28 June 2013
By Mary Catherine Adams
This story first appeared in the 11 June 2013 issue of Eos.
Mike Osborne, a Stanford University PhD student of paleoclimatology, was becoming fatigued with the “apocalyptic rhetoric” surrounding climate change.
“With climate change, the politics have gotten so tangled up with the science, I kind of got to the point that I didn’t know what to believe,” Osborne said. “I wanted to be able to speak to it better.”
Though Osborne was interested in possibly venturing into journalism or education one day, he wasn’t exactly sure how to incorporate this desire into life after graduate school. One thing he did know was that on some days, when the research was getting tedious, the only way he could face it was to slap on some headphones and listen to National Public Radio.
In a moment of crisis, he visited Stanford’s career development office. There, a woman suggested he try podcasting. “Why not?” Osborne thought. “All you need is a microphone and a website.”
The result was “Generation Anthropocene,” a science storytelling podcast featuring interviews with scientists, literary critics, religion professors, and more. The podcast was originally produced by students taking a “Podcasting the Anthropocene” course designed by Osborne and his collaborators Miles Traer and Thomas Hayden, but the podcast has grown thanks to support from the university and the dedication of friends, volunteers, and interns who continue to record new stories.
Osborne will soon get the chance to parlay his podcasting experience into his newest role as the 2013 AGU Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellow. He is one of 14 scientists who will spend 10 weeks this summer in a radio, newspaper, or TV newsroom as part of the fellowship program coordinated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The program helps young scientists cultivate communications skills to effectively share science with general audiences.
Osborne will spend his summer at KQED-QUEST, part of KQED public media in Northern California. KQED-QUEST is a multimedia project centered on science that is broadcast at several outlets across the United States.
“I’m really thrilled to be [at KQED],” Osborne said. “I listen to it every day.”
Though he hopes to stick with science communications in the long term, Osborne says he is a geologist at heart. The paleoclimatologist, who comes from a family of lawyers, was close to finishing his bachelor’s degree in criminology when he took his first geology class.
“I absolutely fell in love with it,” he said. He finished his degree at the University of Montana before moving back his native Austin, Texas, and earning a second bachelor’s degree in geological sciences from the University of Texas.
Osborne then took some time off before going to graduate school to focus on paleoclimatology. His research is on the El Niño-Southern Oscillation or “ENSO” system—a climate pattern of oscillating oceanic warming (El Niño) and cooling (La Niña) in the tropical Pacific that can dramatically affect weather around the globe.
Understanding the ENSO system could help climatologists answer questions about whether the planet will have more or stronger El Niños in the future. They are stymied, though, by the limited amount of data available before World War II. Osborne is using coral records from the region to try to tease out several hundred years of data to fill in the gaps and help answer those questions.
Osborne is planning to defend his PhD thesis at Stanford University this fall. He hopes to take the lessons learned from his tenure as this year’s AGU Mass Media Fellow to continue to grow “Generation Anthropocene.”
— Mary Catherine Adams, AGU Public Information Specialist