Rahel Meier is a Research Assistant in the Sustainability Communications group at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences.

We met her when she came to swissnex San Francisco as a Pier 17 Science Studio Fellow, where she delivered a SciComm Studio presentation on communicating climate change to more than 100 Bay Area professionals passionate about science and science communication. You can connect to her via LinkedIn.

What do you do?

An important part of my work is at the university gardens, which have been there for 30 years. It’s located on the hill over Lake Zurich, and you have a beautiful view of the Swiss alps. It’s very green, surrounded by a forest. It’s especially beautiful in the spring, with tulips and colorful flowers, and students sit at benches or tables for lunch and breaks. It’s a great space for meetings, and the public comes, often with children, for tours.

Our team, together with the gardeners and others, are developing a vision for the garden. We try to give different parts of the garden a common story and make it more accessible for visitors. I guide school courses and visitor groups, usually 2-3 hour tours, telling them the story of different aspects. For kids, it’s like a makerspace, they get to grind their own flour, for example, and take it home.

We think a lot about the gardens and what could be improved. How can we lead a visitor through the gardens without our help? So I’ve come to San Francisco to explore things like audio tours, apps, signage, and other ways to tell the story. It’s also important, during winter, to use the space and show people that nature doesn’t sleep!

Why do you do it?

Concerning sustainability issues, it’s important to bring people back to nature. You can get them closer by letting them experience nature. I think you have to find other ways to do that — because you either like nature or you don’t, and for those who don’t, you have to show them another way to explore sustainability.

You don’t want people bored by this topic, which is everywhere. Gardens are one place to reach people. It’s nice to use it as a playground, to try things that connect with people, even if it’s just a group of ten for two hours. If you have an impact on them, they’ll go out and spread it further.

What’s Next?

I studied geography and sustainable development, which was very theoretical. I’m interested in what we can do in Switzerland with our consumption and our behavior.

What I’d like to see more of in the gardens is this social aspect of sustainability. It’s so important to bring in behavior – why do I behave like that? Why can’t I change? Why won’t I change? So I’m thinking of this for the garden, not just to talk about nature and why it’s beautiful. That’s often the same! We can go a step further to reach other people.

I met with Aaron Pope here, and he said something interesting – that gardens and nature centers, universities and so on, can learn a lot from the social media companies. The people who work there know how to build big communities around a project. For example, you want to sell a car, you push a button and you have a community seeing it in a week. So why isn’t this used for climate change, for example? How do you reach people you haven’t reached so far? With sustainability issues it’s often talking to people who are already concerned and already doing a lot.

So now I’m going home, motivated to bring ideas back to the team. It will be great to connect more with the Swiss science communication community and spread some ideas I’ve learned from San Francisco. I’ve had a great time here and learned a lot.