Britt Wray and the Rise of the Necrofauna
Canadian storyteller Britt Wray is launching her first book: “Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction”. Dr. Olga Zamudio from SCWIST communications committee had a chat with her to learn more about her and this thought-provoking book.
Britt is the perfect example of a non-linear path in STEM; passionate about science, Britt studied biology at Queen’s University but soon she realized she was more interested in the stories of struggle and success behind the discoveries than working with fruit flies at the lab. Her imagination was caught by David Attenborough and started wondering if she could turn her music radio-show at the University into a science broadcast. She did, first performing interviews that now she calls ‘naive’, making day after day efforts to professionalize herself, taking courses, watching lectures, trying and experimenting, making her way into podcasts and broadcasting. When years after, she encountered a course on BioArt she couldn’t let go and asked directly to the Professor if she can audit the course for a semester. There, Britt worked side by side with artists and designers using a completely different set of tools to answer another type of questions about Science. This new approach has stuck with her since then, combining visual, audio, art and design to convey Science stories.
Britt is very adamant about the importance of Science storytelling as an open invitation to the public to have a say, to participate, to engage, and to interact. By adding narratives to Science, the audience can see the relevance with their own lives. Ultimately, what happen in Science affects us all. Moreover, it is primordial to cover all angles, to look at Science through social, political, ethical and cultural lenses. On the other hand, we cannot ask scientists to cover also that niche, when they are concentrating their efforts in the advancement of Knowledge.
This kind of communication endeavor has been done mostly by ‘superstars’ of science communication, unsurprisingly, many of them males: Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or David Suzuki to name a few. Although thanks to the new technologies and the way people are now consuming Science news this may change. *** Britt has already seen a change happening, this month, she attended a conference on synthetic biology, the organizers were very poignant about having an all-female panel, Britt says she was delighted by the audience’s response, people reached to share their amaze about the number of women involved in the area and to comment about the enrichment that comes with diversity. Nevertheless, a lot of conscious work needs to be done since there is a shortage in science communicators.
Britt has a particular taste for the colorful, provocative and sometimes obscure stories. Her repertoire includes going on an expedition to record the sounds of Iceland or following a group of musicians that give concerts for the wolves. How does she find these stories? Trusting her gut, following only those that really ignite her passion, keeping eyes and ears open. That’s is how one day she got hooked with “To bring back the extinct” an interview with Ryan Phelan delivered to her email via newsletter subscription. The interview juggled with a series of What if? Questions, including what if we can bring back extinct species like the Passenger Pigeon? What if we can, successfully, reintroduce them? What if we can change the ‘forever’ status of extinction? And, should we? Britt saw the potential of the story behind, all the connotations, all the different points of view to be explored, all the implicit scientific discoveries; her curiosity fuelled by an old interest in Conservation Biology at the University. She remembered to share it right away with a friend saying “We have to keep an eye on it”. Thanks to the same emailing list she was able to track the story with some the protagonists of this de-extinction movement, and later, to attend the TEDxDeExtinction Conference; the more she knew, the more questions arose. She wrote a feature radio story introducing art into the equation. A second radio show came later, this time for ‘Ideas’ on CBC Radio 1. Years passed by, and Britt was enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Copenhagen in science communication with a synthetic biology scope when she received what at first, looked like a mock email inviting her to write a book, basically, exploring further what she had presented at Ideas. “There is no way I can manage to finish a PhD AND write a book”, she recalls. Nevertheless, she took the challenge, working on her PhD during the day, conducting interviews via Skype and by phone during the evening. Collecting information patiently, sometimes, receiving grim responses when she exposed what was her book about, because not everybody embraces the de-extinction quest, for some, investing human and material resources, while success depends on so many variables about which we understand, very little, is a lost, silly cause. Britt knew she was taking a risk writing about a topic polarized among experts but she feels the duty to address and point out all the different views, whether or not they agreed. She was aware of her privileged 360 degrees position, in contact with the key players of the movement. Either she writes the book or not, the gears moving de-extinction won’t stop, she thought and writing it will help people to know about a relatively new matter giving them a head-start to decide and exercise their critical thinking.
Finally, Britt shared that the key message of ‘Rise of the Necrofauna’ is that de-extinction is not the solution, and it’s dangerous to think it could be, although the movement can be helpful in developing tools to increase the diversity of currently endangered species, we still have biological, technological, and environmental challenges, we need to learn a lot more about conservation and reintroduction of species with an ethical, moral and humane approach and it is risky to think we can relay only in biotech to bring back extinct species.