So this Monday started like most Mondays, with a backlog of emails from the weekend. Applicants unable to sign into their accounts. Grantees asking when we’ll be featuring their work on the cover of our magazine. NGS media folks asking my opinion about the newest and hottest archaeological discoveries. Crazy people calling to tell my voicemail that they’ve discovered an Egyptian pyramid under their basement. That sort of thing.
All-in-all, it’s not a bad life. I act as NatGeo’s resident “expert” in six disciplines (anthropology, archaeology, astronomy, geography, geology, and paleontology), and serve these six disciplines by helping scholars to get research grants and media attention from NatGeo. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and I wake up every morning feeling good about my role in it.
I spent most of the afternoon reading grantee reports from the field, looking for any that might have media interest, and reading over a few pre-applications to see if they’re “ready for primetime.” Applying to the National Geographic Society for a research grant is tough, because your short application will be peer-reviewed by your colleagues, but then decided upon by a panel of scientists in all different fields (from anthropology to zoology). To help, we have a “pre-application” (1-page abstract) step that is sent only to the Program Officer, and s/he decides whether the applicant is striking the correct “tone” and has checked the right boxes. Do they have a research question? Check. Is their methodology clear and lacking jargon? Check. Do they successfully explain why anyone should care? Check. Once we give the OK, the applicant receives an email back from us with a link to a full application, which s/he then submits when ready. It’s a good process – weeds out the weak applications so as not to demand too much from peer reviewers. It also forces the Program Officer to become proficient in a number of different fields – can you believe that I have to read pre-applications in astronomy and paleontology?!
This evening I’m headed over to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where I’ve been invited to a private event celebrating the opening of the new fossil whale exhibit, which NGS helped to fund. Dr. Nick Pyenson of the Smithsonian, who worked on this discovery along with his Chilean colleagues, is an inspiration to any scientist who is interested in public outreach. The guy tweets daily, runs a dynamic lab involving cutting-edge research (into the evolution of marine mammals) and engages in some serious education/outreach.
I was always amazed how little we learned in grad school about public outreach and media. I hope to one-day become knowledgeable enough about science media and communication that I can consult academics and universities about better outreach skills and programs. Surely that’ll make me millions…