SciCommer Interview: Susan Tsang, PhD

By the Fancy Comma, LLC Team

“Many complex problems in the future need scientific understanding to some degree and science communicators are necessary to fill that gap,” says @batgirl_susan, who works tirelessly to dispel negativity about bats through #SciComm.

Fancy Comma talked to Dr. Susan Tsang, a bat researcher and science communicator based in Washington, DC. Her work focuses on Pteropus, a type of large bat known as a flying fox. Susan works as a natural history museum researcher and collaborator for multiple museums in the US and Philippines. She splits her time between research and outreach, using science communication (SciComm) as a vehicle to destigmatize bats in the public eye and teach the world about the vital role these uniquely fascinating creatures play in the ecosystem. 

Read on to learn more about Susan’s work, how she uses SciComm, and why SciComm is so necessary to her mission.

photo of susan tsang, phd
Dr. Susan Tsang is a natural history researcher and science communicator working to destigmatize bats in the public eye. Photo credit: Susan Tsang’s website

Fancy Comma: Where are you based? What do you do as a science professional?

Susan Tsang: I am currently based in Washington, DC. I primarily work as a consultant on biodiversity and development challenges, mainly in Southeast Asia, along with doing grantsmanship and research development for under-served and under-represented communities in STEM (for example, minority-serving institutions). 

I also still conduct my research on fruit bats (in particular, flying foxes) through my affiliations with the American Museum of Natural History, the Philippine National Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park and National Natural History Museum.

FC: What is the scope of #SciComm in your region?

Susan: Ever since the pandemic started, I’ve done a lot more virtual outreach talks, primarily for audiences from middle school children to young adults. I also give seminars and guest lectures for undergraduates, and that can either be on my research, my consulting work, or my career trajectory. 

As one of the leads for the Global Union of Bat Diversity Networks (GBatNet), I also act as the editor for the blog, which summarizes important research findings on sensitive topics that are of interest to the broader bat community. I get contacted a lot by journalists for some fairly large platforms and publications to either provide expertise or to fact-check their articles before publication. 

Prior to the pandemic, I sometimes worked with museums to give guidance and suggestions for public galleries. When the Philippine National Museum of Natural History in Manila moved to a new space and had all new public galleries, they looked to me for input. I helped in many ways, ranging from providing technical input on some of the galleries where I have done research with my Filipina counterpart, down to helping with copyediting and donating items that could be used in the displays as well. 

Previously, I’ve also contributed to outreach content for bats for the area where we have done most of our conservation work in Sulawesi, Indonesia. I was fairly active on Twitter, though given what has been going on there, I will have to figure out how to approach social media given the circumstances.

FC: What activities have you covered so far in science and science communication?

Susan: For the most part, I speak about bats and bat-related topics, such as why bats are an important part of the natural ecosystems; conservation; better contextualizing what being a natural reservoir host means; or even just why bats are cool. I also talk a lot about why museums are an important part of research and why supporting and maintaining natural history collections is a boon to science. I have been asked often to speak to issues related to women in science also.

FC: Why do you think science communication can play a crucial role in biodiversity?

Susan: Science communication is especially important when working in remote places, which do not have easy access to educational resources – which is true of many of my field sites. If we want to create long-term, stable, in situ conservation projects, then we need to provide the resources and knowledge to local communities. 

I think my bat SciComm work is also very necessary as there are very few of us with that expertise compared to other creatures, yet there is so much misinformation and misconceptions about bats out in the public. I want to make people like bats more, and feel more positive about them (or at least neutral), so that they are more receptive to any information that I give them about why protecting them is important. 

Changing hearts and minds on bats matters if we want long-term change to happen through something more institutional, like legislation. Every person you convince could also help push for those changes by calling their representatives or voting.

FC: Do you think science communication is the future? What are some examples of ways science communication can help solve the problems of the 21st century (and beyond)?

Susan: There is so much misunderstanding of complex issues that impact human society—environmental sustainability, alternate energy sources, smart cities—and that requires a more informed public that can make choices based on accurate information. We need more science communicators in order to get that done. Many complex problems in the future need scientific understanding to some degree and science communicators are necessary to fill that gap. People don’t always have access to the most up-to-date science and we already have so much deterioration of trust with the scientific community. We need to put ourselves out there and do SciComm, not just hide and pretend this isn’t a problem.

About Dr. Susan Tsang

Susan Tsang is a science communicator and natural history museum researcher working to destigmatize bats in the public eye. In 2018, she founded Biodiversitas – an academic journal of the biological-zoological sciences. She also conducts research at the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, and the National Museum of the Philippines. Susan earned her BA from Skidmore College and her PhD from the City University of New York. Since then, she has served as a Fulbright scholar in Indonesia (2012-2013) and travelled across Asia – including Indonesia, Malaysia, Java, and the Philippines – to find, study, and help protect bats (check out her photos from the field here). 

Susan works tirelessly to study bat evolution, establish bat conservation programs, and help stop wildlife trafficking. She conducts teaching outreach and governmental collaboration work to help stop the stigma against bats and help the public understand the crucial role bats play in maintaining ecosystem balance. You can find out more about her and her work by visiting her page at Pteropus.net or her STEM Trading Cards. You can also follow her on Twitter (@batgirl_susan).

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