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Red tide-related fish mortality off the coast of St. Petersburg, Fla. (Photo source: Adobe Stock)

Red tide-related fish mortality off the coast of St. Petersburg, Fla. (Photo source: Adobe Stock)

Anthropology professor bridges gap in scientific communication through the integration of red tide research and music

When red tide hits an economy, no one knows how bad it will be. While scientists and researchers can grasp the complex data needed to predict the costs of these occurrences, the wider community often does not have the same opportunity.

Assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, Dr. Heather O’Leary. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)

Assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, Dr. Heather O’Leary. (Photo by Christopher Campbell)

For the past two decades, assistant professor Dr. Heather O'Leary has maintained a keen interest in issues concerning water and equity.

As director of the EcoFem Lab in the Department of Anthropology at USF St. Petersburg, O’Leary is an experienced researcher looking into subjects such as transnational disparities in women's rights, water politics, urbanization, and environmental issues. 

Her explorations have taken her to remote corners of the globe, such as Delhi, India, where she conducted a study on how social barriers influenced the accessibility of information for water sources in this area.

“In Delhi, I collaborated with remarkable sustainability advocates, mostly women with limited education beyond second grade. Despite their dedication to clean water advocacy, many of them found it challenging to understand basic data or read spreadsheets. In the illegal settlement, or ‘slum’ where I did my research, there was a common stigma where people were hesitant to share their data, even to the extent of avoiding writing down their names. We worked to destigmatize this fear, enabling them to comfortably engage with data in spreadsheets and collect information about their water sources,” O’Leary explained.

“We can see the same thing happening here in Tampa Bay, but the concept of illiteracy takes on a different meaning. It’s not just about recent advanced math or scientific degrees, it's about understanding data that directly impacts our lives,” she added. “As a woman, mother, and community member, I've worked hard to interpret this information about our water sources, and it's a problem if only an educated elite have access to this information and know how to interpret it.”

O’Leary’s interest in this topic led to her involvement in a red tide research article published in 2014 titled, “Non-linear impacts of harmful algae blooms on the coastal tourism economy.”

Collaborating with Sergio Alvarez and March Garcia Diaz from the University of Central Florida’s Rosen School of Hospitality Management, Christina E. Brown from the Department of Agriculture, and Daniel Solís from Florida A&M University, the study was funded by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Conducted in Florida, the study took into account three data streams: economic, social, and natural world data. The researchers examined how profits in the tourism sector responded to harmful algae blooms to identify potential correlations.

One of O'Leary’s contributions was to utilize an application programming interface (API) to conduct a qualitative analysis, focusing on the conversations and sentiments of individuals affected by red tide.

Assisted by her students in the EcoFem Lab, O'Leary categorized all online discussions related to red tide.

 “We web-scraped all Tweets that had anything related to red tide or algae blooms. We pulled Tweets that were geo-located in Florida, so these were either users who were based in Florida or Tweets made about red tide when the user was in Florida. This resulted in over 5,000 Tweets during the time of the article. We examined the frequency of Tweets to determine if there was a correlation between worsening red tide conditions and an increase in Tweet frequency. Additionally, we analyzed factors like decreased air quality and proximity to the beach to assess their impact on Tweet frequency. Our objective was to use this social data to fill in the gaps of marine sampling data and provide a more comprehensive understanding of red tide effects on tourism,” O’Leary said.

The results of this article revealed that while harmful algae blooms can indeed impact tourism businesses and result in economic losses, these effects are not solely driven by the algae bloom itself.

Human behavior plays a significant role in amplifying these impacts. Social media discussions about red tide are likely to influence tourism itineraries, resulting in less spending on tourism-related activities.

This study enables early warning signs for state and local governments to apply for government funding in the event of a harmful algae bloom, she explained.

While the findings were significant, the data proved to be challenging for non-experts to understand. Reflecting on her experiences in India, this sparked an idea in O’Leary’s mind.

She decided to leverage her research experience to bridge data literacy tools with the community through a unique medium: music!

“My idea considered, ‘How could we broaden the audience for our data but also the potential learning for this in the future?’ That’s where the idea of CRESCENDO came about, turning data into music that people could enjoy and understand. This approach serves two purposes, first, it allows disciplinary scientists to gain insights by analyzing data from different perspectives, and second, the data we observed encompasses economic, social, and natural world aspects. So, instead of just interpreting data visually, we can listen to it, translating complex numbers into patterns that our ears and brains can understand in diverse ways,” O’Leary said.

O'Leary developed CRESCENDO, an acronym that stands for Communicating Research Expansively through Sonification and Community-Engaged Neuroaesthetic Data-literacy Opportunities. This initiative received backing from two internal USF grants, the Cross Campus Partnership Grant and the Creative Scholarship Grant.

CRESCENDO generates music based on research conducted by O’Leary and other USF researchers.

The aim of this initiative is not only to simplify complex data but also to make it accessible to K-12 students and the wider public. Although still in its early stages, CRESCENDO has ambitious plans to make environmental research accessible and fun for student learning.

The CRESCENDO researchers (from left), Matthew McCutchen, Dr. Heather O'Leary, Grace Oh, Carrie Clarke, Huron Falkenburt, Hunter Pomeroy, Elis Jones, and Paul Reller following the performance by the USF Symphonic Band and Wind Ensemble concert on Feb. 12th. (Photo by Aiden Michael McKahan)

The CRESCENDO researchers (from left), Matthew McCutchen, Dr. Heather O'Leary, Grace Oh, Carrie Clarke, Huron Falkenburt, Hunter Pomeroy, Elis Jones, and Paul Reller following the performance by the USF Symphonic Band and Wind Ensemble concert on Feb. 12th. (Photo by Aiden Michael McKahan)

“Our work is ongoing, and our next steps involve creating a music video that integrates performances from various locations, including Mote Marine Labs and St. Petersburg Beach. Additionally, we will collaborate with our colleagues in graphic arts to incorporate visual graphics that correspond to changes in the data set as the music plays. This approach aims not only to present data in a new format but also to enhance data literacy by leveraging people's sensitivity to auditory changes in pitch, pace, rhythm, and the introduction of new instruments,” O’Leary explained. “Our plan includes integrating these elements into lesson plans with support from our education team. Students will not only learn about music but also gain insights into life and what it means to be a transdisciplinary scholar. This approach aims to foster a community where students can make robust and scientifically informed decisions as composers, highlighting key data patterns and preparing them for the complex challenges they may face in the future.”

A musical composition of O’Leary’s data was recently performed by the USF Symphonic Band and Wind Ensemble during their concert on Feb. 12th.

Reflecting on this initiative, O’Leary emphasizes the significance of creating data accessible to all, regardless of expertise. She stresses the importance of inclusive scientific education, where scientists from diverse disciplines engage in discussions and mutual learning.

“As scientists, we must recognize and value the deep expertise that everyday people possess in the questions we explore. Embracing open, democratic, and inclusive science is crucial for tackling complex problems. Collaboration is key to achieving mutual understanding and fostering a more inclusive scientific community,” O’Leary explained. “As an anthropologist and participant in sustainability efforts at USF, it serves as a reminder that our university is designed to bring together experts from various fields to contribute to the growth of both students and research projects. From these projects, we aim to generate solutions and ideas that transform our society, and that transformation can come from listening to music and listening to spreadsheets.”

To learn more about O’Leary’s research and updates on CRESCENDO, visit the Department of Anthropology.

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CAS Chronicles is the monthly newsletter for the University of South Florida's College of Arts and Sciences, your source for the latest news, research, and events at CAS.