Turning of the Page: Seven Years of Building a SciComm Community in Sacramento

I didn’t know what this day would look like or feel like — let alone that it would be astride a sadly undeterred global pandemic.

But I’m very proud that this day is here — and of all the many things we’ve accomplished since creating the Capital Science Communicators network seven years ago.

As the 2020-2021 Executive Board begins work this autumn — voted by you, our CapSciComm Professional and Student Members — I want to give my gratitude to each of the passionate volunteers who have helped brought life and energy to CapSciComm since we formed a leadership team in 2015: Dharia McGrew, Don Gibson, Andrea Graffis, Candace Spier Bever, Debra Cooper, Emily Underwood, Nir Oksenberg, Katie Rodger, and Sarah Barnes. They have each added a brushstroke to our identity, as we worked to unite a presence for science communicators here in the Sacramento region.

Most of all, I thank my co-founder Becky Oskin, whose support and past experience gave me the confidence and boost I needed to start this network. Thank you, Becky, for your role in building our professional community. And my executive co-chair Nick Gray, who has done so much of the heavy lifting promoting local science cafés and organizing so many of our great events these past couple years. You amplified our voices (sometimes quite literally!).

And to our new leadership — Allie, Cory, Victoria, Laura, Pratik, and Patty — I wish you the very, very best. The heart of CapSciComm is about connecting people and bringing them together — and that it continues to exist as a resource. From there, you can grow into anything, and help give life to the important things.

When we do these two simple things, our greater Sacramento community is better for it. Science deserves a place in California’s Capital Region — and we need communicators of every calling, interest, and perspective to serve this great need.

Let’s keep building — and let’s keep science spicy.

Ben Young Landis
CapSciComm Founder

For those of you who would like to read on, here’s a memoir of our origins and happy victories:

Planting a Seed

Where did we begin? In 2012, I was two years into my career as an outreach specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Western Ecological Research Center, headquartered here in Sacramento. Fate brought me to this job and back to the Capital Region: I had not expected to return after studying at UC Davis years earlier, where I would also work as an environmental science technician and manager. But turns of events later, I returned as an early career science writer and communicator.

I had to get my feet underneath me first — it was a new job with new responsibilities and a lot to learn. Yet one thing gnawed at me: I was missing a community. Certainly, Sacramento has its share of press clubs and associations for PIO’s, marketers, and media professionals. However, we lacked a space and network to discuss the intersection of news, communications, and science — much like the Science Communicators of North Carolina (SCONC) network that had nurtured me in my years away.

I resolved to create that same community feel here in our Capital Region, seeing no other efforts. Actually, that’s not quite true: the venerated Northern California Science Writers Association (NCSWA) has long served our wide (and tall) swath of NorCal. Still, most events where hosted in the Bay Area — not an easy drive on I-80 for evening events. We needed our own “expansion team” with events local to us.

The timing and details of things escape me by now — emails and notes hidden away in folders unknown — but I do recall speaking with NCWSA leaders Bob Sanders and Sarah Yang when we all attended the ScienceWriters2012 annual meeting in Raleigh that October. In the back booth of a rowdy pub where the conference Halloween party was hosted, I mentioned the idea of starting a professional network separate but in kindred spirit with NCSWA — asking their blessing, pretty much. And it was given!

A Name and a Face

The other critical moment I remember was Thanksgiving 2012, when my dear friend José González visited for the holidays.

By then, I had arrived at a name for our new organization. My challenge was to come up with a fitting yet memorable name — and one that would further perpetuate the unofficial pun battle that had spread across these types of local scicomm groups. You already know that “SCONC” is pronounced “skunk” and celebrates that malodorous mammal as its mascot. Elsewhere, Science Writers in New York (SWINY) boasted a swine, whereas the D.C. Science Writers Association network (DCSWA) flouted a duck (say it with me: duck-SWA). So we had to have an organismal pun as well in our name.

I can’t recall the exact day, but it was one of those “shower moments” of creative spark. Running through animal name after animal name and the word “Sacramento” with no good idea, I somehow was compelled to think of plants, and also play with “capital” instead of “Sacramento”. And there it was: CapSciComm, as a pun of Capsicum — the genus name of chili peppers and bell peppers and more. The name would pay homage to our regional horticultural heritage, and it certainly satisfy the pun criterion. (We still get tweets to this day from people writing: “I just got the joke.” People either either love it and praise it or begrudging accept it…)

About the logo: Sketching and doodling between turkey leftovers and movie marathons as we do, I of course mentioned to José about my idea for CapSciComm. I had sketched variations of chili peppers and State Capitol domes and silhouettes of the Golden State, and none seem to work. A talented cartoonist, José sketched a pair of googly eyes that popped with life. I slapped them on an outline of California redrawn as a red chili pepper, and we had our first logo.

