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AAAS Member Meredith Schmehl Gets an Early Start Connecting Science with Policy

Meredith Schmehl. Photographed by Leon Godwin.

AAAS Member and early-career scientist Meredith Schmehl likes to combine things.

She never wanted to pick just one scientific discipline to study. As an undergraduate, she was delighted to discover neuroscience spans many fields, and double majored in psychology. Now, as a graduate student at Duke University, she is investigating how vision and hearing are integrated in the monkey brain. And even as she works to complete her Ph.D. in neurobiology, she is actively pursuing new passions for science communication and policy. 

“Finding a way to combine my creative side with my scientific side has been a welcomed change,” says Schmehl.  “I don’t have to do just one, I can do both.”

She is particularly interested in helping voters be more informed and strengthen the connection between science and society by making science more accessible. Even as she learns the ropes herself, Schmehl is supporting other early-career scientists to advocate for science in public policy. As the Communications Committee Chair of the National Science Policy Network (NSPN), Schmehl manages the network’s internal and external communications, highlighting events like virtual happy hours, training opportunities, and promoting policy papers published by members. She has helped build an extensive database of training resources for science communication and policy, and set up the SciPolBites blog for members to share their insights on science policy issues, such as voting by mail.

“My goals as a leader are to empower early-career scientists and engineers to build communication skills and engage with their communities,” Schmehl says. “I hope to see us create new partnerships within the science communication space and expand the way we highlight the incredible things going on in our network.”

She has also become involved with the group NPR Scicommers, which trains scientists to write for lay audiences. Through this experience, she published a piece in Scientific American: “Which weighs more: a pound of stone or a pound of Styrofoam?” The story describes a psychological illusion discovered more than a century ago, but is more complicated than scientists originally thought.

“I like this story because it illuminates the scientific process,” Schmehl says. “Scientists are constantly updating what they know, and the article shows that process in action.”

The article won the Richard Merritt Jr. Memorial Award for Excellence in Science Communications, which recognizes a Duke student for producing an outstanding work explaining research or scientific topic. The judges applauded Schmehl for writing about difficult scientific concepts in an approachable manner for wide audiences.

Schmehl’s outreach efforts don’t stop there. She writes nonpartisan policy briefs for Duke’s science policy tracker, Duke SciPol.org. In addition, she helps edit and produce a science podcast hosted by a colleague, called Gastronauts. Having played the cello in several orchestras, she composed the show’s theme music.

All this is on top of her Ph.D. work in the lab of Dr. Jennifer Groh. Schmehl is currently training a rhesus macaque to look where light and sound cues are coming from in an otherwise darkened, quiet room. Soon she will be able to record whether and how specific monkey neurons activate when light and sound come from different spots in the room. The goal is to see how visual cues are processed alongside sound cues in one of the key auditory centers of the brain, called the inferior colliculus.   

“It’s important to think about how these two sensory systems work together,” Schmehl says.

Schmehl has previously worked with mice for undergraduate research projects on vision and smell; for example, she taught mice to follow the trail of a scented crayon. She has found some of the same skills apply when training the monkey, but “there’s definitely a learning curve,” she says.

The energy spent learning and doing science communication feeds back into her work at the lab. “It surprised me how many skills I could take between my science communication and my research,” Schmehl says. “For example, I think doing science communication has made me a better presenter for my research talks. I often get compliments on how I don’t make things convoluted and jargon-y; I explain it almost as though I am talking to the public, even though I am talking to my department.”

She is starting to write research grants with a more accessible, storytelling style as well. She encourages other early-career scientists to get involved in communication and outreach, taking advantage of the training and support provided by organizations like AAAS, NSPN and NPR.

“If people want to get involved, there are a lot of easy gateways,” she says. “Just start, that’s the best advice I can give.”

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Laura Petersen