Art and Science, Moreton Bay Community Coastal Capacity, Podcast Episodes, Species and Places in Moreton Bay

Podcast episode: Sue Pillans

I followed Dr Sue Pillans on Twitter long before we had the chance to speak in person. I’m a huge sucker for marine art, and hers drew me in instantly She’s also got the biggest repertoire of ocean puns of anyone I’ve ever known, which I DEEPly appreciate!

Writing in the mangroves – a good day! (c) Sue Pillans

Sue is both a scientist and an artist. She brings her knowledge and skills together to create and provide marvelous works that anyone can understand, immediately. The most powerful thing about this is that she infuses her work with positivity and hope.

Here’s the episode:


It’s no exaggeration to say that storytelling is a powerful force for transforming the way that people perceive the world around them, and how they act within it.

Stories aren’t just entertainment. By engaging our imaginations, stories make real what we haven’t experienced. They help us make sense of what seems meaningless or random. They build links between people, they tell us how to behave for the benefit of our people, and how our futures may turn out.

And those are just benefits for the listener! When we tell stories to communicate information, the listener’s brain experiences the story in much the same way as if it really happened to them! We are, in a very real sense “getting on the same page.”

There’s a good story to go along with this image – maybe I can convince Sue to do another interview so we can find out what it is…. (c) Sue Pillans

More and more scientists and conservation groups are beginning to understand why stories are so important, but it struck me when I listened to Sue that if we really want to build our capacity in Moreton Bay, it’s important that all our stakeholders should be able to both tell AND listen to stories. I’m not talking about shouted arguments or dot points, those are hard to listen to at the best of times. I’m talking being able to frame a position with the simplest storytelling structure:

  1. A bad situation arises
  2. A struggle to overcome the situation
  3. The situation is resolved

This last point, as we know, can be both negative and positive. We all know what it’s like to leave the theatre cursing the movie director for making us feel lousy, unfulfilled, or hopeless. Which leads me to another of Sue’s gifts to us – one that is remarkably under-estimated and under-utilised:


Sue’s work is powerful because she builds positivity and hope into everything she creates. This is something we know from communications studies – no matter what the message, if want to create some meaningful change we must infuse our stories with hope. This doesn’t mean we have to deny reality! 

Knowing the above about telling our stories – that it can actually make listeners feel like they are a part of it as if it really happened to them – we
must let people know that they have options, that they have the power to take meaningful action, that no future is a foregone conclusion. If the story is “the future is going to be hell” or “if you don’t agree, you’re ignorant and dangerous” and we know people experience this story as if it has already happened, is it any wonder people respond with anger,
refuse to hear any more about it, or feel too overwhelmed to act?

When we offer people a vision of the future that holds hope for them (not just us!), we inspire them to help create it! We tell them “we’re in it with you” – so much better than the “us versus them” message that’s all too common in media and social media!

Graphical Recording

In the podcast we talked about another of Sue’s skills – and if it seems like I’m fangirling here I probably am, because what she does seems a bit magical to me – she takes complex ideas and turns them into easily understood charts and images that help people jump straight to understanding without the mental shenanigans of language.

Many times, she does this on the fly. She will attend a group planning or discussion, listen carefully, and translate what she’s hearing into visual stories – in cases like this she’s literally getting people on the same page.

The reason I wanted to add something here about Sue’s graphical recording is this:

Did you know that when people feel like they’ve been consulted and heard, they are more likely to feel like research is credible, or plans for our resources are beneficial? And they’re more likely to join in to help collect data, monitor their peers, and work toward common goals (even if their own goals had to be compromised for common good?)

I KNOW! It’s like we really can have the best possible future, and all we have to do is listen to each other and be listened to in return!

Dr Suzie Starfish

Time for a plug! You’ll know from the podcast that Sue’s alter-ego (I can’t even) has a children’s book out. If you want to get a glimpse of how it’s possible to wrap art, science, positivity and action in the one beautiful entertaining package, pick one up!

Pssst, you can also get Dr Starfish to visit a classroom or children’s group.

Dr Suzie Starfish, sharing hope for the Great Barrier Reef (c) Sue Pillans


This post is already super-long and there’s so many more things that Sue and I talked about (including off-air) but I can’t finish without sharing a few images of nudibranchs.

These little guys are the best-kept secret of marine biologists, divers and snorkellers. They are stunning, stunning, stunning!

They’re molluscs, and gastropods, just like your common garden snail, but they lose their shells after their larval stage. They come in about 3000 flavours of unexpected beauty

All these were taken on one dive at our very own Flinders Reef (c) Katie Walters

The blue dragon you might see on the news is probably the most famous of the nudis. It’s a bit special because where most nudibranchs live on the benthos (bottom), Glaucus atlanticus floats upside-down at the surface, where it eats bluebottles. The icing on top? They can take the stinging cells of the bluebottle, transfer them to the tips of their “fingers” and use them to sting their own prey.

Craaaaaazy cool. Just another of the many wonders of Moreton Bay, but no more wonderful than all the people who love it.

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