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Craig Just’s Leshner Fellowship Spawns Collaborations from Iowa to Nigeria

Craig Just and the three little pigs at the Benton County Health Fair
Craig Just and the three little pigs at the Benton County Health Fair.
Photo credit: Jessica Rilling

Not long after Craig Just met Laura Schmitt Olabisi at orientation for their AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science fellowship, he realized his program at the University of Iowa could benefit from her work in community-based participatory modeling (she uses computer models to engage stakeholders in planning and decision-making about natural resource management). He brought her to Iowa City in October 2018 to do a workshop for his students and colleagues, using seed money provided by the fellowship. At the time, he did not anticipate how he might also contribute to her work.

Schmitt Olabisi leads the climate adaptation portion of the U.S. Agency for International Development Feed the Future Nigeria Agricultural Policy Project. As her team started initial conversations with the communities they were working with, they received clear feedback that one of the biggest issues for food security in southeastern Nigeria was recovering from floods and loss of soil due to erosion. However, her team did not have a hydrologist, so she got in touch with Just.

Just, an associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa, has been working on protecting socially vulnerable populations in Iowa from floods, using watershed approaches and community buy-in instead of expensive, large-scale engineering solutions. He and Schmitt Olabisi brainstormed ways this work might be useful in Nigeria and how to collaborate. They decided that during the summer of 2019, one of Just’s students would accompany her team to listen to the Nigerian communities’ flood stories. Just and Schmitt Olabisi will then discuss future ways to partner, including on grants aimed at mitigating flood impacts.

This was one of several ways the Leshner fellowship affected Just’s year. “The Leshner training was helpful for all of these interactions with communities,” he says, helping them to communicate science more effectively. Just incorporated materials from the AAAS training (namely, the logic model and theory of change) into his graduate course on community-centered problem-solving and design, to help his students reflect on their own research and engagement efforts. During the course, his students engage with resource-constrained communities and attend public meetings. To help them share their science and community engagement stories, he had his students create story maps. Just said they did an excellent job, and he finds these to be a highly useful, public-facing tool that can be shared as an “on-ramp” for people who are not familiar with the subject matter and may want to get involved (although this one was not created by a student, it is an example of a story map that describes the Iowa Watershed Approach project, which Just is a lead on).

As part of his efforts to create greater institutional support for scientists doing public engagement, Just volunteered to co-chair a review of the university’s Office of Outreach and Engagement. The committee interviewed the heads of engagement from other campuses and held a meeting with deans of other units at the University of Iowa to hear their perspectives. New budget constraints left faculty concerned that the central administration would no longer support engagement at a level on par with its importance. However, the committee and central administration concluded that central support, in some form, would be the long-term goal.

Over time, Just’s interests have gravitated toward affecting state and national-level policy, primarily related to flood resilience and impacts on socially vulnerable populations. He will be speaking at the National Conference of State Legislatures in August about his flood resilience work. He noted that “saying yes is a direct outcome of the Leshner fellowship,” which pushed his boundaries and motivation. He has had meetings with three members of Congress regarding flood resilience and one on PCBs (chemicals that can be harmful to humans) in schools, another of the major issues he works on. He had a meeting with the legislative policy liaison for the American Association of School Administrators on this topic, as well. Just also recently wrote an op-ed for a local paper about flood resilience.

When asked how he made time for all of this, Just noted how, at the beginning of the fellowship, the fellows are asked to write a plan for their public engagement activities. One of his strengths is responsibility, so “if it’s on paper, I do it.” While it’s been a lot of work, “it’s important, and if you don’t invest in it, it won’t happen.”

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.