Engagement Matters: Lessons from Leshner Public Engagement Fellows

Sheena Cruickshank | AAAS

Originally written by Dr. Sheena Cruickshank for Public Engagement at Manchester, this entry details her experience at the AAAS Leshner Fellowship's Orientation Week.

In June, I spent five days focusing on public engagement skills and developing my plans for my public engagement work (both personal and institutional) with the other AAAS Leshner Fellows in Washington. The AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellowship is funded and supported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and these fellowships aim to help develop and support researchers in public engagement and policy work as a force for making change.

The fellowship scheme started last year, with this year’s theme being infectious disease. It’s been fantastic to meet the other fellows and I am really excited to work with them over the coming year (and years ahead beyond the fellowship). The other fellows were mostly based in the USA and worked on the microbiota and/or a diverse range of infections including neglected tropical diseases, sexually transmitted diseases, vector borne diseases, food borne pathogens and anti-microbial resistance.

We also met with staff from AAAS and Science as well as some of the previous cohort of AAAS Leshner fellows and had some great opportunities for networking and socialising including attending the premiere of the film “Mosquito”.

We also did some field work and visited the site of a schistosome infection that is infecting ducks that live next to the White House!

Throughout the time we discussed our research, our public engagement plans and joint initiatives we can do as well as undertaking public engagement training. In training, we covered a range of topics in the training including quite basic sessions on public engagement and policy work through to discussions about defining the goal and purpose of your activity and the audience you will work with and considering this at the core of any activity you plan.

One aspect we considered was types of audiences – with one fellow suggesting there were three broad categories; those who care and/are engaged, those who do not know and may not be interested, and those who are opposed to your message and may actively block you. This latter group are the smallest group but may have a disproportionately large influence and even if your message or activity is not aimed at the “objectors” it may be worth considering them so that you do not get shut down before you start! This could be crucial when considering more “controversial” topics such as vaccination or when doing policy work. It certainly made me think a lot about what I do.

Other training sessions covered interview practice, pitching articles and opinion pieces (op-eds) and discussed evaluation (with the work of Suzanne Spice and Dee-Ann Johnson at Manchester particularly praised these useful links and resources). We also did some hands on sessions including AMA (ask me Anything) sessions themed on infection topics and I did a Facebook Live chat about infections and media which was daunting but quite enjoyable and seemed relatively easy to set up.

Overall I have learnt some new things, made some great friends and contacts and importantly this week has also given me time to reflect on the work that I do and what I will do next which is a rare opportunity. One thing, I thought that may be of interest is sharing tips on public engagement that I have acquired so far and hopefully these will be helpful to others and also of interest so watch out for future pieces!

Want to know more about what took place at the AAAS Leshner Fellows Public Engagement orientation? See this article from AAAS: “Leshner Fellows Put Public Engagement Strategies to Work.

You can also see what AAAS Leshner Fellow Meghan Duffy learned from her visit – “How can scientists engage with policy makers? (Updated!)” and “What I learned from my visit to Capitol Hill about engaging with policy makers and mentoring students”.