Published: Nov. 9, 2023

By Hannah Stewart (Comm’19)
Photos courtesy Jo Marras Tate (PhDComm'23)

Growing up in a family surrounded by animals and plants helped Jo Marras Tate (PhDComm’23) develop a love of science and the environment. It’s why she completed bachelor’s degrees in marine biology and psychobiology. 

But inspiration turned to frustration as she realized the work she and her colleagues were doing in areas like conservation wasn’t reaching the general public, leading to her pivot from biology to communication.

“I fell in love with the study of how we talk,” she said.

Over the course of her six years studying communication at CMCI, she was a fellow with NEST—Nature Environment Science and Technology—Studio for the Arts, served as science communication facilitator at Fiske Planetarium, and was on a team that brought science and art together via murals sprinkled throughout campus.

Across her research, Marras Tate has strived to encourage and build relationships between nature and humans, which is why she jumped at the chance to be part of the NEST Mural Quest, a series of larger-than-life murals created during the pandemic, and a Campus Field Guide that both catalogs the wildlife that call CU Boulder home and allows users to journal about their findings.

She also served as a peer mentor and with Science Under the Dome at Fiske Planetarium, giving her avenues to help other graduate and postdoctoral students bring their research to wider audiences. 

“One of the things I really hoped for the field guide is for people to learn about the species we share our campus with, because it’s their campus too,” she said.

For her doctoral dissertation, she studied human-animal relationships between people and different animals during COVID lockdowns. Among them: captive garden eels—people held video calls with the eels so they would not “forget” humans—wild mountain lions that ventured into empty urban areas and wild dolphins, which had regularly interacted with humans and brought gifts to the shore in an apparent attempt to reconnect.

“I don’t do animal behavior research at the moment, I research the human’s understanding of the animal’s behavior and communication,” Marras Tate said.

Take, for example, the dolphins in Queensland, Australia, that made headlines for “bringing gifts” to humans during the COVID lockdowns in 2020. Calling such a behavior gifting is controversial within the scientific community because it ascribes human-like behavior to animals. 

But sociologically, experts argue that the act of reciprocity happens across cultures, so calling the dolphins’ actions “gifting” allowed for greater engagement with these animals. That could, by extension, shape how humans engage with the natural world.

“When we engage with gifting as a practice with nature, how does it make us think about what we give back? We might do things differently if we saw them as gifts to nature,” she said. “That’s my hope for my work, that we can continue to think about those things that happen and see new conservation practices.”

Marras Tate’s unique perspective on nature and communication—especially her eagerness to collaborate with others across disciplines—will serve her well as she moves her career forward, said her dissertation advisor, Leah Sprain.

“Jo’s infectious energy and enthusiasm peaks for all things science communication. She came into our department with a desire to build on a deep history of citizen science and thinking about communication for scientists,” said Sprain, associate chair for graduate studies in communication. “She is able to draw on cultural communication approaches to help more fully understand animal communication in ways that engage with biology’s work on animal behavior and communication—and go beyond their approaches too.”

Marras Tate’s unique work—as well as her involvement in various campus organizations, such as CU Boulder Colorado Ocean Coalition Chapter and the Communication Graduate Student Association—led to her recognition as the 2023 Forever Buffs Student Award recipient, which was presented at homecoming.

For Marras Tate, the honor is a reminder of how students at CU Boulder can create impact, both through extracurricular involvement and research. 

“CU Boulder was my first choice for graduate school,” Marras Tate said. “I ended up where I wanted to be, and winning this award at the end of my PhD career was an amazing feeling and a culmination of all the work I’ve done on behalf of our different communities.