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AAAS Leshner Fellows Find Innovative Ways to Bring Science to the Public

Ben Poulter and Christine Johnston

Science is constantly changing. So is how it’s reported.

Keeping scientists abreast of the best ways to communicate new discoveries or the importance of ongoing studies is the goal of the Alan I. Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement.

Every year, the Leshner Leadership Institute offers fellowships that help 15 mid-career researchers from a variety of backgrounds build up their science communication skills. The two past programs drew in researchers who study climate change and infectious diseases, while this year’s cohort – which reported in June – is working on food and water issues.

“Scientists have an increasing responsibility today in engaging with the public on a lot of issues that affect everyone’s day to day lives,” said Ben Poulter, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and a member of the 2016-17 class. “The Leshner program helps scientists become more effective in making that communication.”

Organizers are now reviewing applications for the 2019-2020 class, which will be announced in February. The fellows will convene next June for a week of intensive training at AAAS headquarters in Washington.

“It’s a great experience, both because you get some great information during the week-long training – some real concrete and tangible skills,” said Christine Johnston, an expert in sexually transmitted diseases at the University of Washington. “And you get to meet some amazing people who are doing great work that you may not otherwise interact with. I think many people within the cohort have built lasting relationships with other members.”

The program is named for AAAS CEO Emeritus Alan Leshner. It was established in 2015, the year Leshner handed over the association’s reins, with $500,000 in philanthropic gifts.

“Alan is recognized as a leader in bringing public engagement with science to the forefront in the United States,” AAAS CEO Rush Holt explained. “His work and vision inspired many people to support this effort in his honor. And still others have given because they know their gifts play an important and unique part in improving science communication.”

Poulter, then an assistant professor at Montana State University who studied methane emissions and the global carbon cycle, was part of the first program. His work focuses on how planet-warming greenhouse gases interact with Earth’s oceans, atmosphere and land, and he was a contributing author for the U.N.’s benchmark 2014 climate report.

“I’ve always had this interest in bridging science and policy, and I felt I was at the stage in my career to learn new techniques and be more effective at doing that,” he said. “I was keen on a personal level to learn how to be a better communicator for climate change and climate change science but also to encourage my colleagues to also engage in climate communication.”

During the initial week-long program, fellows meet and talk with experts who have hands-on experience as science communicators, as well as with reporters who cover science. Those encounters helped the researchers learn to craft clear messages, work on their interviewing techniques and learn what can help reporters and producers tell their stories. They also met with members of Congress and their staffers, which Poulter said helped give the scientists an idea of how lawmakers think about the issues and what they mean for their states or districts.

“It was a really stellar group of people,” he said of his cohort. “It was at the same time inspiring to be in the room with them but also a bit intimidating, seeing the level that everyone was operating at.” 

The fellows follow up their Washington experience by designing and launching projects of their own, sometimes working with other members of their cohort, and by trying to foster similar work among their colleagues back home. The projects are supported by AAAS, which may provide staff assistance, access to experts and promotion for the resulting work.

For Johnston, who researches genital herpes and serves as medical director of UW’s Sexually Transmitted Diseases Prevention Training Center, that involved training researchers and graduate students to produce graphics that convey a study’s key points in clear, shareable form.

“We’re really trying to find that one piece or concept of the data or your study that you can make relatable to the population at large,” she said. Johnston partnered with Leshner classmate Ina Park at the University of California San Francisco for the effort, and the pair now administer the Twitter page for the peer-reviewed Sexually Transmitted Diseases journal.

“We started kind of small, selecting a couple of articles each month to highlight and the people whose articles have been chosen have been thrilled to see what we’ve done with the infographics,” Johnston said. “Some have even offered to do their own once they find out we’ve been doing this.”

The fellowship was a “natural fit” with her work on sexually transmitted infections, especially ones “that can be very difficult for people to hear about, think about and talk about.” Johnston said she was getting more calls from patients, as well as journalists, looking for more information on herpes “because there is so much information and misinformation on the Internet.”

“I wanted to figure out how to have a consistent message to get to people, and also amplify messages that are grounded in science around genital herpes infection,” she said. “Rather than letting some of the misinformation that’s out there, that adds to the stigma, kind of proliferate.”

The training program also helped her overcome her skepticism about social media, which she had “very much shied away from” before. “We did an Ask Me Anything Reddit session during our training, so people were asking questions in real time,” she said. “That was enlightening and a fun way to interact with the public.”

Poulter put his fellowship training to work trying to publicize the findings of a major study of the increase of atmospheric methane, a shorter-lived but more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

 “We engaged with people using Reddit, we did some blog posts for a website called The Conversation and several kinds of activities along those lines,” he said.

Poulter said he’s been encouraged by the “exponential increase” in the amount of information that’s making news. For example, he said, the post-Thanksgiving release of the latest National Climate Assessment could have been a one-day story: Instead, it claimed headlines and follow-up stories well into the next week.

“I think the Leshner program exposed us to a lot of different strategies that are available -- either online, through blogging or Ask Me Anything-type activities, or radio or TV media -- in terms of trying as many different avenues as possible to be effective,” he said.

To learn more about how you can support the Leshner Leadership Institute, contact Juli Staiano, Chief Philanthropy Officer, at jstaiano@aaas.org or 202-326-6636, or make a gift online today.

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