Winning an Emmy award is not a typical accomplishment for scientists. However, for James Porter, a University of Georgia ecology professor, it was an extension of his work as a scientist and educator.
"I see both my Sundance win, my Peabody award and my Emmy award as a direct outcome of my teaching," Porter said.
Porter was among the team behind “Chasing Coral,” a documentary that recently won an Emmy award for Outstanding Nature Documentary. “Chasing Coral” focuses on the decline of coral reefs in oceans, a phenomenon known as coral bleaching. The film featured a series of Porter’s photos that show “before” and “after” states of coral reefs.
Porter’s involvement in “Chasing Coral” started when he was approached by the director and producer Jeff Orlowski. Porter said after an initial one-hour interview that turned into three days, his role as a scientific adviser for the film was the result of displaying the same philosophy he adopts when teaching.
“It was my interest in going into the classroom and making clear science that allowed me to present myself to the filmmakers as someone who could communicate to their viewership and to their listeners,” Porter said.
To further explain it, Porter said unlike many scientists who base their lectures thinking “What does the class need to know?” he adopts a different approach.
“When I create a lecture, I ask the question ‘Why would you want to know this?’ and if I can communicate why you want to know something, the content follows easily,” Porter said.
Throughout his career, Porter has been active in science communication and advocating for environmental issues. Whether it’s teaching in the classroom or testifying to the U.S. Congress, Porter said there is a key to effectively deliver your message to different audiences.
"Narrative allows people to understand what's being said and to remember what's being said," Porter said. "Narrative is the way to do that."
Through narrative, “Chasing Coral” was able to reach the audience and raise awareness of environmental issues, Porter believes.
"From my point of view, ‘Chasing Coral’ has gotten the word out about climate change and the
environmental catastrophe that we humans are responsible for," Porter said. "The reason the film works and the reason the word is out and the reason people are viewing it is
because we had a narrative.”
In addition, Porter highlighted the importance of a visual in communicating a message. He said through a series of what he described as “pretty pictures,” he was able to deliver his message when testifying to Congress on the effect of global warming on coral reefs.
“The power of imagery, which I learned from teaching, is the power of communication which I used in my congressional and U.N. testimonies,” Porter said.
Porter also had an important message for students and young people in general about the environment.
“Hopefully, our students know from the U.N. report that came out [recently] unless we take the environment seriously, the future is dire,” Porter said.
Despite Georgia not being a hotbed of coral reefs, Porter said the film and similar efforts can bring awareness to issues relevant to local communities.
“I have met the mayor of the City of Atlanta, the mayor of Covington, Social Circle, some of the surrounding communities,” Porter said. “They have all said ‘We need to greenify our cities.’”
During one of those meetings, Porter recalled a conversation with the mayor of Covington, who was talking about his trip to Mexico, and Porter said he thought of beaches, but the mayor instead talked about witnessing the decline of migratory monarch butterflies.
“[The mayor of Covington] looked me straight in the eye and said ‘This isn’t different from your film, is it?’ And I said ‘No, it’s not.’ We are connected through our film with people who do make a difference,” Porter said.
Scott Connelly, a UGA ecology lecturer, said Porter’s role in “Chasing Coral” can have an effect on the classroom environment.
“One of [Porter’s] skills is communication and being able to tell the story in an engaging and exciting way, and that’s what we try to do in the classes,” Connelly said. “We try to tell stories that make sense and are meaningful to students.”
Connelly said effective communication can make a change beyond the classroom.
“If you can tell a story in a way that people can relate to it and that they can understand it, they have a much higher likelihood of taking action,” Connelly said.