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Virtual Earth Optimism Lectures

Our free science lecture series will return in 2022, and will remain 100% virtual to allow more people to join! SERC's monthly science talks feature science and conservation stories from Smithsonian ecologists and researchers around the world. They air on Zoom every third Tuesday of the month at 7pm Eastern, January through October, unless otherwise noted. By signing up online, you'll be able to watch live and receive a link to a closed-captioned recording after the event. Scroll further down to see recordings from our 2021 and 2020 series.

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Recordings of Past Lectures

Keynote Robert Lee Forrest Lecture: From Global Change to Local Action
Tuesday, Oct. 19, 7-8pm Eastern
Katharine Hayhoe, Chief Scientist of The Nature Conservancy

Climate change isn’t just a problem for polar bears or future generations anymore – it’s affecting us here and now. In today's politically charged environment, are we still able to act on climate? In our series finale lecture, join Katharine Hayhoe as she untangles the complex science connecting our choices to future impacts and highlights actions underway right now to combat this critical issue.

Left: James Holmquist in muddy clothes on wetland. Right: Genevieve Noyce in white field hat on wetland
Left: James Holmquist (Credit: Lauren Brown); Right: Genevieve Noyce (Credit: Sairah Malkin/Horn Point Laboratory)

Stories from the Smithsonian's Wetland of the Future
Tuesday, Sept. 21, 7-8pm ET
James Holmquist and Genevieve Noyce, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
How much can wetlands protect us from the impacts of climate change today, and will they still be able to a century from now? In SERC's Sept. 21 webinar, scientists James Holmquist and Genevieve Noyce will reveal the latest findings from experiments on SERC's Global Change Research Wetland, where scientists are fast-forwarding to the year 2100. They'll also explore how scientists are using big data to calculate what coastal wetlands around the world mean for Earth's carbon budget and efforts to mitigate climate change.

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Closeup of Jenn Dittmar
Jenn Dittmar (Credit: Theresa Keil, National Aquarium)

Sea Turtle Rehabilitation at the National Aquarium: The Conservation Impact from Massachusetts to Florida
Tuesday, Aug. 17, 7-8pm ET
Speaker: Jennifer Dittmar, National Aquarium

Discover what goes into rescuing endangered sea turtles, with Animal Rescue Director Jennifer Dittmar of the National Aquarium! All seven of the world's sea turtle species are either threatened or endangered, though some are common, seasonal visitors to the mid-Atlantic and New England during warmer months. The National Aquarium has been rehabilitating sick and injured sea turtles for 30 years. But the conservation impact of this program reaches far beyond the waters of Maryland. The average sea turtle patient at the National Aquarium will travel more than 1,400 miles during rehabilitation—from the spot where it was stranded to its eventual release. In our August webinar, Dittmar will reveal the complex, team effort to conserve critically endangered sea turtles.

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Vince Leggett in red jacket in front of docks
Vince Leggett. Credit: Will Parson, Chesapeake Bay Program

Through Ebony Eyes: Preserving the Legacy of Blacks on the Chesapeake
Tuesday, July 20, 7-8pm ET
Vince Leggett, Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, Founder and President

For over 200 years, Black men and women have kept the seafood and maritime industries alive on the Chesapeake Bay. Yet few history books have recognized their contributions. The Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, created by Vince Leggett, has amassed a rich collection of artifacts, oral histories and over 40,000 photos documenting their experiences. On July 20, Leggett will share some of their stories. He will highlight voices from two of his books, Blacks of the Chesapeake: An Integral Part of Maritime History and The Chesapeake Bay Through Ebony Eyes. Join us for a celebration of the Black men and women who transformed—and were transformed by—life on the water.

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Head and shoulders photo of Karin Burghardt
Karin Burghardt (Credit: Abby Robinson, University of Maryland)

Landscaping for Biodiversity: A Plant-Insect Perspective
Tuesday, June 15, 7-8pm ET
Speaker: Karin Burghardt, University of Maryland

Humans actively manage and alter the majority of earth's habitats, including spaces very close to home. In our June webinar, Karin Burghardt will outline ways that our personal decisions (in gardens, yards, parks, and other green spaces) can shape plant-animal interactions, particularly whether plant-eating insects can complete their life cycles. And while insect pests often get a bad rap in gardens, a wide array of insects are quietly performing essential functions for food webs and ecosystems. In this talk, Karin will introduce you to some of these amazing critters and suggest tweaks to your own landscape practices, such as native plant selection, yard care approaches and pest management to preserve biodiversity and function in the spaces we inhabit everyday.

