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Leshner Leadership Fellow Jessica Hellmann recognized for her research and engagement

Leshner Leadership Fellow Jessica Hellmann. | Credit: Institute on the Environment

On May 8, Jessica Hellmann was one of eight recipients of the 2017 Climate Adaptation Leadership Award, for her role in developing new ecosystem management techniques. Like the other AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellows, she has excelled in both her research career and as a communicator and leader. She finds that her engagement activities can often feed into her scientific work and make it more effective and readily applicable.

Hellmann focuses on interdisciplinary research and projects that increase the resiliency of human and natural communities to the risks of environmental change. She tries to broaden the range of groups involved in climate change research, and works with federal, state and municipal government agencies and the private sector on science-based solutions. She notes that corporate leaders, who she considers one of her main audiences, may not have extensive knowledge about the importance of climate adaptation, yet they are often open to problem-solving and exploring creative solutions to environmental problems, conserving resources, and protecting infrastructure and people.

When engaging public audiences, Hellmann encourages scientists “to tell stories that show common ground, rather than just be[ing] fact checkers.” She has experience putting this into practice at the Institute on the Environment, where Hellmann is the director (she is also a professor of ecology, evolution and behavior at the University of Minnesota, where the institute is located). Along with its many scientific pursuits, the institute publishes the online magazine, Ensia, which uses storytelling, commentary and multimedia to explore solutions to environmental challenges.

In a session at the AAAS Annual Meeting in February 2017, “Science Communication for Public Good,” Hellmann presented the following operating principles she uses when speaking with businesses, government agencies, and the public about climate change and ecosystem health:

  • Practice matching the message to the audience
  • Prepare for public engagement with clear goals and well-researched background
  • And finally, established scientists can Promote communication skills by mentoring early career scientists and providing opportunity and reward for public engagement

Hellmann says the Leshner Leadership Institute is providing strategies she can use to change institutional incentives and encourage individual researchers to be ambassadors for climate change science. She reflected on some of these lessons in a post about public engagement on her website.

As part of her institutionally-focused efforts, over the past year Hellmann’s institute piloted a new fellowship program to “foster leading thinkers of the future.” The fellowship pairs early-career University of Minnesota scholars with faculty mentors, and provides training in communications and social media (AAAS provided the social media training); legislative engagement; networking with elected officials, corporate leaders, and academics; and strategic planning. The program is an excellent ongoing opportunity to encourage an academic culture that values public engagement.

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.