Karen Lips Leads Science Diplomacy and Public Engagement at Home and Abroad

Leshner Fellow Karen Lips (back row, second from left) in Mexico with participants in the ChicasSTEM program. | Credit: US Consulate, Ciudad Juarez.

Karen Lips is well-aware of the importance of strategic science communication in affecting environmental policy. In November 2014, she and her colleague Joseph Mendelson published an op-ed in the New York Times warning of a pathogenic fungus spreading among European salamanders that could decimate salamander populations in the United States. She and Mendelson urged prompt government action. Within a year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an interim rule that shut down importation of 201 salamander species to the U.S. “Getting to the New York Times was key,” she says, in making this a higher policy priority.

Lips, a professor of biology at the University of Maryland, researches the conservation and ecology of amphibians and reptiles. Her multidisciplinary approach examines the interactions between changes in the environment from climate change and disease and amphibian population decline, and the ecological repercussions. Her long-term research in Latin America showed that the spread of an invasive pathogen through amphibian communities was responsible for the loss of amphibian biodiversity in that region, contrary to suggestions that climate change was the driver. In contrast, her team showed that salamander size was decreasing in regions of the Appalachian Mountains where the climate was becoming both warmer and drier, and that disease was not driving changes there.

An undescribed salamander species found dead during the 2004 die-off. | Credit: Forrest Brem.

Lips is a 2016-2017 AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellow, and is coordinating this with a year-long Jefferson Science Fellowship with the U.S. Department of State. She is serving in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and combining public engagement with science diplomacy in her travels throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

So far these experiences are reinforcing for her the connectedness of North America, Latin America and Caribbean societies, and the importance of international collaboration to scientific and educational advances. During a trip to Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua, Mexico in February 2017, Lips talked with young women participating in the Consulate’s ChicasSTEM program and representatives from U.S.-Mexican border environmental organizations. She also visited Guadalajara and Tijuana, where she encouraged students to explore careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, and talked with environmental leaders about their efforts to address global problems, including  transboundary water resources, overfishing and biodiversity conservation.  Lips also met with university administrators to discuss their higher education and student exchange programs.

In addition, Lips is working with other Leshner and Jefferson Fellows on possible programming related to science, technology and policy issues that may be of interest to faculty and administrators at the University of Maryland. Many of them have expertise in science and technology, as well as experience working with domestic and international science policy. Lips and her colleagues are exploring how they can expand their role as reliable sources for informing U.S. science policy.

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.