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Developing new leaders with real-world skills for tackling societal problems

No single scientific field is likely to save the world. The most critical problems facing society in the 21st century are best tackled through approaches that transcend individual disciplines and traditional academic structures, according to a National Academy of Sciences report. Many grad students appear eager to embrace the challenge, with more than 80 percent citing a "desire to benefit others" as a reason they decided to pursue a doctorate.

Despite recognition of the importance of an interdisciplinary approach, however, leading science organizations recognize that there continues to be a mismatch between the skills students are learning and the ones they may need to effect positive change.

One program that is aimed at addressing this problem is Emerging Leaders In Science and Society (ELISS), hosted by AAAS, which currently is in the second year of its pilot phase. 

"The goals are to really understand the context of scholarship in the real world, and to learn to work across boundaries on messy problems," said ELISS Director Melanie Roberts.

Graduate and professional students are selected to become ELISS fellows through a competitive application process. The program begins with a skill-development bootcamp, where they meet the other fellows, drawn from a broad range of disciplines. They quickly become proficient in communication, collaboration and networking. After returning to their home campuses, they spend about five hours each week over the 15-month fellowship term working in small groups with other fellows and local stakeholders to understand and propose possible interventions for a specific societal challenge.

Jonathan Kershaw, a Ph.D. student in food science at Purdue University, was a member of the inaugural ELISS class in 2014. He and his group were excited to address a problem that goes beyond basic lab science: looking at how to improve people's nutritional decisions at the point of purchase. The group began by talking to as many people as they could, including food marketers, advocacy groups, agricultural experts, food experts and food stamp recipients.

Roberts explained that the qualitative approach is typical in an ELISS project. "Rather than starting from a scientific theory, the fellows go out and talk to people on the ground and say, 'What do you see? What are you doing? Where are the gaps?' "

Kershaw's group discovered that it took a combination of disciplines—including food science and social sciences—to make sense of the problem. Rather than overwhelming people by encouraging them to make a wholesale change in diet, they found a more effective approach was to suggest that people make a single food selection that is healthier than they might otherwise choose.

Kershaw found the experience eye opening. "I feel the way that I approach problems has changed," he said. "Now I think of a problem in the context of all these interacting parts."

Though the team was small, their work at the local level attracted attention from national heavyweights. Several groups with significant influence, including the FDA, USDA, American Heart Association, and Food Marketing Institute, participated in the team's year-end meeting.

In this year's class, all 14 fellows are working on different aspects of the same challenge: epidemic preparedness.

Roberts said that their approach includes facilitating dialogue between the fellows' respective local governments. "What are we doing well that we can share with other communities? Where do we need help, and what can we learn from other communities or from the federal level?"

The teams of fellows are meeting in June to discuss their findings with the Institute of Medicine and federal agencies such as the Department of Defense and Homeland Security.

Kershaw remarked that his participation in ELISS has had a lasting impact on how he views his involvement in science.

"I wanted to feel like I was adding value to society," he said. "It was inspiring that I could do something in my community."

Four campuses have partnered in the program's first two years: University of Washington, Purdue University, Stanford University and University of Pennsylvania. Efforts are under way to expand to other universities in 2016.