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Leshner Fellowship Expanded Karen Levy’s Concept of Engagement, and What She’ll Say “Yes” to

Karen Levy 2015
Karen Levy

For Karen Levy, engaging with public audiences about her research was a natural continuation of her interests. When she was considering options for graduate school, she was initially unsure whether she would go into journalism or science. She is now an associate professor of environmental health and epidemiology at Emory University, but she often finds herself wishing there were more time in her schedule for public communication and engagement.

To help keep up her involvement in communication activities, Levy spent two years in the Public Voices Fellowship program of The Op-Ed Project, and recently completed her year as a AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellow. Both programs offer training and support, yet at the same time, she had to continue with her regular workload at her institution. She notes it would be helpful if such fellowships were able to “buy out” teaching time.

Although her Leshner fellowship year recently came to end, her associate dean nominated her for a new program at her university, the Emory Public Scholars Institute. As part of this, she will be participating in a series of sessions this fall related to engaging through traditional and new media. She is looking forward to this as a way to build greater community with her colleagues around these topics.

Karen Levy Field Tour
Karen Levy tours communities in Mozambique to explore potential field sites for a new study. | Karen Levy

Coming into the Leshner fellowship, Levy viewed public engagement as primarily involving writing for popular audiences, given her previous experience with The Op-Ed Project and her interest in journalism. Meeting the other fellows in her cohort, all infectious disease researchers, she realized the many forms engagement can take. As other fellows have also reported, she used her fellowship year to encourage herself to accept opportunities like media interviews that she might previously have shied away from.

Levy also found the visit to Capitol Hill during the AAAS orientation week eye-opening in terms of how policy is made. After meeting Waverly Gordon, health counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, she was inspired to bring Gordon to Atlanta using part of her seed money from the Leshner fellowship. She organized a series of talks by Gordon for students and faculty at Emory University, Morehouse College and Spelman College on how to use science policy to create on-the-ground, positive impacts. Gordon also provided an example of a career path for students interested in engaging in policy and being a force for change. Participants in the sessions were very engaged, asked many questions, and found the discussions useful. 

Levy understands how public engagement can influence research: writing her op-ed for the Public Voices Fellowship, for example, caused her to reexamine her own research interests. She found she didn’t want to write about the topic she was focused on at the time. As an expecting mother, she was personally interested in the infant microbiome, and wanted to use that interest to connect with readers -- but didn’t have anything from her own work to draw on. Thinking through these interests caused her to connect the dots to her professional work in a way she hadn’t before. Several years later, she now has two large NIH grants related to her microbiome research.

Going forward, Levy also hopes to incorporate narrative, storytelling and multimedia into how her lab shares its research and is interested in collaborating with a documentary filmmaker to chronicle the story of her international field research projects. She would like to weave more engagement into her scientific work itself, but like others, finds this challenging when it isn’t sufficiently valued by funders. However, she recently participated in a faculty professional development session about engaging in public scholarship, during which her dean’s office noted that they want to consider how to incorporate public engagement into promotion and tenure review. She volunteered to be part of these conversations, and hopes to help “solve the puzzle” of how to fit this into interested faculty’s busy schedules.

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.