Though a year in we would eventually switch to a less cartoony emblem — using a more realistic state outline and inserting a gold star to mark Sacramento’s geographic location — José’s artistic and spiritual support was instrumental. (Coincidentally, José formed Latino Outdoors as an idea that same year — and now it is a flourishing national nonprofit.)

Watering the Field

We officially sprouted in the spring of 2013. After drumming up interest via email to known journalists, writers, and PIO’s in the region over several months, I asked anyone interested in organizing to attend an April 12th founding meeting at Pangea Bier Cafe in Sacramento. There were only three of us that day — I recall asking everyone to autograph a piece of paper as a memento (another piece of paper lost to file boxes) — but the summer would see us truly blossom.

Our first official event was June 20, 2013, a networking social at the then-Bistro Michel in Sacramento. We alternated to Davis, at de Vere’s Irish Pub, for our next event on July 18, a pattern we would strive to accommodate in following years, to cater to folks on either side of the oft-jammed Yolo Causeway (a mild irony given that we were founded to avoid another geographic gulf…). I also looked out for other notable events we could piggy-back to, like when NPR science journalist Joe Palca visited UC Davis in November 14th. On Twitter, Facebook, and on our website, I would share relevant jobs postings and conference announcements.

2014 would see a big jump in CapSciComm’s reach. Earlier that winter, Brenda Dawson had been sending me alerts about the Davis Science Café, launched by Professor Jared Shaw in late 2012. By Spring 2014, I finally officially met Jared and started becoming a regular fixture at his events, happily cross-promoting this great series on Twitter, as our two programs shared the same goal in supporting local science communication. Fitting to Jared’s chemistry expertise, this synergy would prove to be a catalyst, because later in 2014 we would inspire the launch of another science café series in the region: Science Night Live at the World of Wonders Science Museum in Lodi. Nick Gray — yes that Nick — had just moved to the area and started work as the museum’s education program coordinator when he was searching the internet to see if science cafés already existed in our Capital Region. The connection was made — and Jared Shaw was the Lodi event’s first guest speaker that November 5th!

Branching Out

Those early years gained a good buzz. When notable scicomm guests toured the area for a speaking engagement, like radio reporter Ari Daniel in March 2014, we would step up and host a social around that guest. Locally, Capital Public Radio was also taking an interest in science cafés, and the Insight morning talk show would begin inviting scientist guests for promo interviews ahead of their Davis Science Café or Science Night Live appearance. That meant we had Beth Ruyak talking live on the air about sea otters, radiotagging studies, deep-sea corals, alpaca antibodies, algal biofuels — and perhaps portentously, preventing pandemics.

We also found new friends and partners. August 2014 would see the first time since our founding that a major scientific conference was hosted in Sacramento, and we went on to partner with the Ecological Society of America for its #ESA2014 Annual Meeting, hosting a networking social and helping coordinate a special Davis Science Café for their attendees. Another partner, the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) and its amazing Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (the “CCST Science Fellows”), would team up with us for the first time in January 2015, beginning our deep connection with the State Capitol policy scene. The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) also made a scouting visit — they would return in full in 2016 for their annual meeting then.

Other activities began to hit their stride. By Summer 2015, we finally assembled our first-ever, all-volunteer CapSciComm Board, comprised of Andrea Graffis, Becky Oskin, Don Gibson, Candace Spier Bever, Nick Gray, and Dharia McGrew. With this new volunteer capacity, we tried out new events like CapSciComm Professional Workshops, offering free panels and trainings. We began reaching out to local institutions to host exciting CapSciComm Science Tours, with backstage visits to the Sacramento Zoo and other local points of science. We tested out “The Pepper”, our email newsletter roundup of relevant events, jobs, and links. We helped provide community for each summer’s AAAS Mass Media Fellow placed at the Sacramento Bee, and we co-hosted mixer events with other professional networks like the New Leaders Council.

Bearing Fruit

It’s been wonderful to see all that we’ve grown and helped take part in these past few years. Autumn 2016 saw two big events, one being the SEJ 2016 Annual Meeting taking place in Sacramento, the first time in recent memory that a major journalism conference came to town. For #SEJ2016, CapSciComm and CCST co-hosted a special conversation dinner connecting SEJ attendees with locals in science communication. The other was the launch of a brand new science café series — Sac Science Distilled — launched by the Science Says UC Davis student group and the then-Powerhouse Science Center (soon to be MoSaC in 2021). The newest science café series debuted with great applause featuring longtime CapSciComm member Sara Kross, and of course would soon feature Jared Shaw and Annaliese Franz — the professorial powerhouse couple who would hold the distinction of possibly hosting the first-ever candle-lit science café event, after a storm knocked out electricity at Old Ironsides that January night!

