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AAAS Leshner Leadership Fellow Aligns Science With Public Service

Levy holds up a water-sampling device, a tool of her trade, at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. | Stephen Nowland/Emory Photo-Video

Leshner Leadership Institute fellow Karen Levy has a very early memory of her mother saying, “Look at your hand. Isn’t it amazing that it works? The human body is amazing.” Already, Levy’s interest in biology was piqued. After other formational experiences—a family trip to the Galapagos Islands, a high-school biology teacher who was so genuinely enthusiastic that she periodically had to stop herself in mid-lecture to exclaim, “Isn’t that cool?”—Levy says she was hooked. “When I set off to college, I had no question that I wanted to study biology.”

Levy’s childhood also fostered in her a concern for others and a desire to make her work responsive to others’ needs. Raised on the Stanford University campus by an American oncologist father and an Israeli biochemist mother, with whom she traveled a lot, Levy met people from all over the world. When she started traveling on her own, she says she found herself drawn to people’s stories, especially concerning how environmental change affected their lives.

In graduate school, Levy found herself in a dilemma, though. She had chosen a program in the social sciences, yet she found that she yearned to get back to the natural sciences. Her passions for involving herself in human rights and for the pure wonder of biology seemed to conflict.

In the midst of her confusion, Levy picked up a book, which had been written for a museum exhibit, called Epidemic! The World of Infectious Disease. “It was an ‘aha!’ moment, and I decided this was the perfect topic for me,” Levy said. “The field of infectious diseases has components of everything that I’m interested in—super-exciting biology, affected by ecological context, and involving important social justice issues.”

Fast-forward more than a decade, and Levy is an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. She leads the Levy Research Lab and has published scores of scientific papers and reports. Her current research—which could be generally described as the environmental determinants of food- and water-borne diseases—includes climatological and human effects on water quality and supply in the tropics, the spread of pathogenic Escherichia coli, the impact of drinking water quality on the gut microbiome, among many other topics. A former awardee of Emory’s Public Voices Fellowship, Levy has written a number of articles for popular general-interest publications, including the Huffington Post, Daily Beast, San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Jose Mercury News.

Among her many accomplishments bridging her love of science and public service, Levy’s most recent is her selection as a fellow of the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute (LLI) for Public Engagement with Science. The purpose of the fellowship is to provide intensive public engagement and science communication training to scientists whose areas of research are currently of critical concern. Such public engagement aims to reinforce the value of science in public debate and policy-making on critical issues—by enhancing trust between scientists and the public, nurturing an appreciation of science, and conducting research that is responsive to societal needs. This year’s group of fellows, like Levy, are infectious disease researchers.

One of the most important aspects of the program is the fellows’ commitment to bring what they learn back to their own institutions. Each is asked to develop a plan for public engagement activities and for the training of other scientists in their own communities as a way to multiply public engagement leadership.

“The Leshner Leadership Institute goes far beyond the 15 fellows that participate each year,” said Emily Cloyd, AAAS public engagement project director. “In addition to improving their own skills in public engagement, the fellows are working with their organizations and professional societies to build programs that support it. By providing opportunities for scientists to participate, training and mentoring students and peers, and recognizing scientists for their engagement work, the fellows and their institutional partners are helping build a culture where science and society are in dialogue.”

This year’s fellows represent a wide range of avenues for expanding public engagement with science throughout the communities in which they work. At a training earlier this month, Danielle Buttke, acting epidemiology branch chief and One Health coordinator for the National Park Service, said she aims to establish better communication between scientists and park interpreters, so that the message the interpreters bring to 330 million park visitors each year is science-based.

Marcia Castro, associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, works on such diseases as Zika and malaria. In her introductory video that was shot at the LLI training, she stressed that since vector control is central to combating such diseases, engaging with the public is crucial. She hopes to involve students in extensive field research, “because you won’t learn public health in the classroom,” and to bring community members and policy-makers along on such research for them to experience it firsthand.

Levy has several ideas of how to expand public engagement with science through her institution. She would like to develop an interdisciplinary program for global infectious diseases at Emory, with public engagement emphasized in student training and faculty workshops in science communication. She also hopes to work with documentary filmmakers to produce films about Emory researchers’ infectious disease research in the field. Meanwhile, she has already included media literacy in a new course, “Environmental Determinants of Infectious Diseases,” by organizing a class blog and student presentations about infectious diseases in the news.

Levy encourages rewarding scientists for engaging with the public, rather than basing their career progress on their research and scientific publications alone. “There usually aren’t incentives to engaging with the public or policy-makers,” she said. “If it is valued at all, it’s as an add-on. ‘She published x papers, got x grants, AND published x op-eds’ sounds good, but ‘she published x+2 papers and got x+1 grants’ would sound better for promotion.

“It’s important to build out a structure that incentivizes and trains us to communicate our work with a broader audience, especially given current concerns about the public’s lack of esteem for science.”

Having successfully blended her love of science with her commitment to helping others, Levy’s involvement in the LLI fellowship program represents her determination to maximize the impact of her work on society and to uphold the value of scientific enterprise in general, a goal shared by the other fellows.

“The best way to maintain public support for science is for people to understand it,” Levy said, “to understand the underlying scientific process, to learn about exciting discoveries, and to understand how it affects their own lives.”

This article appeared in AAAS News & Notes in the June 30, 2017, issue of Science. 

[Associated Image Credit: Jerry Reid]