No Story Around? Stories Abound!

Don’t tell me there are no stories for media at your research institute – namely in food science and technology. Each time I visit a research institute I come back with so many stories that it would be impossible for me to ever cover them all.

Here is an example to back my argument up.

A few days before my workshop (organized by the EU Project MAITRE that was terminated in 2014) with scientists at the Estonian University of Life Sciences (Eesti Maaülikool – EMU ) in Tartu / Estonia, a young scientist named Alo Laas defended his thesis publicly at the university. As usual, this was announced on EMU’s website with a short summary of the thesis. As far as I knew, none of it appeared in the Estonian newspapers. The announcement offered not much more than the mere scientific and institutional background to the thesis. Nobody relayed Alo Laas’ findings in a way that gave them a context in reality, or said what they might mean to the rest of the world.

What a pity!

But let us try to generate stories for the public interest from the thesis – as we did in the workshop itself.

The PDF file of Dr. Alo Laas’ thesis, titled „Productivity and nutrient retention of lakes on seasonal, interannual and morphometric scales“, can be downloaded from EMU’s website. So the workshop participants and myself could browse through it, read Alo Laas’ introduction to find out about the possible relevance for the common public and read the summary of his conclusions to find headlines for newspaper articles or TV and radio news reports. (meanwhile, in 2020, it is available here on limnology.org )

Now, why would Dr. Alo’s lake study interest you?

Lakes can work as either CO2 producing or Carbon consuming agents. That means they can either worsen global warming (which is induced by CO2) or have a curing effect by avoiding CO2 emission. According to the thesis’ introduction the overall effects of the many lakes on earth’s surface have not yet been studied enough, and Alo Laas’ work is a stepping stone to further knowledge about it.

Take the case of the Estonian Lake Vortsjärv. This lake is an example of a big but shallow northern lake that abounds with daylight in summer but rarely sees the sun in winter – being covered by ice. These are some of the factors heavily influencing the lake’s ability to „breathe“ with Carbon, consuming it or exhaling CO2. Alo Laas studied these details – and the overall SALDO effect the lake’s „breathing“ would have.

A thesis full of stories

In this thesis, we found at least six stories. We agreed that all of them would be interesting for the general public, not just the scientific community. Take a look at the file yourself and compare.

1 – Is the Lake harmful?

Dr. Laas’ first conclusion mongers with words like “metabolism, autotrophic and heterotrophic” before ending with “the lake can be considered carbon neutral
But our first story’s headline would state: “Lake Vortsjärv is NOT harmful for the global climate
This is a story that could appeal to regional readers in Estonia. An obvious question would pop into their minds „Why the heck should the lake be harmful?“
Once their interest is raised, a lot of the „lake breathing“ issue could be explained to them with the kind help of Alo Laas’ explanations.

2 – Is the Lake safe for swimming?

Another story stems from the second conclusion of the thesis. It would be used by a tabloid paper which likes to alarm the minds of the readers with a headline while the content of the article might be fair and accurate.
The headline reads: “Is it safe to swim in Lake Vortsjärv?
Background for this headline: As the limnologist mentions in his second conclusion, he has found cyanobacteria – a possibly poisonous kind of bacteria – in the lake. But Alo Laas has confirmed to me in an email that the species of cyanobacteria in the lake ar NOT producing any poison.

3 and 4 – Headlines for the Yellow Press and Social Media

One more: “Once climate is getting warmer, the Estonian lakes will be worsening the case, Tartu scientist suggests.” [or something like “An Estonian lake warms up to climate change” – which is a pun on the change in “attitude” that the lake has as it gets warmer]
Or, alternatively, „What is global warming doing to our lakes?“ It stems from the thesis’ third conclusion. You need to know that heterotrophy is bad, though, to find this story.

5 – How to even interest the Tabloid and Social Media

How about this one: “Size DOES matter, EMU scientist says (about lakes)
It was especially fun to find that headline – we felt like working in the editorial department of a slimy tabloid paper. Take a look at Alo Laas’ fourth conclusion to see the relation between a lake’s size and its ability to autotrophy (which is to consume carbon rather than evaporating it to the atmosphere as CO2).

6 – The Scientist himself / herself can be worth a Story

In addition, we found facts on the web about the role of Alo Laas and his methods of research, making him interesting for a media portrait from three different possible angles.

Tartu – center of the world of lakes.“ – This man is in the middle of a network of scientists exchanging scientific ideas and results about their beloved lakes. See the poster he had at a conference calling everybody to contact him to join this networks. (a little google.com/advanced_search exercise for you, the reader)

(Article was published in November 2012, but is still valid – edited with a few modernisations.)

The University’s news about the thesis:
https://www.emu.ee/ylikoolist/uudised/pressiteated/uudis/2012/10/25/doktoritoo-maaratleb-vortsjarve-rolli-globaalses-susinikuringes

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