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Prolific Science Communicator Joanna Verran Receives 2019 AAAS Award for Public Engagement with Science

To reach as wide an audience as possible, Verran highlights science’s intersection with literature, graphic art and music. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Joanna Verran, former microbiology professor and head of science communication and public engagement at Manchester Metropolitan University, will receive the 2019 Mani L. Bhaumik Award for Public Engagement with Science from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Throughout her academic career, Verran translated her own research on microorganisms and surfaces into innovative public engagement activities and built capacity for science communication across her institution. Even since retiring from her official teaching role in 2018, she has continued to lead engagement efforts in England.

“Her defining attribute is a deep desire that innovative teaching and public engagement practice is devised and delivered with the same rigor as that for laboratory-based research: by appropriate design, thorough evaluation and with wide dissemination,” Manchester Metropolitan University historian and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education Helen Laville wrote in the award nomination letter. “Jo advocates public engagement as an academic discipline.” In 2016, she brought this idea to life, leading the university’s launch of its science communication master’s degree program.

To reach as wide an audience as possible, Verran leverages popular culture, highlighting science’s intersection with literature, graphic art and music. In the past year alone, she contributed to two panel discussions about the science embedded in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at the Bradford Literature Festival in West Yorkshire, spoke at a science and art meeting at the Manchester Castlefield Gallery and worked with composers to develop pieces with sounds inspired by scientific research.

Over the years, Verran led her university’s contributions to the annual Manchester Science Festival and the European City of Science festival, reaching tens of thousands of visitors at each. Events that she staged attracted participants with titles like “Plaque Attack!” and “A Longer Look at Lichen.” She also designed interactive epidemiology activities based on teen vampire and zombie novels at the Manchester Children’s Book Festival, algae and hand-hygiene sessions at National Science Week, family events focusing on fermented foods and the human microbiome at Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum and more.

In addition to her outreach to diverse audiences on campus and in public venues, Verran has been featured as an expert voice on science by BBC and many other television, radio and print outlets, discussing the safe handling of cosmetics, contamination of mobile phones and fungal deterioration of cinema film.

Quantum physicist Mani L. Bhaumik | Courtesy of Mani L. Bhaumik

The AAAS Mani L. Bhaumik Award for Public Engagement with Science, established in 1987, recognizes scientists and engineers who demonstrate excellence in their contribution to public engagement with science. Beginning this year, the award is endowed by and named for quantum physicist Mani L. Bhaumik. Known for his technological advances that led to the development of Lasik eye surgery, Bhaumik seeks to elevate the recognition of scientists for their exceptional efforts to communicate science in ways that inform and engage the public. The prize consists of a $5,000 honorarium, a commemorative plaque and complimentary registration and travel to the AAAS Annual Meeting.

Verran will receive the award during the 185th AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 16, 2019.


[Associated image: courtesy of Joanna Verran]