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Alice Hill
Alice Hill (Credit: University of Virginia)

Lessons For Addressing Climate Change from the COVID-19 Pandemic
Tuesday, May 18, 7-8pm ET
Alice Hill, Council on Foreign Relations
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a crisis unlike any other in living memory. It has also exposed the consequences of failing to prepare for catastrophic risk on a global scale. Both pandemics and climate change act as threat multipliers that amplify risks to global political stability, economic security and social welfare, while generating profound uncertainty around when and how they will occur. In our May 18 webinar, Alice Hill of the Council on Foreign Relations will explore the vast similarities between climate change and pandemics, and reveal how the world’s response to COVID-19 offers critical insights into how countries and communities can prepare for the worsening impacts of climate change.

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Earth Optimism Panel: The Hidden Workings of Forests and Their Future
Tuesday, April 20, 2021
Sean McMahon, Geoffrey "Jess" Parker and Jess Shue
As carbon-storing and carbon-cycling juggernauts, forests are a major tipping point for whether our planet can keep climate change at bay. On April 20, join three Smithsonian forest scientists for a special pre-Earth Day panel. Discover how trees store and move carbon, from the level of microscopic cells to the sweeping canopies of America's woodlands. The panelists will share decades of knowledge from SERC forests in Maryland. They'll also reveal discoveries on how forests around the world are responding to climate change, through work with the Smithsonian’s Forest Global Earth Observatory. This live conversation will include plenty of time for audience Q&A. Sign up online to view recording

Green Phragmites reeds with brownish-purple tops
Phragmites australis on SERC's Global Change Research Wetland. (Credit: Chris Patrick/SERC)

The Quest To Understand (and Manage) Invasive Phragmites
Tuesday, March 16, 2021
Speakers: Melissa McCormick and Dennis Whigham, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Since Phragmites australis began taking over U.S. wetlands in the 1970s, we have learned a lot about the non-native strain of this reed. Both human activities and the underlying biology of Phragmites have set the stage for its explosive invasion. In our March evening webinar, SERC ecologists Melissa McCormick and Dennis Whigham will delve into the latest science, developed over more than a decade of Phragmites research at SERC. They will also highlight efforts by scientists and local citizens to link the ecology of Phragmites with efforts to manage it, and discuss public perceptions of this not-so-friendly European visitor.
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Brown river otter on rocky beach
North American River Otter (Credit: Matthew Fryer)

Things You "Otter" Know
Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021
Speaker: Karen McDonald, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Learn about river otters in the Chesapeake Bay, in a two-part event for kids and adults! At 6pm, get a lesson in river otter anatomy with a "Draw An Otter With A Biologist" activity led by Karen McDonald. At 7pm, Karen will lead a virtual science talk about these mostly nocturnal and notoriously shy creatures. She'll explore what we know, what we don't know and the research SERC is conducting about otters. Younger kids can download this coloring sheet to do during the talk or afterwards. 

Sign up online to view the recording

Black primate with furry white cheeks sitting on a tree
Black-Crested Gibbon. (Credit: Joel Carnat; Creative Commons License)

Beyond Pandas: The Wildlife of Southwest China
Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021
Speaker: Bill McShea, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
China has established an impressive array of reserves to conserve the giant panda. These reserves also harbor many unique species of mammals in one of the world's biodiversity hotspots. In our kickoff lecture of 2021, join Smithsonian wildlife ecologist Bill McShea to learn about the ecology and conservation of these species in a land striving to conserve its natural heritage in the face of rapid development. Sign up to view the recording on Zoom

Man in blue coat kneeling on rocky beach beside large bones
Nick Pyenson with whale bones on Cuverville Island, in Antarctica. (Credit: Martha Stewart)

Spying on Whales
Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, 7-8pm
Nick Pyenson, Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History
We think of whales as icons of the sea, but the first whales were certainly not like the ones that you see today: They lived on land, had four legs, and were the size of a dog. How do we know about the deep past of whales, and what does that tell us about how evolution works? In the finale of SERC's 2020 Earth Optimism series, get a closer look with Nick Pyenson, author of "Spying on Whales" and curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Dive in for the surprising backstory and a glimpse of our shared future with these enigmatic giants. The talk spans the poles to the equator; ice-locked waters to dry deserts; from millions of years in the past to our uncertain future.
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Collage with three photos of scientists outdoors
Clockwise from left: Zoe Johnson (Credit: Amelia Johnson), Chela Zabin (Credit: Brandy Gale) and Jason Toft (Credit: Kathleen Pozarycki)

