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From Identifying Penguins By Their Feet to Writing Pilot Television Dramas, Heather Lynch Tries It All

Heather Lynch at the 2019 National Geographic Explorer's Festival
Leshner Fellow Heather Lynch speaking at the 2019 National Geographic Explorer's Festival.
Photo credit: Leigh Vogel

For years, much of Heather Lynch’s public engagement has been policy-oriented, serving as a resource to Antarctic treaty negotiations. Most recently, following the discovery of penguins in the Danger Islands she has been part of an effort to make it an Antarctic Specially Protected Area. She’s also supported documentary film crews with their Antarctic expeditions by sharing her knowledge of different locations. She’s even helped identify species of penguin based just on photos of their feet for National Geographic Kids publications.

This past year, Lynch’s ideas for how to engage with the public about artificial intelligence (she uses AI to identify and monitor penguins and other species in the Antarctic based on satellite images) have taken a different turn. Toward the beginning of her year as a AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow, Lynch was asked to judge a science and technology scriptwriting contest for the North Fork Film Festival. This got her wheels turning, and she decided to try her own hand at writing a screenplay for a television series.

“The fellowship provided some cover to do something very outside my area of strength,” she says. She also used seed money from the fellowship to pay for a screenwriting consultant. When she had what she considered to be a strong first draft, she showed it to a screenwriting colleague, who told her it was a good outline. So Lynch audited a course at Stony Brook University, where she works as a professor of quantitative ecology, and read a number of books on screenwriting. These also helped her decide on the length of the pilot episode and where to pitch her script.

“There are very few serial dramas set at research universities” says Lynch. Thus, her idea is for a series centered around a professor who is developing an AI model to predict significant geopolitical events but makes some mistakes along the way, leading to trouble. Lynch says she also got very helpful feedback from another scientist in her fellowship cohort, Michael Littman, who has been writing and acting in short YouTube vignettes for years, including a suggestion for a good analogy to use in explaining neural networks. “I’ve been very inspired by Michael.” She added, “I’ve benefited a lot from the other fellows in terms of how to better explain machine learning and AI.”

Inspired by this new way of thinking, Lynch also wants to use short screenplays as part of the statistics course she teaches. She wrote the first in what she envisions as a series of short episodes themed around crime and punishment and tried it with her class. The class read the different parts and seemed to enjoy it.

When asked how she makes the time for all this additional work, Lynch brought in another analogy, this one from the television show Man V Food. “Different food recharges him,” she says. Similarly, the more creative work recharges her. “This keeps me going on the more traditional elements of the job. I went on a vacation in my mind.”

The AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellowship encourages the fellows to clarify their underlying goals for sharing information about AI with a broader public, and Lynch says her motivation is partly to support more people in being part of discussions about uses of AI in society. “If an AI algorithm is going to make a decision on whether your résumé makes it to the next round, which is increasingly the case… we might as a society be completely comfortable with that or very uncomfortable with that. But at this point, we are not in a position to have a discussion about that… My hope would be that people’s ears would perk up when they hear where AI might be intersecting with their own life, and not necessarily just cede control over all of that to the .001% of people who are driving a lot of this AI technology forward. My concern is that it is not a fair discussion in some sense.”

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 10-15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.