I talk about what it could be, what it might not be, how it’s most likely communication but we simply don’t know.  And we constantly underestimate other species. It is a mystery, right?

Of course, they then cut that down to, “We simply don’t know.  We constantly underestimate other species.” And then use that bloody line again from the original blog.  

And so it spreads further.  I get emails from French, Spanish friends that have seen it in their news, you know, the religious chimpanzee.  I don't know what it is, but it was just spreading.

I was completely ashamed.  Science is supposed to be about the truth and I was doing the exact opposite here.  I should have written something, tried to clear my name, but I knew that some kind of piece all about, “Oh, no, I’m misunderstood,” it would be read like a fraction of the percentage of the original news.  And the truth really dawned on me that sensationalist, click-bait news like this, it spreads faster and it’s more memorable than any other type of information.

So I basically just cower away.  I don't know what to do so I just shrink back.  My big hope here is that some religious millionaire comes across this story, somehow believes it, and decides to donate their life’s worth to chimp conservation.  But not very likely, right?

But I keep trying.  I keep trying to communicate my research and to do my best because these chimps are in trouble.  They have lost 80% of their population in the past 25 years. They will go extinct in the wild if things carry on in this way.  In our lifetime they will disappear, along with all of the amazing things that they do. And all of the other species out there too that are also in trouble.  

So I do keep trying because it’s too important to me not to.  I’m slightly better at it now because I've learnt the hard way.  But if you do hear about spiritual salmon or killer whale cults around Vancouver, you'll know who to blame.  Thank you.

Part 2: Skylar Bayer

I’m driving back to my house and, across my phone, there's an alert that flashes and I see the words Colbert Report.  I am excited and anxious at the same time. When I get home, I open my laptop and I open my email. What’s weird is the alert is from my blog email, and no one reads my blog.  Then I keep reading and it’s from a producer, or person claiming to be a producer, from the Colbert Report and I immediately Google her name and she is in fact a real person.

She had been reading this story in the Associated Press and other news articles about this man who had lost some buckets of mollusk guts and my blog post was the only thing that existed on the internet that clarified that they were specifically samples for me, a graduate student, that a fisherman named Andy Mays had lost.  The samples were actually specifically scallop gonads.

Only a few days prior, I think, I had been sitting in a parking lot at the Somesville One Stop, which is a gas station in Mount Desert Island on the coast of Maine waiting to meet up with the one and only Andy Mays and this is the first time I had embarked on a cooperative research project.  Cooperative or collaborative research is when you, as a scientist, work with a non-scientist on a research project.

Andy is this tall, lanky, strong fisherman with these glasses and he's absolutely one of the toughest guys I've met.  He goes scuba diving for scallops in the middle of winter when it’s 30 to 50 degrees, because that’s when you harvest them.  And he always seems like he's scheming. He's a little bit like Wile E. Coyote, but somehow comes through like the Road Runner every time.  I’m not really sure how I feel about if I’m ever going to get my samples that I trusted him with back, because he's such a schemer.

Skylar Bayer shares her story with Story Collider at the Beir Baron Tavern in Washington DC in October 2018. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

Skylar Bayer shares her story with Story Collider at the Beir Baron Tavern in Washington DC in October 2018. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

So I see him in the parking lot and I go, “Andy, I’m here.  Where are the samples?”

He's like, “Well, I put them in your car.”  

I was like, “No.  No, you did not put them in my car.”  

And he points to this now-empty parking space across the lot and he's like, “Well, I put them in that car,” and the car is gone and so is my confidence in this collaborative research project.  

So I am back at my computer absolutely excited and horrified and wondering what I should do about this producer.  The Colbert Report? It’s my parents’ favorite show, it’s my favorite show, it’s amazing. I’m a second-year grad student.  What the hell do I have to lose? But what is the university going to think? What is Andy going to think?

The university, none of the higher ups, including my adviser, Director of the Marine Center at the time, the PR Department, no one really wants me to do it.  They won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. But that’s okay because, again, I’m a second-year grad student. I don't have anything to lose. But I really care about what Andy thinks.  Although Andy and I have a passion for the scallop fishery, we have a lot of differences.

He's a very devout Catholic Christian and I’m a Unitarian Universalist which is like being part of a spiritual book club that meets once every few years.  He has conservative political leanings. I’m pretty sure he supported governor LePage in Maine twice which, for those that don’t know, is sort of the original Donald Trump but governs Maine.  I’m more part of the group of people in Maine who supported ranked-choice voting in reaction to governor LePage getting elected twice.

Then finally, he believed that climate change was a hoax and I know that climate change is real.  So asking him, the person he is and the group of people that he's from, to go on a liberal media TV show that makes fun of people like him and ask him to be the butt of that joke is a really big ask.  That’s a big ask.

And I ask him and he's like, “Oh, it’s going to be great, Skylar.  I think this is a great idea. Like you think it’s a good idea, I think it’s a great idea.  I was class clown in college and in high school. This is it. This is my jam.”

So the producers come.  They film. It’s glorious.  Everyone who doubted me at the university now love me.  I’m getting emails from deans I've never heard of. And there we are on this TV show, Andy and me representing Mainer scientists, fishermen and invertebrates everywhere.  

But after this grand adventure where, really, Andy was the only person who truly believed in me and really upped my confidence in science communication, we kind of went our different ways: he in his sort of conservative fisherman world, as I perceived, and my liberal scientist, over-educated world.  I kind of felt guilty. I felt like I had somehow used him for professional gain, for fame, although not fortune. And my guilt really deepened a few years after that when I had found out that he had been diagnosed with cancer and I hadn’t really seen him. I was kind of ashamed that I hadn’t known.

So I call him and his wife up, Michelle, and I say, “Is there anything I can do?”  

