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Ina Park Engages the Public to Reduce Stigma of Sexually Transmitted Infections

Ina Park is a 2017-18 Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellow.| Credit: Mary Catherine Longshore, AAAS.

Ina Park used to think she’d write a popular science book when she retired. Then in January of 2015, a traumatic event, her oldest son being hit by a car, caused her to think harder about how she prioritizes her time. While he is now healthy, she decided not to postpone working on important goals. Shortly afterward, Park also saw the call for the 2017-18 cohort of the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science, which was focused on infectious disease – her general area of expertise. Now that Park has pitched her book, acquired an agent and a contract, and learned more about writing a book for public consumption, she sees many potential benefits to tackling this project now while her career is in full swing: it may open other doors for her, and she’s come to think that early or mid-career scientists can also be uniquely inspiring to people.

Park’s purpose in writing a book is to reduce stigma around sexually transmitted infections (STIs). She has spent much of the past ten years as a practicing physician and public health practitioner in the field of STI prevention and treatment. Despite these efforts, she saw the rates of infection continuing to climb. Frustrated by this apparent lack of impact, she is turning her attention to a different tactic for bending that epidemic curve downward: reducing stigma through expanding public discourse about STIs. Her book will feature stories from patients and in-depth interviews with researchers, and is aimed at a broad audience of readers who enjoy science storytelling, with a touch of humor and sass. Park notes that nearly everyone gets exposed to STIs, yet they continue to be stigmatized -- helping them spread and making them harmful to people’s sexual health. She wants people to be able to take charge of their own health and feel empowered to seek medical care or talk to their sexual partners about STIs.

Park hopes to use her book as a starting point for engaging in conversations, perhaps at science cafés and bookstores, and on social media. In the meantime, she is also working with another Leshner Fellow, Christine Johnston, on several other projects. Participating in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) about STIs during their fellowship training week inspired Park and Johnston to begin planning other AMAs, which they are hoping to co-brand with one or more gay social networking and dating sites to help them reach one of their main target audiences. The two scientist-physicians also met with the editor-in-chief of the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases and discussed increasing its public engagement. They are now helping with its efforts on Twitter, including reviewing visual abstracts for its articles that are being developed by the journal’s interns for use on social media.

Participating in the AAAS fellowship training “really opened my mind to what was possible” in terms of different ways to engage the public, says Park. She originally intended to write for various public-facing websites, and while she still plans to do this, she is also developing the social media activities previously mentioned because they allow for greater interaction with the public. She has found social media to be a good option when she is occupied with other work, because it doesn’t always have to be time-consuming. To fit public engagement into her schedule, she finds it helpful to set a minimum target so that it’s more likely to happen, such as doing some type of engagement once a month. She acknowledges the importance of having her department chair’s concurrence that this is an important part of her job (Park has been gratified to see a shift in what qualifies as dissemination and public service in tenure and promotion reviews).

For those who might be considering writing a narrative non-fiction book for a broad audience, Park has written a case study for the AAAS Center for Public Engagement website that discusses the process she went through and provides tips for aspiring authors.

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.