Alumna becomes proactive in environmental welfare

Robyn McNeil, Managing Editor

A recent Francis Marion University (FMU) graduate is using her skills in science and
communication to improve local environmental conditions along the South Carolina coast.
Kerrie Bethel graduated from FMU in December 2012 with a double major in psychology
and English – professional writing.
Bethel explained that it was through her degree in psychology and professional writing that
she learned to communicate scientific research to the general public. “That was a major benefit of continuing my science education while I pursued English as technical writing,” Bethel said.  “As I was doing research, I was writing manuals.  I realized that I could use those two worlds to make things that are incomprehensible understandable for the people that use it because they are the ones who need it.”
As a liaison for the North-Inlet Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR),
Bethel communicated with homeowners associations in Myrtle Beach to deter the effects of
chemical runoff in the city’s waters. “When we think of the word ‘chemicals’ we think of insecticides, nail polish remover or cleaners; but the water that we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat are made up of chemicals,” Bethel said.  “Natural chemicals include nitrogen and oxygen in our air, phosphorous. We put them together to make things like fertilizer, which everyone assumes is a good thing because it’s the opposite of an insecticide and helps things grow; but if we use too much of it, it gets washed back down into a pond or nearest sewer.”
According to Bethel, even though a product such as fertilizer is made from natural chemicals,
it is not necessarily used in amounts that are natural for a given environment and can actually
harm the ecosystem in which things grow.
“The biggest problem that we have now is from fertilizer, or pet waste, something made of
very natural things,” Bethel said.  “Those chemicals are degrading in our ocean water, creating
carbon dioxide and other chemicals that get rid of all the oxygen in the water, and nothing can
live or breathe without oxygen.”
Bethel explained that the issue of excessive fertilization is what led NERR to begin
researching the Myrtle Beach area.  According to Bethel, the chemical runoff is causing a
reduction in flounder, shrimp and other life that uses the estuary to breathe, and this will hamper
the fishing and tourism industries.
“It reduces the amount of fish that they can serve in their restaurants,” Bethel said.  “It also
dirties up the coastal waters with litter, which makes it unattractive for tourists.  They lose their
money.  They lose their livelihoods.”
Bethel said she felt a duty to simplify the meaning of scientists’ jargon and instead explain
the dangers of excessive fertilization in a way that residents could understand because “research
is to benefit the audience, not the writer and not the scientist.”
“Hard scientists are very much in a mindset that if it is not absolutely accurate – and the only
way to do that is to use a term and its exact definition – then it is absolutely wrong,” Bethel said.
“It comes from looking at numbers and data, things that are black and white, and they often work with and communicate with other scientists…it becomes more difficult to break it down on the
teaching level for someone who is not educated in that field.”
Through generalized communication and logical appeals, Bethel said she was able to help
NERR met its goals of creating a discussion among policy makers about regulations on storm
water ponds, improving management for homeowners associations and building a community
network that is involved with the entire restoration process.
Bethel said she has always been passionate about working within the community and wants
students to know that educating and helping others is a necessary part of the human experience.
“You can teach someone anything, but you can’t teach them to care about it,” Bethel said.
“Caring about something and being passionate about your work is most important.  That’s what
makes you good at it.”