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Leshner Fellow Danielle Buttke Connects Public Health and Conservation

Danielle Buttke June 2017
Danielle Buttke, Mary Catherine Longshore/AAAS

Danielle Buttke discovered during her AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Fellowship year that veering off-topic can be useful, no event or interaction is too small to be meaningful, and engaging with people sometimes means talking about her personal life, instead of always trying to be the face of a government agency. “That is fine for a press release,” she says, “but not for public engagement.”

Buttke, a veterinary epidemiologist with the National Park Service, is a member of the 2017-18 cohort of infectious disease-focused AAAS Leshner Fellows, and also appeared this year in the AAAS Member Spotlight. She coordinates the National Park Service’s One Health program and leads responses when there are outbreaks of zoonotic diseases (i.e., those that can transmit between animals and humans).

The main messages she wanted to convey to the public at the start of her AAAS fellowship did not substantively change over the course of the year: nature has many health benefits for people, which is one reason we should value and conserve it. Though people may fear the diseases they can contract from nature, healthy and diverse ecosystems can help prevent the spread of disease (for example, healthy bird communities can reduce instances of West Nile Virus in nearby human populations). She has plans to develop interactive, science-based programs to promote these messages to park visitors, and to train park rangers in these programs.

While Buttke continues to line up the pieces for this longer-term, more top-down project, she has also embraced the value of one-on-one interactions. She has become more open to how personally satisfying it can be to have meaningful conversations with people on topics she’s passionate about. These can be useful in learning what works for her in capturing people’s attention: for example, a tangential side story she told during a small presentation intrigued several people, causing them to follow up afterward with questions and requests for more information, a response she didn’t often get. She also observed how an event with low turnout nonetheless led several people to meet one another, and they ended up organizing an event for their city.

This past year, Buttke has started encouraging her colleagues to hold town halls when they are visiting communities for other reasons. Some were hesitant about public speaking, especially when contentious issues often come up, but most have had very positive experiences. She views town halls as a way for the National Park Service to build trust and help adjacent communities see them as a resource. Before the AAAS training week, she herself didn’t view town halls as a forum for public engagement, but one of the AAAS staff encouraged her to reconsider this.

Buttke says when she’s excited, she always wants to share that feeling with other people, so she credits her passion for science with driving much of her engagement. She believes science is how we make the world a better place. Through her fellowship and other experiences, she has learned that people don’t necessarily need all the details of her methodology or the reasons behind the degree of uncertainty – she can start conversations with the big picture, and let the audience take the lead in exploring further.

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.