Association of Polar Early Career Scientists


LIesenberg Carsten Polar Outreach Blog 2015

Each year, zoos around the world celebrate International Polar Bear Day on February 27th. This year, as part of the festivities at the Toronto Zoo, I was invited to give a public lecture on polar bear research and conservation efforts to zoo patrons, volunteers, keepers, and administrators. As a polar bear researcher, I was excited at the prospect of having a room full of people all keenly interested in polar bears, to not only share what I have learned in my doctoral studies, but to hear the perspectives and questions from the general public on the state of polar bear conservation.

It doesn't take an Internet super sleuth to find a whole plethora of information on polar bear biology online. Knowing that my audience was going to be full of polar bear enthusiasts and zoo professionals who have already memorized the basic tenants of polar bear biology, I worked with the Toronto Zoo outreach staff to bill my presentation as an insiders look into polar bear research.

On the day of the presentation, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the maximum capacity of the room would be filled, with over 150 people in attendance. I engaged with my audience at the beginning of my talk by stating that my goal was for them to come away from this talk with some new information that they couldn't get by simply Googling 'polar bears' at home.

I began the talk with a very brief but specific overview of a few select aspects of polar bear biology that were pertinent to the more advanced topics I planned on bringing up later in my talk. Despite the risk of this information being repetitive to some, this was done to ensure that everyone in the room would understand the significance of the more complex issues I aimed to convey by the end of my talk.

I then moved on to an aspect of the talk is always very well received: an insider's look into the planning and implementation of fieldwork with wild polar bears. I've always found that audiences are extremely interested in learning more about the methods and challenges of working with wild animals. 

I then concluded by applying the basic elements of polar bear biology discussed earlier in the talk to wider conservation initiatives in the North, both specific to polar bears as well as to the broader Arctic ecosystem.

There is a gap that exists between those in the general public with a keen interest in wildlife conservation, and researchers who conduct studies with wildlife in the field. I know this because it wasn't too long ago that I was an eager attendant at talks like this hoping to catch a glimpse into the work of field biologists. Many organizations are employing field biologist blogs to try to bridge this gap and connect those who are interested with those who are conducting the research. However, in my experience, the best forum to engage with interested parties is in-person presentations detailing the activities of field biologists followed by a lengthy discussion period where participants are free to ask questions. This format also allows for the presenter to address any welfare concerns the audience has with field methods, and to reiterate the importance of animal care protocols.

In the end, the talk was a great success and was very received by an attentive, inquisitive, and engaged audience. The Toronto Zoo did a great job in advertising this talk, as evidenced by the room being filled to capacity, and the high interest level of those in the room. I think it's important that your audience have a clear understanding of what they can expect to hear from a public lecture before they decide to attend or not, and that the advertising for public lectures focus on the unique aspects of the upcoming talk that differentiate it from other available media such as news stories, internet pages, and documentaries.

copyright GThiemann 

Brandon Laforest is a PhD student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. His research is focused on the feeding ecology of polar bears in the Southern Hudson Bay subpopulation.

Image credits: 1) polar bear - Carsten Liesenberg; 2) fieldwork - Greg Thiemann

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