Alumna Johanna Varner is an expert on pikas: furry little mountainside-dwelling mammals that, at first glance, couldn't get any cuter. Then, you hear the sound they make, and all bets are off—they're like a squeaky plush toy come to life. Tech news site The Verge even facetiously deemed the pika superior to its cartoon counterpart, Pikachu, the lightning-shooting Pokemon character.
Of course, pikas offer more than a cuddly facade: studying this animal serves as a gateway to understanding complex ecological issues. The hamster-like creatures "are sensitive to rising temperatures and thus threatened by climate change," according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Johanna, now an assistant professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University, has built a career on researching pika survival and teaching students of all ages—including underserved populations—how to do the same. In February, AAAS honored Johanna with the 2018 Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science. The esteemed nonprofit lauded her for "infusing her public engagement with multi-directional dialogue, reaching diverse audiences and empowering participants to join in the entire process of science."
To put Johanna's achievement in context: the AAAS is the world's largest general scientific society and the publisher of the renowned academic journal Science. During the association's annual meeting in February—attended by about 10,000 people—they gave just seven awards to individuals (and one to a research team) in a variety of categories. Johanna was one of those individuals.
Watch the AAAS video on Johanna below, read the award announcement on their website, and read our Q&A with "Pika Jo" below, lightly edited for style and context.
How did it feel to win the AAAS award? What does it mean to you?
I was completely humbled—AAAS is a prestigious society in science, and it was very humbling to be recognized by them. Public engagement in science is really important, but there aren't many venues that recognize work in this area. This is one of the few awards for scientists that doesn't focus on publications, grants, or impact of science, but instead recognizes people who go out of their way to share science with nonscientists. It's pretty cool!
You wrote in an AAAS blog that you "have always been mildly obsessed with pikas (ask my college roommates)..." How did the obsession start?
Honestly, totally by watching David Attenborough documentaries. I think Planet Earth (the first one) was the first time I had seen pikas. I then made my college boyfriend and his family traipse all over Rocky Mountain National Park looking for them.
How did the nickname "Pika Jo" come about?
It was bestowed upon me by middle schoolers I worked with in SLC! I loved it.
A lot of Rowland Hall students are interested in pursuing STEM careers like yours. What advice do you have for them?
Stay curious! A lot of people think that scientists have to put their heads down, work hard, stay inside, and study books, but the real business of science is asking questions about the natural world. Obviously, hard work and studying are important, but don't forget to pay attention to the world around you, make observations, and ask questions.
Why teach the public about what you do?
By sharing our extensive knowledge of Earth's natural systems, scientists help the public make sound choices about complicated issues. However, I believe public input can also enrich our science by offering new perspectives, refining the relevance of our research, and stimulating new inquiries. Citizen science is an excellent example of these dual benefits. Volunteers who have participated in my research have reported feeling a sense of community and a closer connection to scientists in general. I've also become a better scientist as a result of participating in and directing these programs. Citizen observations have led to new investigations in my research (e.g., unusual behaviors or animals in unusual habitats). Perhaps most importantly, participating in these projects has dramatically improved my communication skills. Working with public groups forces me to conceptualize my research as compelling stories and to distill the most important and interesting points. Finally, public engagement is incredibly gratifying on a personal level. Discussing my research with public audiences reminds me why it's important and why I love ecology.
American pika, photo by the National Park Service
Why teach underserved populations?
So much of science outreach relies on voluntary participation, but if you think about who is likely to come to a science talk or presentation, it's most likely going to be the people who already know about science, already think it's important and relevant to their lives, and may already know a little bit about your topic. In contrast, we often overlook SO many populations who could be really interested in science, but don't have the opportunity to engage with it. I think it's important to meet people where they are, make science relevant to their lives/interests/values, and make it accessible so that they can not only understand, but also participate in constructing new knowledge.
What was it like to lecture about pika ecology and ecology to inmates in Utah's Salt Lake County Jail System?
The inmates were really interested, very engaged in the presentation, and asked insightful follow-up questions. It challenged a lot of our preconceived, culturally held notions about what inmates are like.
How did Rowland Hall shape you? What specific teachers, classes, experiences, etc. helped to steer you toward your current professional endeavors, from pikas to public outreach?
Peter Hayes was probably the biggest influence on my career path—he taught us to identify plants and animals and to ask questions about the natural world. I didn't take a straight path to ecology, but I think his class gave me a really important foundation. I'm always learning new things, especially now as a teacher, and I occasionally stumble on something I learned in ninth grade and remember a corresponding mnemonic device Mr. Hayes taught us—it's a nice moment when that happens!
What's next for you? Any exciting projects in the works?
I'm really enjoying my teaching job at Colorado Mesa University, but I'm still very active in both pika research and citizen science. This summer, we're working hard to be able to engage folks from the Portland area in conducting pika surveys to see how pikas in the Columbia River Gorge are faring after the Eagle Creek Fire last fall. It's an adventure, but I am really excited about both the science and the public engagement aspects of the project.