ABOVE: Awardee and paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF MAINE

Earlier this month, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine announced the recipients of the inaugural Eric and Wendy Schmidt Awards for Excellence in Science Communication. The 24 awards, totaling $600,000, were funded by Schmidt Futures and recognize “creative, original work that addresses issues and advances in science, engineering, and/or medicine for the general public.”

“It takes great skill to effectively communicate the wonder and complexity of science, engineering, and medicine, and we hope these new awards will not only recognize such talent, but also help nurture the next generation of leaders in science journalism and communication,” National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt said in a press release announcing the awards back in February.

Half of the awards are given to science journalists, while the other half go to researchers. The latter group’s 12 awards are divided into a $40,000 top prize and three $20,000 awards of recognition in each of three categories: graduate students, early career researchers, and mid- to later-career researchers.

The Scientist spoke to recognition awardee and paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill about the prize, which she won for her Twitter presence, lay-level writing, and Warm Regards podcast.

The Scientist: Congratulations on receiving this award. How does it feel to have won?

Jacquelyn Gill: Thank you. It is an incredible honor, especially to be awarded among so many science communicators that I look up to and admire. And it just feels like such an important validation of the importance of science communication and public outreach, which I think is more important now than ever. So it’s just nice to see this recognized by one of our biggest supporters of public science in the country.

TS: Why would you say that it’s more important than ever to be reaching out as a scientist to the public?

JG: We are on the frontlines of so many interconnected crises—the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, those are two areas that I work on. And of course, we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic. There are just so many ways in which the science we do has direct implications for people and the planet’s livelihoods and wellbeing. And while there are so many people doing this kind of work, for scientists in particular, it can be really powerful to be visible and accessible. We were—we’re still—one of the most trusted groups in the country, according to polling data.

Also, as someone who is publicly funded and at a public institution, I feel very much a sense of responsibility to use my knowledge and experience and platform for the public good. There are lots of ways to do that, but for me, science communication is something that I feel called to do and also that revitalizes my science and gives it meaning.

TS: Would you say that life scientists have a duty to communicate their work to the public?

Bad science communication can often be worse than none at all, and I would hesitate to tell anyone the best ways to walk the walk when it comes to public service.

JG: I think we have a duty to be of use. I often get tripped up on this question, because the easy answer might be yes, but not everyone has those skills or that inclination. And I think there are many ways to be of use. Life scientists can serve on boards or do work behind the scenes.

Bad science communication can often be worse than none at all, and I would hesitate to tell anyone the best ways to walk the walk when it comes to public service.

Do I think that scientists should be stuck in an ivory tower? Absolutely not. Do all of them need to be public-facing communicators? No. There are many, many ways to be useful. Do I think everyone should be doing everything that they can? Absolutely.

TS: Between your social media presence, the articles you’ve written for lay audiences, and your podcast, you’ve made a real commitment to outreach and communication. What motivated that?

JG: There’s a few things. The first is that when I was growing up, it took me a long time to come to science as a possibility, even though I was a kid who loved the outdoors, who spent a lot of time outside rambling around, was deeply concerned about the environmental crises that were unfolding as a child—you know, like a Captain Planet–generation kid in the 90s.

So, it might seem like a bit of a surprise that a nature nerd took so long to come to a science career. But I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I didn’t have role models. And the role models that I did have were fictional characters like Ellie Sadler in Jurassic Park or Dana Scully in The X Files. It didn’t occur to me until quite late in my college career that science was a pathway for me. And so some of my motivation as a communicator comes from that: just this idea that we still have a representation problem in science.

But a lot of it is also just the fact that I’m a first-generation college student. I come from a blue-collar background. My dad and stepdad were both in the Navy; they worked for steel mills. And actually, both of my dads worked for different sectors in the fossil fuel industry, which is pretty funny when you think about it. But my graduate education was publicly funded: I went to a public institution, I was funded on NSF grants and teaching assistantships, and now I work at a public land grant university, at the University of Maine. So, nothing I do would be possible without the citizens of the US and their support. To me, that comes with a tremendous sense of responsibility. When I tallied it up and realized how much I cost the taxpayers for my own training and education, that was incredibly sobering. That’s a debt that I can’t ever fully pay back. But I can work really hard to give back in all the ways that I can. And so that’s a huge motivation for me.

TS: What would you say are your guiding principles or philosophies for your science communication efforts?

JG: I’ve come to learn that empathy is our biggest tool. People want to be listened to, and seen, and heard just as much as they want to be told things. Probably more. We know that empathy trumps facts . . . because of extensive research on science communication. . . . So I inject a lot of myself as a human, not just a science-generating robot, in my communication. . . . That’s just who I am—it wasn’t necessarily even a conscious decision. But it certainly is reinforced by a lot of the literature on what makes effective science communication.

I really approach the work that I do with a goal of trying to inspire, to help people reconnect with the curiosity that they were born with but maybe had drummed out of them through life. And I try to maintain as much of a hopeful and action-oriented approach to my climate communication in particular, and one that’s very much grounded, as I said, in empathy. And I use a lot of tools from storytelling—my theater background comes in really handy.

I really approach the work that I do with a goal of trying to inspire, to help people reconnect with the curiosity that they were born with but maybe had drummed out of them through life.

Once I told myself this was a priority, and I could find my niche in this broader ecosystem, I just started trying things—Twitter and podcasting, and now some essay writing, have really seemed to be where I fit. And that’s been a real joy to be able to explore and try new things.

TS: Have there been any downsides to your outreach work?

JG: I’m sure that I have fewer papers than some of my other colleagues. I’m sure that I have made tradeoffs by focusing some of my limited time and bandwidth on communication. I think that in the end, the balance is positive: It has been enriching for me; it has helped me avoid burnout, and also has given my science a broader meaning. My research has been seen by more people than if I hadn’t taken on these projects.

It makes you a target sometimes, especially being a woman in science communication—this is even more true for women of color. And some days, when you’re getting a lot of hate from trolls—there’s often a moment where I wonder, ‘What would my life be like if I didn’t have to worry about whether or not the car driving slowly by my house was someone who was targeting me because of something I said about climate change online?’ But in the end, I would [do it anyway]; I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

TS: What does receiving this award mean to you? Will it change anything for you or your science communication efforts going forward?

JG: It could not have been better timed. . . . Since the election in 2016, which caused a lot of us to question whether the work that we do matters, what it means to be advocating for the environment and for climate action in a post-truth world—all of those kinds of challenges, I think, have shaken so many of my colleagues and me. Then you add a pandemic on top of that, and everyone I know is burned out right now, including myself.

I get to do so little science compared to what I thought this job would look like that sometimes I’ve questioned, you know, what is the point? Why am I doing this? And so I made a conscious decision earlier this year to really lean into the communication side of my job.

It’s been incredibly validating for this award to come, especially for something like Twitter. . . . All of that just felt very much like I’m on the right path, and I should be doing this. . . . I can’t express how much I needed that messaging right now.

TS: Last but not least, do you have any advice for fellow scientists looking to build up their communication skills or efforts?

JG: Don’t be afraid to mess up, don’t be afraid to play, tap into the things that you already do. The networks, the audiences, the skills that you have—there are so many opportunities out there to connect with people over your science. And you know, rather than think about this as something you shouldn’t be doing, just think of it as a something that you get to do. It will pay you back for that effort in so many ways that you can’t even possibly imagine. . . . It might take some time for you to figure out your voice or the tools that work best for you and the audience that you connect with, but that work is worth it. And I hope you give it a try.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for brevity.