We saw the world change in 2017, which prompted our CapSciComm Board to issue our first-ever community solidarity statement and participate in the first-ever Sacramento March for Science. Our mission to support science communication and science communicators, especially for California’s Capital Region, seemed ever more urgent. We continued hosting events that helped students and early career professionals network with more seasoned science communicators, and would go on to collaborate on events with the likes of the Water Education Foundation, American Planning Association YPG Sacramento Chapter, NFA Sacramento Freelancers Network, Green Drinks Sacramento, and the Bay-Delta Science Conference. The incredible CapSciComm Science Tours would go on to visit regional science sites like the Mather vernal pools, California ISO, UC Davis Crocker Nuclear Lab, SMUD Rancho Seco solar facility, SVC Deer Creek Hills, Yolo Causeway bats, and the Regional San Wastewater Treatment Plant. And whenever renowned names like Alan Alda or Maryn McKenna came to town, we made sure they or their staff had a local scicomm network to connect with.

And while we can’t exactly take credit for this, but we’re super proud that under the environment CapSciComm helped cultivate, the number of active science café series in the Sacramento region grew to five ongoing series at various points, with exciting additions like Astronomy on Tap Davis in 2018 and Nerd Nite Sacramento (2.0) in April 2019. To support this vibrant network, we also hosted the first-ever Science Café Leadership Retreat in December 2018, uniting organizers of all ongoing Sacramento area public science event series for a chance to learn from one another, collaborate, and hear from like-minds in San Diego and Wisconsin.

Changing Seasons

Just as other regional groups helped inspired the creation of CapSciComm, so too did we give back to this broader national community. In autumn 2018, as part of the NASW’s ScienceWriters2018 annual meeting in Washington DC, I teamed up with Marla Broadfoot, President of SCONC, to launch the Congress of Regional Science Writers Groups (SciWriCongress) — a learning network for organizers of CapSciComm, SCONC, DCSWA, SWINY, and the many other regional professional scicomm and science writing networks around the United States. The Second SciWriCongress was hosted in 2019, and a Third SciWriCongress will be hosted in October 2020.

Also in autumn 2018, we had to cancel a November networking social due to the unprecedented hazardous air quality resulting from the Camp Fire in Paradise. We didn’t know that event would foreshadow the tumultuous upheavals that 2020 would bring us.

What we did know was that CapSciComm needed to evolve, if it was to carry on in any sustainable manner. As early as 2018, the existing volunteer CapSciComm Board began a series of strategic planning retreats to discuss how to cement CapSciComm’s survival as a helpful local network. Many cups of coffee and focused conversations later, the early bones of the new CapSciComm Charter was born. We previewed this Reorganization 2020 Plan to a select audience in December 2019, then launched the new membership drive to everyone in January 2020.

Then, the pandemics reared their heads. First, COVID-19 put a pause on everyday life, not to mention in-person events. Second, a needed, renewed call for social justice and antiracism rose throughout the United States, a call we would support in our second-ever community solidarity statement in seven years. After a pause, we endeavored to host networking events again — virtually, of course — but knowing how much more important it was now to support those who communicate science, and those who shine light on the uncertainties of the pandemic and the biases of scientific discourse. A silver lining in the new realities of COVID was that geographic boundaries fell: so we co-hosted several socials with scicomm groups in San Diego as well as Nashville. We gave focus to journalists as well as PIOs working in science. And to bring people together for some fun, cathartic outlet, we also sponsored a series of virtual science trivia nights, which ran for 15 games through to August.

Continued Harvests

Of all the things I’m most proud of in our CapSciComm history, it’s that we brought people together. Students and professionals who otherwise would not have crossed paths. Events, job postings, or connections that may have otherwise took a longer route to reach those who needed them the most (or perhaps would’ve never arrived). That someone new to town had a welcoming event or network to connect with. That a student discovered a brave new world of vocations and skills they never knew before. That a scientist got helpful practice explaining their knowledge to a public audience. That some participant found a new thing to appreciate about the science and environment in our Sacramento region.

There are so many fun little anecdotes and moments that have breathed life to our brief history, and there’s a ton more to tell obviously. A scientist getting a job transitioning to scicomm because of a link we shared. A research collaboration between grad students and zookeepers because of a field trip. An early career reporter telling a visiting author that they were a huge influence. Witnessing the groundbreaking of Sacramento’s future science museum. Feeling the spring air and hearing new friends laugh on a group hike along the rolling range among creeks and gnarled old oak trees. Seeing the greasy, intricate gears and machinery of a particle accelerator up close.

Founding CapSciComm — and playing the excitable emcee to nearly all of our live events — are two privileges and experiences I will forever fondly hold near to my heart. This was my way of giving back to my regional community, my professional craft, and paying forward for all those times when someone lent an encouraging word to further my career. I hope that this retelling inspires you to take on whatever you see as a need in your community, in whatever way you might contribute to bring like minds together towards a greater purpose.

At the least, I hope this brief history reminds you always to #KeepScienceSpicy. May Capital Science Communicators continue to take root in our region, and may you all enjoy its sweet fruits.

Ben Young Landis
September 27, 2020

Author’s Note: Apologies for any glaring omissions or forgotten gratitudes. Such histories are necessarily brief in nature — but do reach out to me if I’ve egregiously missed anyone.

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