Ph.D. student examines the relationship between technology, conservation and public opinion

Story by Sarah Krier. Sarah is an undergraduate student majoring in LSC and the Department of Life Sciences Communication 2016-17 Lenore Landry Scholar

Populations of the Hawaiian honeycreeper, a colorful bird native to Hawaii, struggle to survive due to bird malaria transmitted by non-native mosquitos. Gene-editing and de-extinction techniques could offer promising avenues for adapting the species to adversity—but how does the public feel about these interventions?

The relationship between public opinion and scientific interventions is exactly what Patrice Kohl, a doctoral student in the Department of Life Sciences Communication, is working to understand. Kohl takes an interdisciplinary look at how the public reacts to conservation efforts to prevent extinction, much like the Hawaiian honeycreeper.

Patrice Kohl
Patrice Kohl

Kohl was recently awarded an Integrated Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) fellowship from the National Science Foundation. IGERT funds graduate students across the country, encouraging research that fosters strong collaborative bonds across disciplines while their advisor participates in interdisciplinary activities. The UW-Madison IGERT program that Kohl is funded through, which involves her Ph.D. advisor LSC chair Dominique Brossard, focuses on novel ecosystems. While the exact definition and parameters of novel ecosystems are debated, they can generally be described as ecosystems whose historical trajectory has been influenced and changed by human intervention.

Recent advances in gene-editing technologies are receiving growing attention as a potential tool to curb species extinction. As gene technologies continue to change rapidly, there is little information on how the public might feel about using them for conservation purposes. The field of science communication is uniquely positioned to help address these questions. Kohl’s research aims to reveal how gene-editing technologies might reframe the way people understand conservation problems, and influence the conservation goals people are willing to support. She is interested in how people’s responses to gene-editing as a conservation tool are influenced by the degree to which they think the earth’s ecosystems are already being modified by human activities.

“An ecosystem is never stagnant, there’s always evolution, and things are adapting. The idea behind a novel ecosystem is that human impacts have changed an ecosystem so much that it’s no longer within the historical range of variation,” Kohl said. “I would like to see how people’s ideas of nature and wilderness are changed by ideas linked to novel ecosystems and in which context people are willing to take more interventionist approaches to addressing environmental problems.”

Hawaiian Honeycreeper Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service
Hawaiian Honeycreeper Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service

For example, consider the Hawaiian honeycreeper. How does the public feel about genetically modifying native birds so that they are resistant to disease? Would they be more in favor of modifying invasive mosquitos? Are people opposed to de-extinction of an animal that could wipe out the harmful mosquitos? Are they more willing to support these kinds of interventionist measures if they think ecosystems have already been highly modified by humans?

Moving forward, Kohl hopes her research can shed light on the value of science communication research and its relevance to understanding public support for conservation practices and goals.

“Patrice is demonstrating how science communication research is relevant to today’s complex scientific questions, looking at the intersection between science, technology, and society,” said Brossard. “It is exciting to see how science communication researchers like Patrice will make a difference in this world.”