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Kacey Ernst Tries to See Mosquito-Borne Illness Through the Eyes of Affected Communities

Kacey Ernst giving talk at TEDx Tucson
AAAS Leshner Fellow Kacey Ernst speaking at the TEDx Tucson event in January 2018. | CREDIT: Andrea Rivera.

Conducting her dissertation research in the highlands of western Kenya on factors affecting contraction of malaria gave Kacey Ernst insight into why spending time with a community is critical to improving public health. Although malaria is a serious problem, when resources are scarce, food was the first priority – so bed nets were often used to protect food sources instead of people. It drove home that the perspectives of people who have been living with malaria for a long time are very different from her own, and “just because I study malaria doesn’t mean it’s the most important thing facing this community.”

Ernst is now an associate professor and director of epidemiology at the University of Arizona College of Public Health and co-chair for the college’s Committee for Inclusive Excellence. Prior to becoming a professor, she worked for a year in a public health department, which involved direct community interaction. When she joined the university in 2008 she immediately signed up to be part of the Committee on Community Engagement, Practice and Service. One of the items the committee has addressed is more adequately valuing community-based participatory research (CBPR) in tenure and promotion. CBPR, an example of the category of public engagement with science known as knowledge co-production, takes longer than traditional research and involves less frequent publication, but scientists often build much deeper and more fruitful relationships. The committee continues to look for better metrics to quantify and reward this.

Ernst thinks that public engagement by public health researchers is usually easier to justify than it is for researchers in disciplines with less direct and obvious connections to the public, although difficulties remain. As part of her institutional change efforts as a AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellow (2017-18), she has decided to carry out a three-college comparison within her university to learn about how different disciplines focus on engagement, and develop strategies for communicating across colleges on this topic. Initially she planned to conduct this for her entire university, but soon realized she needed to scale back.



Ernst leading a workshop with community partners in Indonesia on strategies to engage more women in controlling mosquito-borne disease. | CREDIT: Erika Barrett.

One of Ernst’s major public-facing efforts for the past several years has been partnering with the Centers for Disease Control to develop Kidenga, a community-based surveillance mobile app to help detect mosquito-borne disease in Texas, Florida, Arizona, and California, and provide users with the latest information on their area. Based on an evaluation of the project, which demonstrated that people want to participate more when risk is high and targeted, the team is working to add weather-based warnings, such as when mosquito activity is likely to increase for a certain number of days after a rainstorm. Ernst plans to test messages with focus groups for how best to convey this information. She notes that people seem fairly comfortable with uncertainty when it comes to weather, whereas she has struggled with it on other topics. She has had experiences with reporters who thought the scientific community “didn’t know anything” when she expressed caveats and uncertainty around a complex topic (such as how mosquito-borne diseases in the U.S.-Mexico border region may be affected by climate change). Ernst thinks scientists’ communication with the public is sometimes “crippled by the desire to be very precise.” 

Following the week of orientation and training for the fellowship at AAAS headquarters, Ernst began working on a new idea: a course for freshman honors students focused on discussing concepts and information that are not disputed scientifically, but face public controversy. As part of this, students go out and engage with friends and family on these topics and reflect on their own reactions to ways the topics get presented in the media. She added that asking both undergraduate and graduate students to help with public engagement can be a great way to make activities more sustainable.

The AAAS training also helped Ernst start a Twitter account (@ernstkc) (“I used to think it was a forum to just share trivial personal details about your day, but I have been impressed by the level of scientific discourse that goes on in the Twittersphere”), publish an op-ed on public health in the border region, and embrace the wide range of ways scientists can engage with the public. She now thinks those who say public engagement isn’t for them have probably not found the type of activity that fits them best, because there’s something for every personality. She says she previously “wanted to run away” when asked to talk with the media or public, but as she has done more of each, she realized she was undervaluing herself. The more she puts herself out there, the more she sees how she can make important contributions, and the more comfortable she has become. She gave a talk at her campus for several thousand people, and after that felt empowered to speak with any size group. In fact, she was invited to speak at the Tedx Tucson event in January 2018, and enjoyed the experience – even if she wasn’t completely nerve-free. “Being a Leshner Fellow has really raised public engagement to the forefront of my thoughts. When I am in planning meetings, I now consider how public engagement can be incorporated in our education for students, and our research, making scientific knowledge more accessible.”

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.


Elana Kimbrell

Project Director