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Making Engagement Easier for Others: Matching Scientists with Artists and Students

High-School students interviewing University of Hawaii scientists for local radio
High school students interviewing University of Hawaii scientists for local radio | CREDIT: Kristin Matsumoto

Everyone eats. Which means food is perhaps one of the most universally-meaningful topics out there. Despite this fact, crop and agricultural scientists still struggle to connect their work with the public, says Mikey Kantar, an assistant professor of tropical plant and soil sciences at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and a 2018-19 AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow. So when Kantar heard about a call for breakout sessions at the 2019 AAAS Communicating Science Seminar, he decided to brainstorm with two colleagues, Ari Novy and Colin Khoury, about how their respective fields could do better. Instead of discussing an existing science communication effort, they came up with an idea for a new project and then implemented it prior to coming to Washington, DC and sharing it at their breakout session.

The project paired scientists with artists to create infographics about their research -- and by all accounts, it was a huge success. “We have more labs that want to participate than we can do [infographic] stories on!” Kantar exclaimed. The infographics have been sent to various professional societies and schools to use, printed as posters, and shared on social media, and he believes they will be useful for years to come. The project also helped the scientists think differently about their research, as they assessed which aspects to focus on sharing with public audiences.

Kantar and his colleagues published an article about the project, and he has a post on the AAAS Public Engagement Reflections Blog about the lessons learned. He notes that having the AAAS name associated with the effort helped them get a grant to pay the artists. It was also a success because they were filling a real need: scientists want infographics to share, but they don’t want to have to create the infrastructure for doing so themselves. “Scientists want to create these without struggling to develop a whole new skillset,” says Kantar.

Kantar is involved in another matchmaking project as well. As part of a course he is teaching to high school students on science communication, students are paired with research labs at the University of Hawaiʻi based on their interests. The students interviewed the scientists and created 90-120 second clips that aired on the University of Hawaiʻi radio station, which has 6,000 daily listeners, on June 7.

“What has been eye-opening is how on-board everyone [at my university] is. No one has told me that I shouldn’t be doing this. The faculty who are involved are happy to be getting exposure without having to do any of the outreach program development or legwork,” Kantar notes. 

Students recording science podcasts for UH radio | CREDIT: Kristin Matsumoto

Seed money from the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute helped buy new equipment for the student-run radio station, which is doing the editing for the project for free. Kantar’s intention is for this to be a long-lasting partnership. One of the lessons from this project is to let people do what they are excited about. When he first started talking with the high school students about what their project could be, he wanted them to create a newsletter. But no one was interested in that – they all wanted to make podcasts.

Of public engagement, Kantar says it makes him think more clearly about his research goals and audiences. He notes there is “way more discussion in my lab now about who needs to know this and what is really the impact of this.”  They regularly ask themselves whether any given project has broad relevance and applicability or should just be communicated to a very targeted audience who can use the information. For example, he has a student who is working on insect tolerance in pumpkins, using standard research techniques. Its audience at this point is likely confined to organic pumpkin farmers, to communicate how this new variety can help them, and doesn’t need to go much beyond that. Kantar considers this a very useful thought process for grant-writing.

While projects on infographics and creating radio shows might seem like plenty, Kantar has also been working on getting an award for public engagement set up at his professional society, the National Association of Plant Breeders. He wants to help reward the people who are doing significant outreach, yet not being recognized for it. 

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.

Infographics developed as part of collaboration Kantar and his colleagues organized. Click each image for a larger view.