Nachgefragt bei Rich Mooi

Rich Mooi is a marine biologist, artist and science communicator. | © Foto: Leslie Mooi
15. August 2023

In the series „Nachgefragt“ ("Asking Questions"), we introduce, in no particular order, people working in science communication. With 17 questions – and 17 answers, sometimes serious, sometimes humorous.

von Paul Sutter

For our eighty-seventh episode, we spoke to Rich Mooi – a marine biologist, artist, and science communicator. Mooi is a patient and driven communicator, a keen researcher, and he hasn't ceased to inspire awe in his listeners yet.

A good communicator needs…?

To know how to read the room and tailor delivery to the audience. The most difficult thing of all is to strike the balance between talking down to, and overerestimating the capacity of one's audience when launching into the details of one's topic with too much enthusiasm. It's also crucial to listen to and learn from the audience. Nothing shakes one's foundations in cherished beliefs like a well-placed lob from an audience member during question time!

What motivated you to work in the field of science communication?

First and foremost, I will always be a scientist. But what good is it if you don't communicate the joy of discovery? To do otherwise is a lonely and monk-like existence.

Describe your daily work in three words.

Curiosity, documentation, dissemination, feedback. Oops, that's four words, but I'm known to cheat a little like that from time to time.

What is the best experience you have had as a communicator? 

Seeing the light come on in someone else's brain, and then having that light illuminate my own ignorance. Reciprocal illumination.

What was your biggest communication disaster?

Telling a joke to introduce a talk and hearing crickets. But I saw a real disaster coming when my "take home message" was side-tracked by my inability to introduce it properly.

Which of your traits bothers you the most in your daily work? 

Displacement activity. That is, finding little time-wasters to do that distract me from the less interesting, but still essential tasks.

Which (historical) person would you like to have dinner with?

Leonardo da Vinci or M.C. Escher. No, wait, they might spend the whole time drawing. Winston Churchill. No, he would smoke cigars. Maybe Salvador Dali. Except who knows what weird stuff he would want me to eat? Frida Kahlo, perhaps, because I can't seem to get into her art and I'm certain she could change my mind about that. 

But she might be too busy, so ultimately, Rachel Carson. She would be too busy too, but she was so incredibly generous with her time that even 5 minutes over an appetizer could make an oaf like me better. She was a huge inspiration to me in my childhood dreams of marine biology. We need her kind now more than ever.

What is your favourite research discipline?

Paleontology. You can't know what's coming if you don't know what happened.

Which research topic would you least like to communicate?

Best practices in using accounting softwares. Though I'm sure with a bit of work, someone could make that fun.

If time and money were no object: Which science communication project would you like to do?

Fieldwork in biodiversity and how that can lead to solutions to save entire ecosystems. With no restraints on the "can-do", I would open up fieldwork opportunities to all communities, backgrounds, and persuasions to share knowledge of all ecosystems, from the deepest oceans to coral reefs to rain forests, to the highest mountains. With any luck, this would help reveal the connectivities among all the parts of the planet, and how this is relevant to our own survival. Most people, as concerned as they might be, don't work hard to save what they don't experience first-hand. Yet, we are active parts of all biomes, not spectators. 

If you didn’t work in science communication, what field would you like to be in? 

Well, I guess I'm in it, since I am not a science communicator by trade or by training. I really like to do art, though.

Science communication in 2030 will be…

No different from what it is now unless we take up well-informed and scientifically-driven methods to reverse the anti-science trends and outright lies prevalent among so much of our leadership today.

What do you consider the greatest achievement in the history of science?

Some might say electicity, or radio, or the internet or something like that. I would be inclined to say the scientific method itself: a synergistic mixture of hypothesis formulation, trial and error, elimination of variables, and a huge dose of being in the right place at the right time. Pasteur said, "Chance favours the prepared mind." If all I ever did in life was to coin that phrase, it would have been a life worth living. 

How did you imagine the future as a child?

I thought I would have my own flying car by now. Where is it, eh?

One thing I definitely did not foresee was the progression of climate change and anthropogenic environmental destruction to the point where things I knew as a child no longer exist. Like the huge clouds of swallows that flew over Georgian Bay as the mayflies emerged, nighthawks flying over the city in warm evenings, or a Savannah sparrow singing from nearly every fence post and a kestrel on every telephone pole. I am tremendously saddened that those younger than myself will not even know what we have lost, let alone have a memory of it.

How do you keep your head clear when you are stressed? 

My head is never clear (most of my family would agree) and I feel stressed all the time, so I have no idea. 

Just kidding.

There is nothing like just dropping it all for a few moments, hugging a loved one and giving the dog a rub behind its cute ears. Do I have that the right way around? 

Having a conversation with a colleague about an interesting research direction can do a world of good. And 40 minutes of birdwatching will set me up stress-free for about 40 hours in a row. These sorts of things never fail to put the onset of stress into perspective. 

Drawing also helps. I do a lot (a LOT) of doodling during budget meetings. 

I like to help colleagues with …/ I like answering questions about…?

Everything. Probably too much, really. Someone defined science as professional skepticism, so I tend to bring that too much into my personal life, to be honest – that's never good, but a hard habit to break or compartmentalize. And in the field of systematics (naming and classifying organisms), it can be bad. I like to say that if you have two systematists in a room, there will be four different opinions.

I do like to help colleagues in writing with clarity and consistency. I am a detail-obsessed editor, and that failing comes much into full bloom as a coauthor or as editor of journals. Sometimes, though, the bigger issues grow out of the details, and new directions and solutions can be revealed by seeing through the weeds.

I love answering questions about my family – within reason, of course – and about the natural world. Sometimes I'm not very qualified to speak about either, though!

Who would you like to send this questionnaire to and what question would you like to ask them?

Probably everyone I could think of... I had fun thinking about the answers and I'm a big believer in sharing fun, alongside thoughtfulness. I would also ask each of them about their path to science. How did they get there and where were the twists and turns in the road? Like my paleontology answer above, you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been. As I get older, this gets more and more relevant.

Rich Mooi is a marine biologist with a special interest in biodiversity. He is curator of echinoderms in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology and Geology at the California Academy of Sciences, and former director of the Academy's undergraduate research program. Over the last 40 years, he has authored over 85 papers on the origins of radial symmetry in starfish and sea urchins, Philippine marine biodiversity and deep-sea animals. He has voiced and illustrated a unique online biodiversity video course and maintains a deep interest in the intersection between science and art – and even does his all of own biological illustrations.