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Haley Oliver Wants to Empower Consumers to Make Informed Choices About Food Safety

Haley Oliver
Leshner Fellow Haley Oliver working with food technology students in Afghanistan. | Credit: Paul Ebner.

Haley Oliver conducts research on food contamination, and applied for the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellowship in part because she wants to the public to be able to make better decisions to protect themselves from foodborne illness, and be able to differentiate between food safety and food quality – a confusion she says results in a significant waste problem.

One of Oliver’s long-term, ongoing projects is working with Herat University in Afghanistan to provide students with skills they can bring to the country’s food and agricultural industries. She says Afghanistan’s agriculture-based economy could benefit significantly from reduced food spoilage, as they do not have advanced preservation methods and technology. A related communication challenge for Oliver has been conveying to people in the U.S. what she does in Afghanistan and why. It has taken her some time to refine her response, but she now focuses on her long-term, big-picture goals of helping to build a more stable economy, where people can feed their families and meet their basic needs, thus reducing pressure to find other sources of income.

Oliver is an associate professor at Purdue University, which is a land grant institution with an extension program. Professors at Purdue are required to do outreach, although they sometimes lack opportunities to practice. To address this need, Oliver took advantage of one of the fellowship’s support mechanisms – bringing AAAS’s Communicating Science workshop to Purdue. She was able to reach many of her peers through her role on the leadership team for Women Faculty in the College of Agriculture and as advisor to the Graduate Women in the College of Agriculture. The workshop was met with significant enthusiasm.

Of the training she took part in during the orientation week for the fellowship, Oliver noted especially that she finds the “half-life exercise” (developed by RELATE, the graduate student-led science communication training program at the University of Michigan) “absolutely mission-critical.” In this exercise, participants explain their research first in 30 seconds, then in 15, then in 8 (to help scientists distill what their most essential message is, as a starting point for planning their messages). Oliver says she has done this for each of her research areas, so perhaps her next challenge will be summarizing all of them together in 15 seconds. 

In addition to the AAAS Fellowship, Oliver was also recently honored with the 2018 Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award in Memory of Charles B. Murphy at Purdue. 

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.