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Proactive and Clear Communication a Focus of AAAS Fellowship for Christine Johnston

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Christine Twitter
Infographic created as part of Christine Johnston and Ina Park's efforts, for article by Menza et al, in STD 2018; 45;2: 118-126.| CREDIT: Salome Kiduko.

When you specialize in sexually transmitted infections, people tend to reach out to you. At least, that’s been Christine Johnston’s experience, as a physician and researcher studying genital herpes based at the University of Washington. Prior to starting her fellowship with the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science, her public engagement was mostly reactive, interacting with patients and people concerned they might have genital herpes, and responding to requests for media interviews. She found that patient support group conversations often stimulated research questions about the stigma associated with herpes, questions that wouldn’t have arisen just in the clinical setting, even though the stigma is very connected to clinical impacts.

Dr. Johnston applied for the 2017-18 infectious disease-focused AAAS Leshner Fellows cohort because she realized these interactions with both patients and the media could be improved if she could communicate even more clearly -- and because the value of proactive engagement had become increasingly obvious. Specifically, she wanted to clarify misconceptions about genital herpes and sexually transmitted infections in the public and to decrease stigma surrounding these very common infections.

The week-long training she participated in at AAAS as part of the fellowship provided her with the opportunity to practice interviewing with a journalist and to think through her messages. Johnston especially valued the informal panel with several members of the media who specialize in science reporting. Through this, she realized that journalists are often working on a tight timeline when they reach out with questions. She previously didn’t have the time to provide the detailed summaries she thought they wanted, to meet her own criteria for thoroughness. Now she understands that when the media asks for a quote, they’re looking for a short, targeted response – something she has time for, and that can still highlight the key points she wants to convey.

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Johnston w/Fellows at Capitol
2017-18 Leshner Fellows after their meetings on Capitol Hill as part of the AAAS training week.| CREDIT: Mary Catherine Longshore.

Johnston says the fellowship has also broadened her perspective on how she could be involved in public engagement. The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute emphasizes both conducting public engagement and working toward institutional change to encourage and empower others to value and participate in public engagement. She has in fact been focusing more on institutional change because  she thinks this strategy will have the broadest impact. She has been working closely with another fellow, Dr. Ina Park, on a project with the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases, coordinating with graduate students to create graphics for research articles that can easily be shared by the journal on social media. Their goals include demonstrating to researchers how to convey information clearly, engaging and training younger scientists in best practices for visual and online communication and disseminating research findings to the public.

Recognizing that time is a limited commodity, Johnston emphasized that scientists must find ways to make public engagement part of their regular work. She would like to see more graduate and medical school programs include science communication training and activities in their curriculum so it becomes a normal part of the job for the next generation of scientists.

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.