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Leshner Fellows Put Public Engagement Strategies to Work

Ina Park, Sheena Cruickshank and Anthony Wilson participate in a Facebook Live chat hosted by AAAS' Emily Cloyd. | MC Longshore

Scientists studying infectious diseases immersed themselves in storytelling, social media and live interviews among other activities during an intensive week that kicked off a year-long appointment as AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellows.

The institute, which seeks to promote dialogue between science and society by training mid-career scientists in public engagement and science communication, began its second year with a weeklong orientation for the fellows on June 12-16 at AAAS headquarters in Washington.

The 2017-2018 cohort of fellows includes fifteen scientists who study diverse aspects of infectious disease such as epidemiology, evolutionary biology, human anatomy and food science. Over the week, each developed a public engagement plan laying out their own engagement activities as well as ways to build capacity for public engagement across their institutions. Each cohort of fellows represents a particular area of research at the nexus of science and society. The institute, established in 2015 in honor of Alan I. Leshner, AAAS CEO emeritus and founder of the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology, brought together climate change researchers as its inaugural cohort of fellows last year. The 2018-2019 cohort will comprise scientists studying food and water security.

“Infectious disease is a topic that we have seen in the news for many years,” said Emily Therese Cloyd, project director for public engagement at AAAS’ Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology. “We live in a very connected world” in which misinformation about diseases such as the Zika virus, the West Nile virus and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome  –  can spread as rapidly and easily as the diseases themselves, Cloyd noted.

“It is a really good time to make sure we are doing the very best we can to communicate about infectious diseases,” she said.

The fellows’ full schedule covered a broad swath of science communication and public engagement topics and activities, including discussions on catalyzing institutional change, tips for writing and pitching opinion pieces to news outlets and on-camera interview practice.

The schedule included opportunities to put their newly honed skills to use while communicating with policymakers and the public. A group of the fellows visited congressional offices on Capitol Hill, while others engaged with social media audiences through Reddit and Facebook. Fellows conducted two “Ask Me Anything” sessions on sexually transmitted infections and vector-borne diseases, answering more than 65 questions across the two sessions. A Facebook Live chat on the portrayal of infectious disease in pop culture drew nearly 4,000 viewers.

The live chat touched on an important point for scientists seeking to communicate their work to members of the public: the perceived gulf between scientists and the public. “Scientists are people,” said Anthony Wilson, Integrative Entomology group leader at the U.K.’s Pirbright Institute. Scientists are enthusiastic and committed about their work and “that very rarely comes across” in movies and television about scientists, Wilson said.

2017 Leshner Leadership Institute training
Leshner Leadership Institute fellows gather in small groups for communications orientation. | Mary Catherine Longshore/AAAS

Woven throughout the week were exercises to ensure that the fellows’ messages are memorable and meaningful to their audiences. One way to connect with any audience is to tell stories, according to presenter Shane Hanlon, specialist with the American Geophysical Union’s Sharing Science program as well as producer and co-host of The Story Collider, a live show featuring stories about science.

Stories and science are both ever-present in our lives, Hanlon said. Putting the two together –communicating about science by including vivid details, personal touches or a hint of suspense – can stick with listeners and change minds.

“Everyone has a story to tell about science,” Hanlon said.

The session inspired fellow Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova, who serves as associated professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Kentucky and works with elementary and high school students as the founder of SciCats, a science outreach program, to write her own personal story tailored to her audience of aspiring scientists: how a fearless little girl she met while rock-climbing helped her conquer her fears and continues to motivate her in the lab.

“If you overcome your fear, you can do anything. I realized it doesn’t matter how young or old you are — you can have a huge impact on somebody’s life. For me, that brought me back to my research. When there’s a problem in the lab and things are not working, you can still do it. You just have to persevere and you can solve important problems,” said Garneau-Tsodikova. “Without knowing it, that little girl has changed my vision about how I do my science. It’s important to tell kids they can have an impact on science by pushing boundaries in whatever they do.”

With orientation complete, each fellow is equipped with a diverse set of skills to help carry out the year-long public engagement plan developed during the orientation.

“It’s important for each fellow to find out what works best for them, from Reddit to Facebook Live to becoming a consultant for a state legislature or offering testimony,” Cloyd said.

The fellows will continue to stay in touch throughout the year to share strategies and support one another’s public engagement plans.

Garneau-Tsodikova has made plans to collaborate with members of the group on both public engagement and scientific research efforts.

“All of them have taught me something,” she said.