300 miles for Science Communication

Being outside, searching for wildlife and posting about it on social media. That’s what I like doing. Come the time to submit an idea for my MSc dissertation proposal however, and the question was how to roll all these things into a legitimate sounding research project…“I know!”, I thought back in January, “I’ll trek 300 miles around the Cornish coast and call it science communication!” much to the initial dismay of my lecturers…

I’m Sophie Pavelle, I’m an MSc student studying Science Communication at the University of the West of England (UWE) following a Zoology degree at Bristol University.

Science communication is all about getting the public on board with scientific concepts and research findings — engaging them to take notice of the things that matter and spark curiosity. The so-called ‘digital generation’, demands a more fast-paced, impulsive and interactive approach to online material — and science must be able to meet this.

Tweeting, texting, posting, taking your #photooftheday is becoming an increasingly prevalent habit of our daily or rather #instadaily routine. In fact, you may feel at a loss without it, with research reporting the average British adult spends more time using technology than sleeping. Of course I’m guilty of this — but I wanted to challenge the way that we tend to use social media and make the most of the online audience to show off British wildlife and highlight conservation issues.

During our master’s lectures about digital communication, I became fascinated by the prolific nature of digital content and the speed at which a video can ‘go viral’, reaching millions within minutes. In the ever-prevalent digital bubble within which we find inspiration, comfort, entertainment and knowledge, I believe there has not been a more important time to explore the potential of social media in communicating science to this digitally-savvy and visually hungry audience.

Call me dull, but I've become a bit of an unknowing fan of the old #staycation - and when you are lucky enough to live in a country that has some of the most varied, dramatic habitats and ecosystems all tucked in amongst each other, the U.K. is a pretty darn special place. 

So what better way to test this than immersing myself into a one-woman sci comm adventure? 300 miles, 22-days and 22 videos later – and after surviving one of the most intense heatwaves in recent years whilst tackling some of England’s most relentless terrain, I finally crossed the line last Sunday at the Cremyll ferry on Mount Edgecombe after my three-week trek around the entire Cornish coast.  

Starting in wild and windy Bude armed with a 12kg backpack and my extensive camera crew of an iPhone, selfie stick and tripod I set off to Crackington Haven. The first few days were very experimental – it took a while for me to find my rhythm and figure out the best way to film and communicate the wildlife I was encountering, let alone hike the unforgiving north coast! Safe to say, once I ‘found my feet’ and trusted in both my Zoology degree and physical preparation, I fully allowed myself to be fully immersed in all that Cornwall had to throw at me! 

Apart from boasting some of the most diverse and naturally beautiful areas in the UK, Cornwall is home to some unique gatherings of species and biodiversity - reflected in the multitude of designated and proposed Marine Conservation Zones, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI's), nature reserves of national and international importance and continual signs of habitat restoration and landscape management. Such work is instigated and overseen by organisations such as the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, The National Trust (owners of the South West Coast Path, Natural England and others - and I couldn't wait to explore them and see what they had in store.

Although I trawled the Internet for days leading up to my trek, nothing is better preparation than just getting stuck in and allowing yourself to be fully immersed and owned by the trail and the wildlife along the way. Although my research gave me a good idea of what to expect, I never would have guessed that I would play witness to an elusive mother and calf harbour porpoise, a peregrine ferociously fending off two huge buzzards, the enormous gannet commanding the waves near Polzeath, the surprising quantity of coastal kestrels and a nationally significant breeding ground for the impressive fulmar...all this right on our doorstep and astounding me every turn of the headland. 

I found it interesting and amusing that I seemed to be the youngest person walking the coast path by a good 30 years! Apart from the weekend day ramblers, I barely saw anyone close to my age hiking and enjoying the surroundings from the trail – which gave me more motivation to continue with my pursuit to bring British wildlife and the outdoors to people on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I filmed and narrated short clips of each day’s wildlife, rock formations and general ‘nature stuff’, later editing it and producing a 5-7 minute informal YouTube video blog or ‘vlog’ which I uploaded every evening (Cornish wifi dependent of course!).

These videos were again, very experimental, yet I could not have predicted the global audience they began to attract. Barely a week in I began to receive messages from families in Australia, Moscow and Sweden – all apparently ‘hooked’ on following my updates and expressing subsequent desires to get out, be adventurous and even come to the UK and see Cornwall for themselves! I guess this re-affirmed my initial curiosity about exploring the power of social media and its potential for widespread use as a science communication tool to speak broadly to the younger, more digitally inclined and visually hungry modern audience.

I think science and society still has an awful lot to learn about the rapidly evolving digital platforms we have created, and despite the drawbacks to increased screen time and ‘a life spent online’, I think it presents an exciting opportunity to make the most of how many people can be reached. It shows we might have to adapt the way we think about communication and showcasing the natural world, to make it more appealing and re-iterate Britain’s incredible diversity for example – and if the way to reach people first is to present it online, then so be it!

I was blown away by the beauty, variety and fragility of the Cornish landscape and cannot recommend exploring it by foot enough – be it in rain, sea fog and intense sun (all of which I experienced) the South West Coast Path is truly an unforgettable one for anyone of any age! 

Now a week on from finishing, I realise how much you can learn in terms of empathy for nature, just by giving it some of your time. Walking is a great way to do that and there were times when I felt truly honoured to be walking alone amongst such beauty. One of my favourite quotes from the wonderful Dame Jane Goodall stuck with me throughout my trip, "Only if we understand, will we care".

You can catch up on all 22 videos from ‘Sophie’s Wild Cornwall’ on her YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCOqe9-bbiJkRce7NP7sXARw

Sophie was also raising money for Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Surfers Against Sewage throughout her trek – you can still donate here: https://www.justgiving.com/teams