Skip to main content

Associate Dean and Award-Winning Researcher Seeks to Build Capacity for Public Engagement

Maria Elena Bottazzi had many opportunities for public speaking and media interviews during her AAAS Leshner fellowship year.| Credit: Anna Grove Photography.

Maria Elena Bottazzi was recently honored with the 2018 Research Trajectory Slim Health Award for her work developing vaccines for parasitic diseases such as Chagas, hookworm and schistosomiasis, neglected tropical diseases that affect more than a billion of the world’s most vulnerable people. In her role as associate dean and professor of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, she currently spends much of her time outside the lab, advocating for such research with funders and health strategists, and collaborating with scientists in other fields, such as bio-engineers, health economists and ethicists. Bottazzi applied to the 2017-18 infectious disease-focused cohort of the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science to learn how to better tailor how she speaks to different audiences, as well as how to support her colleagues in their communication and engagement. She readily acknowledges that public speaking and media interviews are still a challenge despite her seniority, underscoring for her the importance of better supporting younger scientists who don’t yet have as much experience.

Because of her leadership role at her university, AAAS was able to connect Bottazzi with several opportunities during her fellowship year to participate in other meetings on institutional change for public engagement with science. She was thrilled to participate in these, especially after having spent time with the rest of her AAAS cohort learning about how each of their institutions approach engagement differently. Bottazzi suggests that being at a private institution gives her somewhat greater flexibility to make changes.

Even as an associate dean, she has many layers of approvals to go through - but at least she knows what those layers are. She notes that her institution highly encourages outreach of some kind yet doesn’t provide much in the way of formal training or support, and they primarily value and track scientific publications and media appearances. However, the Baylor College of Medicine’s Office of Communications and Community Outreach and the Office of Institutional Diversity, Inclusion and Equity recently began surveying students, faculty, and staff about their community service and engagement activities, which Bottazzi sees as a vital and promising first step in understanding opportunities and challenges to build capacity for public engagement.

Bottazzi had been considering conducting a landscape assessment of public engagement at her institution, so this survey may feed into that. Looking ahead now that her fellowship year has ended, she also hopes to continue doing more media interviews and taking other opportunities to expand her comfort zone. The AAAS training was especially timely because she received a variety of awards around the same time as the fellowship, which meant giving more interviews and preparing for acceptance speeches.

AAAS facilitated a joint workshop at Baylor for her students, colleagues and those of another fellow, Luis Martinez, from the University of Texas El Paso. Bottazzi was pleased by her institution’s response and has had many students and faculty seek her out since the workshop to discuss the challenges of public engagement and communication. One of her goals is to provide continuity in the engagement training her college offers, and help more students master these skills. Bottazzi says that establishing connections with various people at AAAS has been very helpful in knowing who to reach out to for different types of support. She, Martinez and another fellow, Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova, also organized and led a session at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting about the importance of public engagement in global health.

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.