He said, “Oh, I have some chemotherapy treatment.  Why don’t you come visit me and talk to me until it kicks in,” because usually he’ll fall asleep.  

I go and see him and he's still the strong, devout Catholic Andy with his faith in God that I had met.  His spirit is so strong, he looks strong, he's great. And I really have faith in that moment seeing him that he's going to do just fine.  For a 48-year old man, he was in amazing shape and he was continuing to scuba dive even while on chemotherapy treatment. He's tough.

Then the next year I got married.  My husband and I decided to have a party where we invited everyone we knew, mostly so people wouldn’t yell at us about being exclusive.  We did a Facebook invite and I invited Andy. Andy lives three hours away. I don't expect him to necessarily show up and he gets so excited.  

He messages me and he's like, “I’m so excited, Skylar.  I love weddings and I can’t wait to come to your party. I'll bring lobsters, I’ll go lobstering and I'll bring some and it will be great.”  

I went, “Wow!  That sounds really great, Andy, but no pressure.  It’s a long trip and that’s a lot to ask.”

So I’m not really expecting to see him but that day, a couple of hours in the party, he shows up in sort of a clouded dust with his truck coming up the driveway and he's got twenty lobsters, at least, that he went fishing for that morning.  And he drove three hours from Mount Desert Island all the way to our house with these lobsters.

Then he boils them outside, he boils all of them and cooks them for all of us.  He finally comes inside and I hadn’t really seen him with his coat and hat off yet.  He's smiling but as he takes his coat off, I notice that he's probably lost about 50 pounds and he doesn’t have any hair.  He doesn’t hair on his head, he doesn’t have eyebrows, he doesn’t have eyelashes. And the chemotherapy started taking a toll on him.  

He stays late.  Everyone has left and so it’s just me and him talking.  

I’m like, “How are you?  How are you doing?”

He's like, “You know, chemo is kicking my ass but I’m hanging in there and I’m still going scuba diving everyday.”

Skylar Bayer shares her story with Story Collider at the Beir Baron Tavern in Washington DC in October 2018. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

Skylar Bayer shares her story with Story Collider at the Beir Baron Tavern in Washington DC in October 2018. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

I’m like, “Scuba diving?  That seems dangerous on chemotherapy, like on a good day.”  

And he's like, “Well, while I’m underwater, it’s the only place I can forget that I have cancer.  It’s my life.”

Then he's like, “Well, how are you doing?”  So I start complaining about grad school and grant writing and not having a career with funding, and there's actually this collaborative research project that we’re going to write a grant proposal for again, and actually letters from fishermen would be really helpful.  

He's like, “Yeah, Skylar, it sounds like a great idea.  I'll write you a letter.”

I’m like, “Okay, Andy.  That sounds great.”

He drives back that night and I said, “Can’t you just stay over?”  

He's like, “Well, the chemo doesn’t let me sleep so this is actually good.”  

He messages me later that night and he's like, “Oh, such a perfect night.  The sky was clear, the stars were out, the moon was bright. Thank you for inviting me to your party.  It was the best time.”

The next year, my husband and I are coming back from a trip to Iceland.  As soon as the plane lands, I turn on my phone and I have all these text messages, some of them are from Michelle, Andy’s wife informing me that Andy is now in hospice.  The cancer had spread to his brain and spinal cord and they didn’t know until just now.

I message her back because she said, “You're one of the people that Andy would like to see while he's in hospice.”  

And I’m like, “Is it too late?  Did I miss it? I'd been gone for ten days.”  

She's like, “No, no, no, no.  You have time.”

So that weekend I drive up to Mount Desert Island and I come to see him in his hospice room and his house.  He's physically just a shadow of his former self, but he's still in there. I can see his eyes working. The cancer doesn’t really let him talk and it’s so hard because Andy was such a talker.  He just loved to talk.

So I tell him a little bit about Iceland.  He'd have a question but he couldn’t say it.  He just couldn’t get it out and he'd get frustrated.  

I spent a couple of hours there and some other friends came and went.  When I left I said, “I'll see you later, okay?” Because I don't know what to say to my friend who’s dying.  Do I say goodbye forever? That’s not very comforting.

A couple of days after Christmas, which was just a few weeks after that, Andy passed in his sleep.  He got to live through Christmas which was his favorite holiday. So my husband and I decided to go to the memorial service, a three-hour drive.  It’s at a Freemason’s lodge and I didn’t even know Andy was a Freemason, and I still don’t really know what a Freemason is.

We go in.  There's like a hundred people crammed in this tiny building and we say our condolences to Michelle, Andy’s wife.  We don’t know anyone so we’re standing around awkwardly.

And this man that looks kind of like Andy but actually a lot shorter, he looks like he's in his 70s, he comes running up to me and he goes, “Skylar,” he said my name a million times, “it’s so good to meet you.”  

He's like, “I’m Andy’s dad.”  And he says like, “that Colbert clip was just so funny and so amazing and we love it.”  

The thing is that clip, apparently, everyone in Andy’s life had watched that like a million times.  

He's like, “And I follow on Facebook, like how he went down to the wedding and he brought all those lobsters for you.”  And this guilt that I had been carrying around that I had somehow used him for professional gain or whatever started to melt away because I had realized that I had given Andy adventures.  That’s who Andy was. He lived for adventures. That’s what he had lived for. He lived for that and making new friends.

They said, “You're his friend unless you haven't met him yet.”  That’s what his dad said.

So that Colbert clip, that silly, stupid, little piece was quintessential Andy.  It was the way his family like to remember him and it was the way that I like to remember him, as my friend in that Somesville One Stop Gas Station who put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You know, Skylar, I fuck this shit up all the time.  But we’re going to figure it out, fix it and maybe we’ll make some new friends along the way.”

Thank you.