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What Makes a Wetland, a Wetland?


Pamela Braff, a PhD candidate and wetlands ecologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Center for Coastal Resources Management studies the interactions between wetland plants and their physical environment. As a part of her dissertation research, she focuses on the vulnerability of non-tidal wetlands to climate change—specifically how climate change may impact wetland hydrology (the movement of water to and from wetlands). Ultimately, Pamela is trying to understand which wetlands are most vulnerable to climate change, and why.

wetland hydrology

Pamela is also very interested in science communication. She wants to know how she, as a scientist, can share her research with the general public in ways that will engage and resonate with them while also being both entertaining and educational. To explore how to accomplish this, she enrolled in the Advanced Science Communication Seminar (ASCS) presented by Virginia Sea Grant (VASG and the George Mason University Science Communication Department. One of the seminar objectives is to create a science communication product that participants could use to help communicate their research findings. A strategic focus for the seminar is to invite a group of local stakeholders to a workshop where the students present a rough draft of their product to the group. The stakeholders then offer critique and guidance to refine it for a targeted audience.


Pamela says, “I knew right away that I wanted to create some type of animation, but it took me a bit longer to figure out the specific topic. Initially, I thought I would create a video about the implications of my research, and how climate change may impact wetland hydrology. But in talking with friends and family, and showing them draft scripts, I quickly realized that the term wetland meant something very different to me, a wetlands ecologist, than it did to everyone else. So, I decided that my video would be much more useful if I took a step back, and simply answered the question, “What makes a wetland, a wetland?”


Pamela started by outlining the key points she wanted to make, and then selecting images that would help illustrate those points. After planning the storyboard, she began working on the script. “I was surprised by how difficult this was. I knew what I wanted to say, so writing the first draft was easy. But refining it to create something that was entertaining and accessible to all ages, as well as factual, but not intimidating, was definitely a challenge,” she adds. This is the challenge of all science communication and might even be used as a definition of the discipline. Pamela sent drafts to scientists, communication specialists, friends, and family, trying to gather as much feedback as possible, until she settled on a script that felt like it checked all the boxes.

After finalizing the script, she began to work on the animations. Pamela says, “I am in no way an artist, nor had I ever done anything like this before, so it took some time to figure out how to achieve what I had in mind.” She ended up using a program called Inkscape to create the cartoons, and then added the animations with Videoscribe. Then came the editing process. “I edited, and edited, and then edited some more, getting some much-needed graphic design advice from VASG’s communications program manager Ian Vorster along the way."

To learn more about Pamela and her work as a wetland ecologist you can follow her on Instagram @swamplingscience.

Want to learn more about wetlands? Check out these links:
VIMS Teaching Marsh
Chesapeake Bay Program: Wetlands
National Wetlands Inventory   &   NWI Wetlands Mapper
EPA Wetlands Factsheet Series

Article by Pamela Braff and Ian Vorster