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Leshner Fellows Challenge Themselves With Array of Public Engagement Strategies

The ten Leshner Leadership Institute fellows 2019-2020
The ten Leshner fellows in the 2019-2020 cohort study various aspects of human augmentation. | Mary Catherine Longshore/AAAS

A weeklong orientation for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science brought together a diverse group of 10 scientists for an intensive training in science communication strategies – and wasted no time to give them opportunities to put their skills to the test.

The orientation held June 10-14 at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., helps fellows hone big-picture goals for their fellowship year, develop specific objectives that support the goals and expand their communications skills through training sessions, said Emily Therese Cloyd, director of AAAS’ Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology. Fellows also took part in unique public engagement activities – such as a public forum and an online scientific discussion – that they can later implement at their own institutions.

“We hope that you’ll try new methods of science communication and public engagement,” Cloyd told fellows at the start of their orientation.

The institute, launched in 2015, selects a group of scientists and engineers with a shared research focus and equips them with the skills and support needed to create and implement public engagement activities in their communities. The research of the 2019-2020 fellows focuses on varied aspects of human augmentation, the use of science and technology to temporarily or permanently alter the capabilities of the human body. Human augmentation takes many forms; the fellows’ work demonstrates diverse topics such as gene editing technologies like CRISPR, antibiotics, bioethics, tattoos and artificial intelligence.

One new arena for cultivating conversation on human augmentation was found at a public forum on gene editing, held at AAAS headquarters on June 12.

Editing Our Evolution: Rewriting the Human Genome,” an outgrowth of the Building with Biology project, brought together the Leshner fellows, AAAS community members and the public for guided, small group conversations focused on the questions surrounding gene editing – just one form of human augmentation.

The ease of usage of CRISPR – the accessibility, the different functionalities that it has – has led to fast advancement of the science, but regulations, safety and all of the further discussions have lagged behind,” said Leshner fellow Samira Kiani, who provided essential background information to forum participants, regardless of their background or knowledge of gene editing. Kiani is assistant professor of biological and health systems engineering at Arizona State University and her research focuses on applying CRISPR technologies to synthetic biology.

Leshner fellow Aaron Levine, associate professor of public policy at Georgia Institute of Technology, raised areas of ethical nuance that forum participants then explored. Among them were the differences in perception between the modification of a heart cell, for instance, the effects of which are not heritable, versus modification of germline cells, which results in changes able to be passed down to the next generation. There also are differences in how therapies to treat a disease are perceived compared to genetic enhancement, said Levine, whose research focuses on the intersection of public policy and bioethics. “However, there is quite a bit in the middle,” Levine said, setting the stage for discussions that touched upon the ethics of medical consent and the equity of access to treatments. “This is a fantastic strategy,” said Kiani after the forum. She plans to bring the forum format to her institution to generate necessary conversations about human augmentation among students, researchers and the public. “It’s exactly what we need,” she said.

It was a point underscored by Tiffany Lohwater, chief communications officer at AAAS and director of the Office of Public Programs. “There needs to be dialogue between scientists and the public,” she said. “Science cannot operate efficiently unless we know what the public issues and concerns are.”

Fellows were able to address public concerns and questions online as well, taking part in an Ask Me Anything discussion about human augmentation on Reddit. The live AMA exchange, which drew more than 500 comments, had fellows answering questions about the risks and rewards of human augmentation.

“An emphasis on ethics, equity, and diverse representations in decision-making process is the best way to ensure safe introduction of new augmentation, and I think that is the largest, most pervasive issue facing our society today on a global scale,” wrote Leshner fellow Christopher Lynn, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, during the AMA.

In the spirit of exploring new communications methods, fellows new to social media also managed the Center for Public Engagement’s Meet A Scientist Twitter account, gaining valuable experience with online public engagement and sharing the Reddit conversation with the robust Twitter community of scientists and science communicators.

The orientation afforded fellows the chance to connect as a group and explore new formats and strategies for collaborative projects that will continue throughout their fellowship year.

Oge Marques, a Leshner fellow and professor of computer science and engineering at Florida Atlantic University, came to the orientation with the idea of co-authoring with other fellows a book for educated, non-specialist audiences about human augmentation, its depth and breadth and the public issues surrounding the scientific fields it includes.

“It is ambitious? Yes,” Marques said of the project. However, no book currently illuminates the “mosaic of different disciplines” that encompass human augmentation, he said. Marques, whose research focuses on the intelligent processing of visual information, welcomed the interest other fellows expressed and is now drafting a strategy for the project.

Leshner fellows, including Bill Wuest, a distinguished investigator and associate professor of chemistry at Emory University and an antibiotics researcher, have also started solo and joint newspaper op-eds, thanks in part to a panel discussion with journalists during an orientation session that broke down “hidden barriers,” Wuest said.

As the Leshner fellows refine and implement their individual projects and tackle joint efforts, they will continue to stay in touch throughout their term.

While the fellows come from diverse scientific backgrounds, “in terms of vision and passion, there’s lots of commonalities,” said Wuest.

Added Leshner fellow Jin Kim Montclare, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at New York University who studies engineering proteins, “It’s a community that we now have.”

Associated image: Mary Catherine Longshore/AAAS