Combining a love for science with her strengths as a communicator

by Laura Powers

Combining a love for science with her strengths as a communicator

Since she was a child, communication major and environmental science minor Lauren Back had an interest in sharks. Each year she anxiously awaited Discovery Channel’s Shark Week where she would learn everything she could about these aquatic animals.  As years passed, she began to notice an ever-increasing shift in the week’s narrative from science to entertainment. Once Discovery Channel’s fake documentary about Megalodon premiered in 2013, creating controversy after many viewers mistook it as factual, Back’s interest in shark rhetoric really took off.

“As someone who loves sharks, the media has latched on to Jaws, making sharks out to be evil, ugly monsters that want to eat you all the time,” she said, adding that it does little to affect conservation in a positive way. This fall, Back received funding from the Office of Student Scholarship Creative Activities and Research (OSCAR) to further her study into how mainstream media talks about sharks and educates the public, paying special attention to Shark Week. With guidance from her mentor, associate professor Dr. Richard Craig, Back currently collects data to evaluate how the shift from science-based to sensationalizing episodes during Shark Week affects what individuals do or don’t watch, as well as how it affects eco-tourism.

Back regularly interacts with top scientists through social media and is excited by the way she’s able to combine strategic communication with important scientific topics. She said the responses she’s received through her social media contacts are invaluable and contribute greatly to her research.

Back on Scotland’s Isle of Cumbrae

Last summer, Back traveled to Scotland’s Isle of Cumbrae on an environmental science and policy marine mammalogy trip. There, she learned new research techniques, while observing the local marine life. Most importantly, she had the time to write. Back created a blog about her experience in Scotland, writing from a science perspective, but keeping in mind all she’s learned through her communication studies.  

“Being able to write from both a strategic and journalism perspective on something that is often overlooked or miscommunicated is a very cool field to be in,” she said.

According to Back, the best advice she’s received as an undergraduate is to find something you love to write about and make it your minor. With a versatile communication degree, Back said her areas of focus in public relations, journalism, and environmental science help to set her apart from others in the same field.

It’s advice that she passes on.

The past few summers, Back served as a communications expert and mentor for the Virginia Earth Systems Science Scholars Program through the Virginia Space Grant Consortium, a coalition of five Virginia colleges and universities, NASA, state educational agencies, Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, and other institutions representing diverse aerospace education and research. The program challenges participating students to design a mission for NASA, culminating in a presentation to actual NASA executives at the end of the program.

“I talk to my NASA students a lot about finding your skills, but also about listening to your passions,” she said.

Back and a Small Airplane

After earning her undergraduate degree, Back plans to remain at Mason to earn her master’s in communication. She and Dr. Craig will continue her research, shifting the focus to shark eco-tourism rhetoric and how the U.S compares to other countries. Based on those findings, her ultimate goal is to lobby for improved eco-tourism in the U.S.