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Johanna Varner Wins 2018 Early Career Public Engagement Award

Johanna Varner has shared her research with a variety of audiences, including middle school students in Oregon and inmates in Utah's Salt Lake County Jail System. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Johanna Varner, a scientist who has developed citizen science programs that empower people to participate in science, has been chosen by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to receive the 2018 Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science.

Varner is an assistant professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University and a co-founder of Cascades Pika Watch in Oregon, a collaborative citizen science program that invites volunteers to track populations of pikas, tiny mammals that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. She is being honored by AAAS for “infusing her public engagement with multi-directional dialogue, reaching diverse audiences and empowering participants to join in the entire process of science.” 

Varner is “passionate about public dialogue and engagement in science,” wrote Nalini Nadkarni, a forest ecologist and science communicator who received the 2011 AAAS Public Engagement with Science Award. “She possesses a skill set that will make her a leader in this field for many years to come,” explained Nadkarni, who served on Varner’s dissertation thesis committee at the University of Utah.

As part of her development of citizen science programs, Varner worked with students at Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School in Salem, Oregon. She has involved students in field research on pika survival and encouraged them to analyze data and present results to their peers, families and local agencies.

“From the first moment she came into our school,” wrote teacher Mike Weddle, “I was amazed at her ability to captivate the students with a succinct explanation of the pika’s very complex characteristics and behavior.” He also praised Varner’s ability to motivate young people to learn and take action.

In her candidate statement, Varner wrote that she aims to engage with audiences that are typically underserved by scientists. For example, she presented a lecture about pika ecology and ecology to inmates in Utah’s Salt Lake County Jail System.

Beyond direct outreach, Varner uses journalism as a tool for public engagement. In 2015, she took part in the AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows Program, which places scientists, engineers and students at media outlets across the United States. As a Mass Media Fellow working at radio station KQED in San Francisco, Varner used her expertise to report on science for online articles and radio stories.

Varner is now leveraging her experience as a Mass Media Fellow to develop courses at Colorado Mesa University that will teach science majors how to communicate science stories through a variety of media channels. She was recognized in 2014 with the EcoService Award from the Ecological Society of America and the Union of Concerned Scientists, honoring her contributions to ecology outreach. Varner also serves on the ESA’s Committee on Diversity and Education.

In her current position at Colorado Mesa University, Varner is conducting research with undergraduate students on projects ranging from the remote monitoring of pikas using audio sensors to the study of pika stress hormones. Before completing a Ph.D. in biology at the University of Utah in 2015, Varner earned a master of engineering degree in biological engineering and a bachelor of science degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science was established in 2010 to recognize “early-career scientists and engineers who demonstrate excellence in their contribution to public engagement with science activities.” A monetary prize of $5,000, a commemorative plaque, complimentary registration to the AAAS Annual Meeting, and reimbursement for expenses to attend the AAAS Annual Meeting to receive the prize are given to the recipient.

The award will be bestowed upon Varner during the 184th AAAS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas on Feb. 17, 2018.

Author

Stephen Waldron