A Minnesota native turned marine biologist is hoping to reach a new generation of scientists by creating children's books based on her scientific research.
Danielle Dixson, a University of Delaware researcher and assistant professor, was studying corals, seaweed and goby fish in Fiji in 2012 when she recognized a clear disconnect between what was happening in the ocean and what people understood about marine habitats.
“Especially with the kids,” she said.
Children from the village she was visiting would splash around in her experiments – makeshift studies using kiddie pools – and they didn't quite understand when Dixson said they couldn't play there.
She thought a video would help her connect with the community, while educating people about the diverse life found in the beautiful environment surrounding their homes.
“That worked for the adults really well,” she said. “They got really engaged.”
But in Fiji, she said, children don't watch much television. So when she tried showing a younger audience the video, they squirmed and fidgeted. Dixson decided a story book might be a better approach.
It turns out she was right.
Surrounded by a circle of children, Dixson flipped through her rough sketches and taught them about the world below the surface. They sat quietly and soaked it all in.
In the following days, instead of seeing children throwing trash into the ocean – the children previously thought it was just swallowed up by the big, open blue expanse – she saw them scouring the shores and picking up whatever garbage they could find.
Because the story was such a hit, when Dixson returned to the states she had her story printed and shared it with her nephews. They loved it, she said.
“I think the story does tell exactly what the research does,” she said, breaking down the scientific complexities into imaginative creatures and colorful illustrations.
The first book in Dixson's Sea Stories series is based on a paper published in Science in 2012, which explores how certain species of gobies protect their delicate coral homes from a toxic seaweed. The research looked at cross-animal communication and chemical signals, but the book boils it down so even young children can understand a complex interaction in a simple way.
“I thought it was such a great idea in terms of taking something that sounds really complicated and making it really accessible,” said Caroline Cook, one of the illustrators working with Dixson.
The second book in the series, “A Butterflyfish's Journey to Find Delicious Food,” explores a similar issue with coral, seaweed and food sources, but also educates readers about the importance of marine protected areas and the impact humans have on marine life. Future stories will explore research on clownfish, how climate change affects anemones, and the impact of ocean acidification on sharks.
At the end of each book, readers can learn more about the characters with real photos taken in the field, as well as simple descriptions of the species introduced in the story. Dixson said she self-publishes the books, and all proceeds go to the next piece in the series. She said she plans to donate books to schools in the research areas, and she also hopes to work with local school districts on reading events or other educational programs.
Each book also includes a page dedicated to the female author and illustrators.
“I really want to highlight that scientists can be younger, and they can be women,” Dixson said, noting that a majority of children, when asked to draw scientists, usually produce an image of a stuffy, white-haired, white man resembling Albert Einstein.
“Not much like this exists right now,” Cook said. “If we can reach kids when they're young and change what they think is normal in terms of a career or a future, that's how we change our society.”
For more about “Sea Stories,” including links to research and interactive materials, go to www.seastorybooks.com.