Building Climate-Resilient Communities on the Coasts
Tuesday, August 18, 2020, 7-8:30pm
Zoë Johnson, Co- Chair, Annapolis City Dock Resiliency Workgroup
Jason Toft, University of  Washington
Chela Zabin, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center - San Francisco Branch
Moderator: Kristen Minogue, Smithsonian Environmental Research
Tens of millions of Americans make their homes in coastal cities. How these cities adapt to rising seas will determine their futures in the 21st century. In our August webinar, three experts from cities on the East and West Coasts of the U.S. share stories and ideas about how coastal communities can build resiliently in the face of sea level rise. 
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Head and shoulders picture of woman standing on a mountain with red and yellow fall colors in the background
Kim Komatsu. (Credit: Karin Burghardt)

Working Landscapes: Doing Science To Help People and Nature
Tuesday, July 21, 2020, 7-8pm
Kim Komatsu, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
As humans, we depend on the environment for our well-being and livelihoods. Yet in an era of global change, these critical environmental services are under threat. Now more than ever, it's vital for communities to work together to understand the impacts humans have on the environment and how we can mitigate those effects. In this talk Dr. Kim Komatsu, a scientist with SERC and the Smithsonian's Working Land and Seascapes Initiative, highlights new research that's serving both people and nature. She'll focus on two projects in the Chesapeake Bay region: how soil microbes can protect soybeans—the second most farmed crop in the U.S.—and how land use is changing diversity in our forests. Join us for an evening of conservation optimism, focused on science to protect our working landscapes for future generations. 
Sign up online to watch the recording on Zoom

Cyrena Simons (Credit: Stoney Simons)

Bay-Wise Gardening To Help The Environment
Tuesday, June 16, 2020, 7-8pm
Speaker: Cyrena Simons, Anne Arundel County Master Gardeners
While many are at home and gardening, there are many bay-friendly practices you can use to enhance your property and the environment. At our June virtual evening lecture, Master Gardener Cyrena Simons shares tips from the University of Maryland's Master Gardener Bay-Wise Program. Bay-wise gardening can take less work and less money, while attracting birds and butterflies to your garden. Cyrena also shares resources for getting free help with gardening questions. While this webinar focuses on examples from the Chesapeake, the Master Gardener Program has connections with state universities all across the country.
Sign up online to watch the recording on Zoom

Download the webinar slides (pdf)

Earlier Lectures

Audio or slides only

Greg Ruiz (Credit: SERC)

Global Trade, Ballast Water and Invasive Species on Ships
Tuesday, May 19, 2020
Speaker: Greg Ruiz, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Global trade is enabling invasive species to cross borders at unprecedented speeds. But it’s also triggered the rise of new technologies to combat them. In this talk, SERC marine biologist Greg Ruiz highlights some of the latest efforts to track and clean up the ballast water in ship hulls—a key way invasive species have crossed oceans—and the research that's helping prevent future invasions. 
Listen to audio of lecture

Tom Jordan (Credit: SERC)

City Stream, Country Stream: Getting a Clearer Picture of Stream Restorations
Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020
Speaker: Tom Jordan, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Stream restorations, especially in urban watersheds, are a popular strategy for reducing nutrient loads to Chesapeake Bay. However, the latest research suggests their effectiveness can vary. In this talk, SERC nutrient ecologist Tom Jordan compares two stream restorations his lab has been tracking: an urban one and a rural one. He reveals the different approaches each restoration took, and how each measured up in terms of improving water quality.
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View lecture slides


Richard Bowen (Credit: Kristin Lagana)

How to Recycle More and Recycle Right
Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020 
Speaker: Richard Bowen, Anne Arundel County Dept. of Public Works
In our kickoff lecture of 2020, Richard Bowen, recycling program manager for Anne Arundel County, answers questions about what can and can't be recycled in the county and the services the county offers to help residents recycle more effectively. Get an inside look at what happens to the items we throw out.
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View lecture slides

Jane Lubchenco (Credit: NOAA)

2019 Keynote Lecture - The Ocean: Our Future
Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019
Speaker: Jane Lubchenco, former administrator of NOAA
Our grand finale lecture of 2019 featured marine biologist Jane Lubchenco, the first female administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In this talk, Dr. Lubchenco took stock of the challenges in achieving a healthy ocean, while highlighting the encouraging actions underway to address these problems. Focusing on science-based solutions embraced by communities, businesses, and governments, she connected the dots between the health of oceans and coasts, and our own health and prosperity.
Listen to audio of the lecture