ELISS Fellows Share Strategies for Communicating in an Epidemic

The Fellows will share their research and recommendations on epidemic outreach with their local communities, in a report scheduled for next year.
The 2015 class of ELISS Fellows chose a yearlong project on epidemic communications after recognizing the role that misinformation played in the year's Ebola outbreak in West Africa.| ELISS

In the event of a disease epidemic, communities require targeted, consistent communications from trusted sources, according to graduate students who brought perspectives from their local communities to national stakeholders in emergency preparedness.

The students, all fellows in the Emerging Leaders in Science & Society (ELISS) leadership development program, offered the advice at the culmination of their yearlong project with the program. They joined experts from the policy world at “Re-Imagining Epidemic Communication Strategies: A Forum for Best Practices for Response and Preparedness,” held 4 December at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. The forum was sponsored by Target as part of their disaster preparedness and response program.

"We report both the best practices and gaps on the ground, and we also come up with some solutions to these problems that are happening in our communities," said ELISS fellow Ava Carter, who studies stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at Stanford University. "Our goal is to close this loop, and go back to our local communities after today's forum and tell them what we've found."

The ELISS program – hosted by AAAS and sponsored by partner campuses, the Argosy Foundation, Rita Allen Foundation, and individual donors – is now at the end of the second year of a three-year pilot brings together graduate students from a host of disciplines to collaborate on a project at the intersection of science and society that improves their community. At their January orientation, the 14 fellows of the Class of 2015, inspired by misinformation surrounding the Ebola virus, opted to focus on how cities can prepare to communicate during a widespread disease epidemic.

While ELISS gave fellows capacity-building sessions through the year, the program follows a largely self-directed experiential learning process called the Idea Lab. Choosing a subject for study and action was just the beginning, according to ELISS fellow Biswajit "Bish" Paul, who facilitated the 4 December forum.

“We had a lot of input on what we wanted to do and what goals we wanted to attain,” said Paul, a Ph.D. student in molecular and cell biology researching genome editing at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington.

“Everything was built by us, and this was the first time that I had an experience like this,” Paul said. “That level of independence is really important as a 5th year Ph.D.”

Throughout 2015, the fellows, who hail from four schools—Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, Purdue University, and the University of Washington—have been gathering feedback from their local communities.

The fellows held forums for local stakeholders such as health administrators and policymakers in October and November in the Bay Area, Philadelphia, West Lafayette, Indiana, and Seattle to gather recommendations for improving epidemic communications.

ELISS is distinctive in its exchange of information and expertise with local communities, said Renske Erion, the partnership and communications manager of the ELISS program.

While communication between universities and their communities often relies on the universities disseminating information, ELISS presents the opportunity for “a two-way dialogue” between students and communities, Erion said.

Fellows from each university reported their local findings at last week’s forum in Washington, D.C. Some focused on the power of social media to reach broad swaths of people during an epidemic, relating its perks—messages can be disseminated quickly and concisely and are easily and widely shared—and its pitfalls—social media can foster rumors, and its reach doesn’t include everyone. Fellows also identified populations with distinctive communication needs and discussed how to leverage existing networks to convey information in the event of an epidemic.

“How do we provide targeted communication?” asked Priyanka Brunese, an ELISS fellow pursuing a Ph.D. in the Technology Leadership & Innovation department at Purdue. “How do populations want to receive information,” Brunese asked, “and what kind of methods are local stakeholders employing to reach them?”

ELISS fellows discuss strategies to communicate with difficult-to-reach populations during an epidemic. | ELISS

In one example unique to the community around Purdue, fellows reported back on the challenges of engaging insular Amish communities in the event of a disease epidemic, noting that local authorities could reach Amish communities via institutions they already use, such as banks. Every region represented includes significant populations of immigrants, so fellows reported on the importance of disseminating information via schools, in which children in immigrant communities are likely to be the household’s primary English speaker.

Brunese reported that locals from Indiana stakeholders asked for federal support for training in cultural sensitivity, social media use, and ethics—for instance, how should one communicate about epidemics to populations that don’t want to be disturbed?   

The reports from the local communities were supplemented by the exchange of ideas between fellows and forum participants on the nuances of epidemic communications, such as the importance of proactive communications so that populations know where to turn for information when an event strikes. They also discussed  the factors, like credibility, fame, or personal ties, that make sources of information trustworthy.

ELISS fellows and forum participants brought a wide range of expertise to the study of epidemic communication strategies—fellows are pursuing graduate work in fields ranging from bioengineering to urban planning. The program’s interdisciplinary nature not only generates ideas from diverse perspectives. Fellows like Paul are bringing the benefits of working with interdisciplinary groups back to their own research.

“As part of the ELISS Idea Lab process, the fellows collaborated on a project in an interdisciplinary group located across multiple cities. More and more biomedical and translational research teams are following a similar working model now,” Paul said.

“I applied this principle in my thesis work on genome editing CD4 T cells and established a cross-institute collaboration with a national expert in the field. This has helped me shave roughly six months off my Ph.D. work and helped move the field forward by combining expertise of two different labs,” Paul said.

“The collaborative leadership development model of ELISS has helped me develop as a change-agent,” Paul said. “During my time as an ELISS leader, I evolved from the volunteer saying, ‘I can help you with this problem,’ to the change-maker saying, ‘I can solve this problem. I got this!’”

“My experience this year has demonstrated that I do not have to wait until I have a doctorate to start engaging in impactful work,” he said.

The skills that fellows gain from ELISS “make successful scientists but also successful members of society,” Erion added.

The fellows will publish a report next month for local and national stakeholders that summarizes the best practices and new strategies that emerged from their year of engagement.

A new group of fellows for 2016 will draw again from the University of Washington and Purdue University as well as University of California, Irvine, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Duke University.