Blake says she grew up with an “accidental” love of science – she loved animals and was always curious (“I was the annoying kid who was constantly asking ‘why’?” she says), but she didn’t realise those two things could be turned into a career until it came time to choose what to study at university.
After considering her options, Blake signed up for a degree in science, majoring in biology, at James Madison University in her home country of the United States. Her real passion was sharks, so after uni Blake headed to Australian shores, where she completed a PhD at The University of Queensland investigating how sharks sense the world around them.
“I looked at how developed and sensitive sharks’ eyes were from before they were born and all throughout their life,” she explains. Blake’s research helped us discover that sharks can see well before they’re born, and answered important questions like whether sharks can see colour (like dolphins, they can’t!).
“The more we know about how sharks sense their surroundings, the better we can manage our tools and actions for things like fishing, avoiding catching sharks as by-catch, and of course, helping to protect people from being bitten by sharks,” she says.
Telling the truth about sharks
Blake spent more than a decade as a researcher at The University of Queensland, but her career has also seen her put her science background to a different use – as a writer and communicator, with a focus on challenging the myths and misconceptions that surround sharks.
While she didn’t realise it at the time, this twist in Blake’s career meant the general education components of her undergraduate degree – including English, Psychology and Philosophy, which seemed irrelevant at the time – all gave her a solid foundation for a career in science communication.
In 2017 Blake published a book called Shark Attacks: Myths, Misunderstandings and Human Fear. This led to a one-off writing job for Australian Geographic, which evolved into a regular gig as the publication’s ‘Shark Editor-at-Large’.
“I now write monthly blogs for them, as well as help out where necessary on other articles related to sharks,” she says. “I love this position!”
Blake’s articles cover topics ranging from whether shark numbers are increasing or decreasing, to shark safety tips and whether shark nets actually work.
“Sharks are incredible animals for so many reasons, but they get a really bad rap. Although decades have passed since my first inspiration to debunk some of the misunderstandings around sharks, I’ve not lost my passion for this topic,” she says.
“Being able to provide real, interesting information about sharks to a broad audience is extremely fun and rewarding for me. I get to write about sharks from an angle that isn’t often represented in popular media: one that is not sensationalised or fuelled by emotion.”
Want to work as a science communicator?
Science communicators are like translators between scientists and the everyday public. “Scientific discovery is really important, but discoveries fall short of reaching their full impact if people don’t know about them or understand exactly why they’re so important,” says Blake.
Often scientists are great at communicating their research to other scientists, but explaining research to the general public in an engaging way is a different skill set that scientists haven’t always honed, says Blake.
“Science communicators can help by translating scientific findings into a language that is appropriate and understandable to lots of different audiences, like kids in school learning about that very topic, or adults who don’t have a background in the subject, the media, or even funding bodies.”
Blake’s advice for anyone interested in a career as a science communicator is to seek out as broad an education as possible. A science degree at uni provides a great foundation for understanding a diverse range of scientific topics. Also seek out opportunities to practice speaking and writing, and don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone, she says.
“Many companies are hiring people to just look after communication and outreach. Science communication has a significant place in many fields, and I believe it is an area that is growing in need,” says Blake.
In between her communications and outreach work, Blake continues to research shark bites and consults with organisations around the world on strategies to help minimise the risk of sharks to humans.
Author: Gemma Chilton
Gemma is the Managing Editor of Careers with STEM magazine. She has previously worked as Digital Managing Editor at Australian Geographic and a staff writer at Cosmos science magazine.