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Biomechanics Researcher John Drazan Receives AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement

John Drazan is the recipient of the 2020 AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science. | Neil Orman/AAAS

John Drazan, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Pennsylvania’s Human Motion Lab, will receive the 2020 Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science, presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to honor early-career scientists or engineers who demonstrate excellence in their contribution to public engagement with science.

Drazan is being recognized for work that combines research on the development of low-cost sensors that track human biomechanics with accomplishments in public engagement that make science, technology, engineering and mathematics relevant and fun to young people by connecting with an activity many care about: sports.

A varsity basketball player when he completed his undergraduate physics degree at SUNY Geneseo, Drazan was pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute when he teamed up with his former college basketball teammate, John Scott, at 4th Family Inc., an Albany, N.Y.-based nonprofit that offers mentoring and empowerment to local underserved youth. Drazan created a STEM program for the organization, reaching more than 5,000 local youth through after-school and summer programs featuring hands-on activities that connected sports with science.

“John’s approach to public engagement is driven by the conviction that as a scientific community we tend to ‘preach to the choir.’ That is, we gear most of our efforts toward providing programs for students who already have an interest in science and who feel welcome at scientific events,” said nominator Janis Burkhardt, chair of pathology research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.“By contrast, John seeks to reach young people who would otherwise not see math and science as relevant to their lives,” Burkhardt said.

AAAS Early Career Award winner John Drazan
John Drazan is being honored by his public engagement work that connects sports and science. | Courtesy of John Drazan

After completing his Ph.D. in 2017, Drazan continued to leverage the infrastructure he put in place as 4th Family’s STEM director to spark young people’s interest in science. He also delivered similar outreach initiatives to new audiences, hosting clinics across the country and working with 4th Family to develop a STEM education component to the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas in partnership with the Tomorrow’s Stars Foundation. The resulting Court Science Academy brings together middle-school athletes from the junior NBA program to learn about science and engineering through the lens of sports by spending four days behind the scenes at NBA Summer League engaging in activities on physiology and data analytics and meeting with scientists from a range of scientific fields.

Both Drazan’s research work and his public engagement activities have informed one another. The low-cost sensors that he develops to gather biomechanical data have served as a teaching tool during events and a way to gather new data, boosting the numbers and improving the diversity of research participants in the field of biomechanics. Drazan also has investigated his public engagement work through papers and presentations to share his findings and improve future activities.

In his current role, Drazan is supported by the University of Pennsylvania Postdoctoral Opportunities in Research and Teaching, a program funded by the National Institutes of Health in which postdoctoral researchers develop instructional skills to teach the diverse student body of the future and teach at a partner minority-serving institution for the entire second year.

Drazan is an instructional fellow at Lincoln University outside Philadelphia, the nation’s oldest historically black university, where he has developed an engineering design course in which students design, build and validate their own biomechanics lab equipment. The course also will include a weekly program that works with student athletes to use math and science to study and improve their own performance. The course will culminate with the students sharing their projects with local schoolchildren.

As Burkhardt put it, Drazan “has found innovative ways to mesh his community engagement activities with his research program, thereby giving young people in his programs a taste of real-world science, while enhancing the rigor of his work by incorporating large and diverse subject populations.”

Over the past decade, the AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science has honored scientists and engineers who previously completed their terminal degree less than seven years prior and demonstrate excellence in their contribution to public engagement with science. In addition to the award and a $5,000 prize, the winners receive complimentary registration and travel to the AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle, where Drazan will receive the award on Feb. 14.