Leshner Fellows Luis Martinez and Ina Park discuss public engagement during their June 2017 training week at AAAS Headquarters.| Credit: Mary Catherine Longshore.
Luis Martinez, like many scientists, did not set out to be a leader in public engagement with science. For him, this aspect of his career arose largely through a research project that attracted the interest of the Los Angeles Times. This attention from a national newspaper led to other interviews, and eventually he was recruited by one of his professional associations, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), to be on their communication committee. Through ASM, he helped with communication training workshops for graduate students, realizing along the way that he had more experience to share than he’d realized.
Before he was selected as part of the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science 2017-18 cohort, Martinez sometimes felt like he was “singing and no one was listening.” He says that “having a global organization like AAAS backing up what you are doing is amazing,” as is his new awareness of peers with similar interests. He appreciates how there are different interests across his cohort, which is focused on infectious disease, yet many commonalities as well. He has been working closely with another fellow, Maria Elena Bottazzi, as they are both in Texas and do similar vaccine research. For a project on sexually transmitted infections (STIs), he can also now turn to Ina Park, for example, who is an expert in that topic.
Martinez, an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso, also appreciates that the AAAS Leshner fellowship reinforced the value of different types of public engagement he hadn’t been focused on, such as writing and social media. He points out how another fellow, Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova, started tweeting as a result of the program and has been very successful with it. He says, “It makes you think… are you doing enough? And it makes you think about whether or not your methods work.” With AAAS support, Martinez wrote an op-ed about the importance of funding scientific research, and found that the process doesn’t have to be overly onerous. He notes that there is always a give-and-take with the editor, and you have to be flexible and find ways to negotiate on what is included without compromising your core messages (which means being very clear on what those are).
He recently moved to El Paso from Long Island, New York, and has been assessing the engagement possibilities in his new community. His renewed interest in writing has led him to think about, in the long-term, having a column in the local newspaper. He thinks there is room for more engagement between the university and the local media, and hopes to be a bridge for this. In addition, because El Paso is just across the border from Juarez, Mexico, Martinez also sees opportunities to reach Spanish speakers, such as discussing the prevention and treatment of STIs, a significant health problem in the area.
While it’s been a very busy year transitioning to a new city and university, he plans to encourage everyone in his lab to participate in public engagement in some form, from school visits to maintaining the lab’s social media and web presence. Building engagement into his graduate students’ experience is important to him, and also a way to make his own efforts more sustainable. For those interested in kickstarting their engagement, he suggests judging local science fairs as a good way to contribute and connect with schools and others in the community.
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.