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As Meghan Duffy’s AAAS Leshner Fellowship Ended, a New Chapter Began in Her Public Engagement Leadership

Meghan Duffy
Meghan Duffy

Over the course of her year as a AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellow, Meghan Duffy tried out different tactics for engaging public audiences, identifying those she enjoyed the most and those she’d rather not spend time on. Duffy, a professor of ecology at the University of Michigan, has contributed for years to a popular ecology blog, which is primarily oriented toward other scientists and tends to lead to a fair amount of online discussion. When writing for public audiences, she also found it much more rewarding when she could get feedback, to know whether she is having an impact. Finding topics and outlets that target specific audiences, and relating her research to those audiences’ experiences or interests, has proven more fruitful than writing for a general public audience (which feels a bit like “throwing spaghetti against the wall in a dark room,” she says).

Working with children and teens has always been a central part of Duffy’s public engagement, one she says can sometimes be exhausting, yet is always valuable. She got her start in public engagement when she was still in graduate school at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station, participating in a program for elementary schoolers. When she began her first faculty position at Georgia Tech, she was struck by how different the school population in midtown Atlanta was from the university community, and wanted to help address that divide. She began leading a summer camp that introduced middle school students to aquatic ecology -- starting with a very small group and adding more kids each year.

Duffy has carried an emphasis on diversity in science through her career and her public engagement (it was one of her main messages in the two-minute talk she gave at the 2017 March for Science in Washington, DC). At the start of her AAAS Leshner fellowship last year, she launched a new summer program called Prove It, in which she and her postdoc Mary Rogalski worked with students in the University of Michigan’s Wolverine Pathways Program on data literacy. The students, primarily from communities underrepresented in science, ask questions of interest to them that could be answered with available data, find and assess those data, draw conclusions, and present their findings. One of Duffy’s goals now is to develop a way to evaluate the program, as well as share the curriculum with others. Another diversity-related project was inspired by a conversation during the AAAS fellowship orientation: in August of 2017, Duffy and her colleague Terry McGlynn started “EEB Mentor Match” to pair students from minority-serving institutions with mentors who can help them reach their goals of getting into and excelling in graduate school.

Duffy envisions public engagement eventually being a formal part of her ongoing role at the university, in addition to her research. Partway through the AAAS Leshner fellowship, Duffy began to think about how to spend her 2018-19 sabbatical year, and realized many of her public engagement plans could benefit from more time. She approached the University of Michigan’s Office of Academic Innovation, and they offered her sabbatical position there (she is continuing to run her lab). She is working on the Prove It program, as well as several bigger-picture projects, including supporting faculty and graduate students in doing public engagement, and promoting greater diversity, equity and inclusion in ecology and evolutionary biology. She started in the Office of Academic Innovation around the time they hired Elyse Aurbach (a AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science finalist in 2016) for the new position of Public Engagement Lead, so the two are collaborating on how to encourage these activities across the university, and beyond.

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.