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AAAS Mass Media Fellow Max Barnhart on Sunflowers and Science Communication

headshot of Max Barnhart
2022 AAAS Mass Media Fellow Max Barnhart. Photo credit: Callie Oldfield.

How are sunflowers connected to the survival of our food supply chain? 2022 AAAS Mass Media Fellow Max Barnhart has some answers. He studies sunflowers and how they react to heat and temperature stress at the University of Georgia (UGA).  

Sunflowers are one of the few crops native to North America, and can be found as far south as Mexico and as far north as Canada. They were an incredibly important crop for indigenous peoples in the Americas, used for food, dye and other cultural purposes. Sunflowers are also phytoremediators, meaning they can take toxic metals in the soil, transport them through the chutes in its leaves, and effectively remove the chemicals. This method was famously used in Chernobyl to help clean up toxic waste sites following the nuclear disaster.

Because sunflowers are so diverse and abundant in North America, they also provide a lot of information on genetic diversity. Together, different sunflower populations that have evolved over centuries produce a “natural laboratory,” where scientists can study their genetic abilities to withstand heat. This is integral to understanding how sunflowers, and thereby other crops, will react to a warming climate.

“Especially during growing season, we’re seeing heatwaves that can cause substantial damage to crops like sunflowers and rice. This became a problem that I wanted to help solve,” Barnhart says. “We live in a highly interconnected world where disruption to crop production can have long lasting and huge effects on the supply chain and the food we eat. Right now, two of the top five countries that produce sunflowers are Ukraine and Russia. Given the current conflict, there is [already] a shortage of sunflower oil and sunflower based products.”

In the short term, Barnhart notes that we may see shortages of potato chips, candy bars and other products that are frequently made with sunflower oil. Sunflower oil is often used over oils because it is non-allergenic. This trait is why many foods can’t switch to another source of oil easily. In the long term, if crop production for sunflowers and other important food crops that are impacted by climate change decrease, then supply chain disruptions will rise, and the demand for sunflower-related products will not be able to fulfill the supply at grocery stores.  

Outside of studying sunflowers, Barnhart realized a new passion for science storytelling when he discovered The Athens Science Observer at UGA, a science publication focused on writing science pieces for non-scientific audiences. Barnhart rose up the ranks to become an editor of the publication. When he and his co-editor and fellow UGA Plant Biology Ph.D. student, Simone Lim-Hing, wanted to take their work in a new direction, they were later awarded a grant to produce science zines to be shared on campus.

“[Making and disseminating the zines] have been so rewarding. Like the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship opportunity, I’ve seen how this can become a career. To be able to hold a physical zine in my hand, that combines both interesting science written by brilliant and diverse people with art and exciting visuals, is amazing.”

Barnhart has always loved talking about science with others and can even make science discussions easy for his grandmother to understand on Thanksgiving. So far, his zines have covered topics like diversity in the sciences and plant phenotyping. In his role as an editor, Barnhart has enjoyed training others on how to distill science for non-scientists.

“We’re taking graduate students and giving them help with the editing process so that they can refine the ways they talk to non-scientists,” Barnhart explains. “To be able to enhance the communication skills of other scientists who will be on the frontlines, doing the research that changes the world, that’s something I care about and know I can make an impact on. We live in such a fractured world with rampant misinformation, especially when it comes to science, so if I can train other scientists just to be able to talk to their neighbor a little better about what they do, that will have the longest impact.”

So, what’s next for Barnhart? He looks forward to joining NPR as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow, telling more stories about science to the masses – sunflowers and more.

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Jessica S. De Jesus