New Program Mobilizes Young Scholars to Investigate Complex Social Problems

A new pilot project hosted by AAAS provides graduate students with leadership, team building and problem-solving skills not often found in academic programs.
The inaugural class of ELISS fellows met for an orientation on Bainbridge Island. | Molly McElroy

SEATTLE -- On a surprisingly sunny day, a small group of graduate students stood on a beach on Bainbridge Island, Wash. They crowded in to look at a shell covered in barnacles, which Madeleine Stone, who studies environmental science, held up for them to see. "It's an ecosystem," she said.

The students are among the 16 fellows of a new pilot project hosted by AAAS. The Emerging Leaders in Science and Society (ELISS) program aims to provide graduate students across disciplines with skills not usually found in graduate programs: leadership, team building and real-world problem solving.  

"These are my people. I've never met another group of academics so committed to connecting their research expertise with real-world problems."

Madeleine Stone, doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania.

The fellows kicked off the program at a workshop held 22 to 27 January on Bainbridge Island and in Seattle. Convening from universities around the country, they gathered to form their own sort of ecosystem, with members contributing expertise from the science, technology, mathematics and engineering fields and beyond.

"These are my people," said Stone, a fourth-year doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania. "I've never met another group of academics so committed to connecting their research expertise with real-world problems."

A Unique Program

ELISS, inspired in part by the 40-year-old AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships program, aims to produce leaders who can work across disciplines, sectors and regions to help the country understand and solve complicated problems, such meeting food and energy needs and improving human health and well-being.

"I know of no programs like ELISS," said Mark Frankel, a member of the AAAS committee overseeing ELISS and director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law program. "It is the only program, to my knowledge, that brings together young scholars from different disciplines to work on resolving social issues, and still enables them to pursue their graduate degree." AAAS acts as the host of ELISS by providing administrative assistance and guidance on program development and fundraising.

Over the course of the year, the ELISS fellows will work in cross-campus teams on a problem affecting all of their communities. At the end of their fellowship, they will organize an event in their community that shares what they learned, and they will go to Washington, D.C. for a briefing with policy-makers who are working on issues at a national level.

More than 100 universities and 1,500 students participated in the signature drive and sought support from campus administrators to join ELISS. The University of Washington, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford University, and Purdue University collected the most signatures. The universities contributed funding toward four ELISS fellows from each campus. Additional funding came from the Argosy Foundation, Richard Lounsbery Foundation, Research Corporation for Science Advancement and individual donors. Although this year's pilot program is limited to fellows from the four university partners, ELISS organizers hope to attract additional funding in order to make the program available to others.

An exercise from the ELISS orientation | Molly McElroy

Melanie Roberts, one of the founders of ELISS and its director, described the program as a "leadership development program for graduate students who want to make a difference in the world but may not yet know exactly how to do so. The goal is for fellows to collaborate with a diverse team to understand complex problems and plan and implement a project together."

"Our hope is that they will continue to work together as they graduate into careers in academia, industry, nonprofits and government, to make a systemic impact on a number of issues," said Roberts, who is a former AAAS S&T Policy fellow.

Which Issue to Tackle?

Spanning expertise in city planning, tourism, communication and sustainable design, as well as a science, engineering, and health disciplines, the inaugural group of ELISS fellows spent part of its time at the January workshop identifying which social problems they wanted to address.

The fellows started with 60-some possible issues, which they winnowed to eight finalists: vaccines/infectious disease, food, personalized medicine, sustainable design, mental health, pollution, sociology of health, and obesity.

Tables scattered around the conference room had brightly-colored signs for each of the eight finalists. Teams had to have three to six fellows with at least three of the four university partners represented on each team.

It took about an hour for the fellows to decide their teams. Some found the choice easy.

"I don't know this answer. That's why I'm standing at this table," said Chantz Thomas, a chemistry doctoral student at the University of Washington, who selected the food topic.

Fellows select their topics for the program | Molly McElroy

Others took longer — and had to do some soul-searching — before making a final decision.

Jonathan Kershaw, who studies food science at Purdue, struggled to choose between the issues of food or the sociology of health. "I'm trying to decide which is more important to me: to add value based on the depth of my background expertise, or to challenge myself with a new topic," he said.

Mariya Krisenko, a doctoral student at Purdue studying breast cancer, joined the sustainability team.

"I view it as taking an opportunity to challenge and expand my knowledge and skills to understand what the Lafayette community needs, such as energy-efficient construction and urban green spaces," Krisenko said. "We know that many health concerns are linked to our environment. I hope to bring my knowledge of health into the sustainability issues that we are exploring."

Sustainable design, mental health and food ended up as the final issues, with about five students working on each. Now their work shifts to fine-tuning their topics, meeting with members of their community to better understand the issue in the local context, and developing projects to share with the public and policy-makers.

"I'm really excited about the upcoming year," said Stone, after she returned to the University of Pennsylvania. "I think there is a collective feeling that this is just the beginning -- that we have formed the foundation for something that will last for years to come."