Bringing Science Education to New Media
Wildlife Ecologist Uses Tweets and Film to Reach Wide Audiences
Sophie Gilbert’s office isn’t just on the University of Idaho campus – it has expanded to Twitter.
“It is our job as scientists to keep up with the new platforms,”Sophie Gilbert, Assistant Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management
Gilbert, an assistant professor of wildlife ecology, has created a name for herself in the “science Twitter” community by merging science education with light, irreverent humor in what she calls a “recipe for success.”
“It is our job as scientists to keep up with the new platforms,” she said.
Gilbert conducts research in Alaska, British Columbia and Idaho, concentrating on the responses of herbivores such as pika, Sitka black-tailed deer, mule deer, white-tailed deer and elk, as well as the carnivores that prey on them including cougars, wolves, and bears.
Fully embracing the social media platform gives Gilbert an opportunity to “capitalize on moments in science that deal with wildlife to sneak in ‘stealth’ education,” reaching audiences who wouldn’t otherwise encounter these discussions online. It also gives her, and other scientists, a way to promote their research. In 2018, Gilbert helped author a study that found communicating science on social media had a strong correlation to increased citation rates, meaning more other researchers read and referenced that work in other studies.
Gilbert, who joined the U of I College of Natural Resources in 2016, does her best to convey concepts to the Twitter community by promoting a noninvasive and pure interaction with wildlife in a “fun and fast way.” Her tweets are paired with various GIFs, photos and videos that blend her feed in with the culture of the Twitterverse.
She uses Twitter to try and capture the public’s imagination of animal behavior not only through her own wildlife ecology studies but also by commenting on animal-related questions of the day — and sometimes those comments go viral. After a drone video of a brown bear and her cub on the side of a sheer, snowy mountain was shared countless times on social media in fall 2018, Gilbert spoke out on Twitter against the use of drones in the close-up monitoring of wildlife.
"I am seeing a pretty agitated mama bear who's clearly taking a very young cub across a very steep slope to get away from the drone,” she said of the video.
Her comments led to multiple media interviews that allowed her to spread her message to outlets from National Geographic to The Atlantic to the Spokane, Washington-based Pacific Northwest Inlander.
A Scientist and a Hunter
It’s a passion for science and the animal kingdom that has fueled Gilbert’s interest in these discussions. Gilbert grew up in Northern California’s Grass Valley, where her passion for science was sparked when her parents took her out into nature from a young age and always encouraged her to ask questions.
She went hiking, canoeing, camping, and bird-watching all over the Pacific Coast as a child. Gilbert’s early adventures in nature, coupled with a fascination for wildlife documentaries like broadcaster and natural historian David Attenborough’s “Life on Earth,” propelled her continued interest and work in the wild.
“I wanted to enter the field because I was passionate about wildlife and ensuring that they have a sustainable future even as our modern world is undergoing rapid change,” Gilbert said. “I worked a number of entry-level jobs on different research projects and learned that I loved doing research, so I pursued my Ph.D.”
“My goal is to help inform management and conservation of these amazing animals even as our world changes in new ways,”Sophie Gilbert, Assistant Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management
Gilbert completed her doctorate at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks in 2015, and was eager to share her work on Sitka black-tailed deer, which she considers a “mystery deer” compared to other game species in North America.
“We don't know much about them because they are difficult to study and live in a relatively unknown region, the American Rainforest of Southeast Alaska,” Gilbert said.
One thing Gilbert didn’t do as a child was hunt. But her research on game species often brought her into contact with the hunting community. Through a friendship with an Alaskan hunter, she began to learn to hunt the very deer she studied.
That journey is chronicled by hunter and filmmaker Randy Newberg for a short film, “Rain Deer,” which explores the relationship between wildlife and Alaskan hunting culture in the American rainforest. The film debuted at the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers annual gathering, “Rendezvous 2019,” this spring in Boise and is available on YouTube.
Gilbert plans to continue to grow her research program by taking on more projects that help understand how large mammals can co-exist with humans in our “rapidly changing modern world, and how our actions cascade through large mammal communities.”
She will spread that research with students under her purview, and around the globe with her tweets.
“My goal is to help inform management and conservation of these amazing animals even as our world changes in new ways,” she said.
Article by Kylie Smith, University Communications and Marketing
Published May 2019