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Marcia Castro Shares Her Motivations for Engaging with Policymakers and Communities

Marcia Castro_Zika Forum
Leshner Fellow Marcia Castro participating in a debate about Zika.| Credit: Harvard Chan School of Public Health.

Marcia Castro says her goal as a scientist has always been to inform better policies. Helping to change the reality of what she researches makes it meaningful and keeps her going. As a public health researcher conducting field work, connections with the community are integral: household interviews provide a more complete picture than quantitative data alone. The work also always involves interacting with individuals who work at some level of government. Castro considers engagement especially critical in the current climate, both in the U.S. where the use and funding of science seems to be in question, and in Brazil where she does most of her research, and where there are trends toward dismantling the healthcare system. Her perspective is that “just publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals isn’t going to change anything.”

Castro, a professor of demography at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a 2017-18 AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellow, says her school has also been responding to the need for engagement, with the Dean’s office encouraging faculty to become more involved. They’ve started new service-learning programs for graduate students that provide win-win opportunities: students receive important fieldwork experience, and communities see improvements to their living conditions. The school has also been focusing more on social media, an area Castro herself still hopes to improve on – though her visibility on Twitter did increase after the week of public engagement training at AAAS last June.   

Castro applied to the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute with the goal of learning to tailor how she communicates her research to different audiences. She was surprised, however, by the enduring connections she made to other cohort members. They continue to be regularly in touch, which she considers priceless. She also really valued the op-ed training session in particular, as she reads other op-eds differently now and has been putting into practice what she learned by working on op-eds to accompany papers she publishes.

Recently, Castro has been investigating the effects of having children with congenital Zika syndrome on their mothers’ mental health. In addition to her research on this, she has been meeting with the government of Fortaleza, the fifth largest city in Brazil, to increase the social services provided to mothers in addition to the already-bolstered services provided to their children. Castro finds engaging with policymakers to discuss service provision and changes in the health system more complicated than working with communities. She says you should come prepared to argue your points, but not present yourself in a combative way -- and understand that many times, you won’t get what you want from the exchange. She believes people really learn how to engage with governments by doing it – and realizing that “you’ll probably do it completely wrong the first time, but then you learn.”

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Castro being interviewed while working in Fortaleza, Brazil.| Credit: Danique Dolly.

Castro says she often knows going into a conversation that the policymakers have already made their decision, and she’s swimming against the tide – but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t have the conversation. There are always other people listening, and her messages can help build pressure over time, perhaps under the next government, to make that change. She adds, “If you don’t say anything, you’ve really lost the battle.”

While much of her research has been on malaria, Castro is now also involved in science and policy related to domestic violence and abortion rights in the populations she works with. Both her scientific and engagement efforts have evolved because, as she puts in, “one thing leads to another.” She always wants to continue addressing the issues she sees, rather than only focusing on “half the problem.”

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.