The oyster doctors hit the silver screen

Producer Rob Diaz de Villegas films assistant professor Randall Hughes doing research in the salt marshes of Apalachicola Bay in Florida. Photo by Rebecca Wilkerson.
Producer Rob Diaz de Villegas films assistant professor Randall Hughes doing research in the salt marshes of Apalachicola Bay in Florida. Photo by Rebecca Wilkerson.

Producer Rob Diaz de Villegas films assistant professor Randall Hughes doing research in the salt marshes of Apalachicola Bay in Florida. Photo by Rebecca Wilkerson.

Last May I posted about a very cool science communication project from Randall Hughes and David Kimbro, both assistant professors of marine and environmental science. Before they came to Northeastern a little more than a year ago, they were at Florida State University where they developed a partnership with the local public broadcasting station, WFSU. The crowning glory of the project—a one-hour documentary film called Oyster Doctors—was released last week.

“The project started largely because of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill,” Hughes said. Everyone expected that the massive amounts of oil dumped into the Gulf of Mexico would have a huge negative impact on Apalachicola Bay, where she and Kimbro had been conducting research for several years. “We wanted to document what the habitats looked like before they were covered with oil.”

But thankfully, that never happened. The oil never got that far east. Nevertheless, Apalachicola Bay still began to suffer a huge oyster crisis a year later. Some suspect that this might be due to the increase in oyster fishing that took place in anticipation of habitat loss, she told me. The preemptive overfishing, some speculate, could have had the same negative effect that people were worried about occurring because of the oil itself.

Of course, the only way to figure out answers to questions like that is to do the research. Which is what Hughes, Kimbro, and their teams have been up to over the last few years. Even now that they’re here at Northeastern, they continue to go down to Florida to follow up on studies they began there.

In the meantime, the producer that WFSU assigned to Hughes and Kimbro’s project, Rob Diaz de Villegas, had fallen in love with following the researchers into the field. He produced dozens of short videos that they posted on their blog, In the Grass, on the Reef, in the hopes of communicating to the local population how important science like this really is for the region’s livelihood.

With the blog and the videos, Hughes told me, they wanted to convey some specific concepts. In particular they wanted people to realize how many benefits the salt marsh and oyster ecosystems (which are home to lots of other species) provide. Yes, there’s the food provided in the oysters, but these habitats also lend protection to the coastline, filter run off from the land before it gets to the sea, provide jobs to oystermen, researchers, and ecotour operators, and just generally increase the quality of life for the local community.

They also wanted their readers and viewers to understand a little better how science works—the fact that it takes a long time to answer questions that policy makers and the public often want answers to right away; that oftentimes unexpected things happen in the midst of an experiment, which researchers have to creatively address.

Perhaps most importantly, they wanted people to understand just how complex the reasons behind the oyster crisis really are. Not only was their increased fishing in the area, but there’s also a big debate about whether drought and water diversions taking place up north are having an effect. These both increase the salinity of the water in the bay, which, according to some of Kimbro’s previous research, has the effect of increasing the range of salt-water predators. This may also be playing a role in the oysters dying off, who are now susceptible to predators that they don’t normally encounter.

“It’s kind of like death by a thousand cuts,” Hughes said. There’s no one simple answer to why the oysters are suffering, but in order to get a cohesive picture and address it effectively, researchers like her need to be able to keep asking their questions and doing experiments. And they also need to keep communicating the results of those experiments to the public.

Hughes said that she always knew that talking about her work with the general public was a good idea, but now that she’s completed most of the communications project with WFSU, she’s much less apprehensive about the idea. It’s also shifted her own research. “I try to strike more of a balance between basic research and what’s more interesting to the community,” she explained.

Now that the majority of the project is complete, she and her colleagues have to go look at all the data they’ve collected (from surveys and tools like Google Analytics, which tracks their blog traffic) to see whether they achieved their goals. They want to know what kind of an audience they managed to attract and how they heard about it. They want to know what that audience knew before they started following their research pursuits, and what they learned along the way. Stay tuned for another blog post here to find out what they learn.