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Posted - 08/01/2012
Grant Partner Spotlight: Nicole Heller and a Second ITP Grant
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From her earliest memories, Nicole Heller has been attuned to the relationships we share with our environment and other living things. Professionally, she became an ecologist, and in the last five years  has focused on climate change and how best to communicate its complexities to a global audience.  Her interest and advocacy began at a young age with a spider. As a girl she recalls creating a stir in the neighborhood, protecting spiders from mistreatment by one of the local children.

"I have always operated on a sense of justice; even as a child I was very concerned with how we interact with animals. In response to the spider incident, I recall feeling anger but being unsure of whether I had the power to speak up. Ultimately, I did. It was that concern for other creatures that developed into a passion for conservation biology, sustainability issues, and human impact on the land."

How Her Understanding of  Scientific Advocacy Has Evolved

Nicole's interest in science has since evolved to include environmental advocacy, recognizing the need for new communication strategies — to bring different approaches and constituencies together to address effective climate change issues and impacts.

"As scientists, we can continue to talk strictly in technical terms, but at a certain point you have to stop and say: 'I'm also going to speak as a citizen and as an advocate.' We need to communicate with the public in ways that they understand, but the bigger challenge lies in helping people think differently about the problems and empowering them to act in order to remedy the problems."

These issues are complex, cultural, multinational, and interconnected.  They require collaboration across sectors. With this in mind and as an outgrowth of her first Invoking the Pause grant in 2010 (the SuperPower Magic Motion Machine, which will be taking its inaugural ride soon in Lancaster, PA), Nicole applied for, and received, a second Invoking the Pause grant which will allow her the time and space to develop these ideas with new collaborators.

The 2012 Pause

Nicole has assembled an interdisciplinary group of climate and earth scientists, neurobiologists, behavioral economists, and artists to participate in a two-day Pause to mindfully contemplate the factors that affect people's responses to climate change messaging and how to experimentally examine such responses at scales meaningful to impact social change.  Nicole and her team will examine the possibility of creating a new cross-disciplinary communications laboratory at Duke University.

"When I brought the idea of the Pause to the Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, he and his staff were immediately interested. I think it's a testament to the concept of the Pause: that this gift of time to 'take a time out' from our daily lives and bring people from cross disciplines together to talk and imagine new possibilities is something that we all crave."

New Science Communications Messaging

While the potential of a communications laboratory is still in the incubation stage, Nicole continues to focus on communication messaging approaches that are scalable to the masses. "Science communication is a growing area, possibly paralleling the emergence of new media."  In conjunction with her husband, a cultural anthropologist, she has been teaching a course at Duke titled: "The Social Life of Climate Change," detailing the sociology of climate change and various  perspectives.

There is a growing interest in the scientific community to share ideas in "real time" through the internet and new social media. "When I was a graduate student working in the field, the standard was to focus quietly on your work and share once you were ready to publish. Now, there is a growing trend to communicate results from the field through new media. Research is presented not only to fellow scientists, but to the larger public."

Impact of Being a Google Fellow 

Nicole was selected last year as one of 21 prestigious Google Fellows. She attended a Google Fellows workshop last summer.  "It was a stimulating time of learning and sharing. Participating in this workshop influenced me and my work; I've become a much savvier thinker around social media. I have a much better pulse on the trends of the internet and can apply that to my research and work."

The Impact of ITP

The emergence of various social media tools will have a powerful impact on our ability to create a social movement creating more awareness around important climate issues.  Creating a community of different perspectives all focused on mutual collaboration to help solve various climate change issues is Nicole's ultimate goal. And that is something that ITP  helped influence.

"I continue to be inspired by different ways of knowing. ITP has been an integral part of my work in bringing together different approaches and disciplines collaboratively. I am involved in so many projects currently, sometimes I feel like I'm swimming in a sea of approaches.  Nevertheless, my goal is to present a thoughtful, sensitive, and nuanced distillation that emerges from bringing these different backgrounds into dialogue with one another."

"Fundamentally I'm an ecologist, and an ecologist is someone that studies interactions and understanding systems. I am trying to bring these different threads together to create and understand that system."

And her goal is simple:

"I have always felt very idealistic about our human potential. We can do better. There has to be a way for humans to live more gently on this earth. We can preserve our quality of life while simultaneously living in these abundant landscapes."