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Public Engagement Informs Chris Lynn’s Research on Tattooing

Cinematographer Adam Booher films Sagato Vaoliko and wife Salainaoloa Tuimavave as Sagato prepares for a day of tattooing at Sulu'ape Tatau in Apia, Samoa, July 2019
Cinematographer Adam Booher films Sagato Vaoliko and wife Salainaoloa Tuimavave as Sagato prepares for a day of tattooing in Apia, Samoa, July 2019.
Photo credit: Christopher Lynn

Christopher Lynn didn’t start out his career in anthropology intending to study tattooing. But in 2016 when his first study on tattooing and possible positive effects on immune systems went viral, he realized there was a lot of public interest in “the science under the hood of tattooing.” Lynn says that “public engagement has built interest in the research that I do… and where their [the public’s] interests lie informs how I do research and my instincts about teaching and what appeals to people.”

This interest led Lynn from that first small study in Alabama, to several years of field work in Samoa. In 2019 he wrote a piece for The Conversation that got 700,000 views in two weeks, and was picked up by CNN Health. He is now working on a study with another researcher in Australia about perceived health of people with facial & neck tattoos.

Lynn also didn’t expect to be making a film about tattooing. But right around the time that Lynn, who is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, began his AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellowship (he’s part of the 2019-20 “human augmentation” cohort), he also applied for a National Geographic grant focused on storytelling. The grant noted the stories could be done in any medium, and he realized his research on traditional Samoan tattooing was so visual, a documentary film might be most effective (Lynn is not the only 2019-20 Leshner Fellow making a film: Samira Kiani is also well on her way to releasing one about gene editing).

With a filmmaker he found through his university, Lynn spent part of his 2019 field season in Samoa collaborating with community members on what story to tell and beginning to film. Lynn wanted to show the cultural meaning behind traditional Samoan tattoos, which historically have been a symbol of being qualified to “sit among chiefs” and which, along with other parts of Samoan culture, have spread their influence around the world, despite being such a small island nation.

The group decided to focus the film around a local schoolteacher who had been planning to get a “pe’a” (or full torso tattoo, traditionally for men). They intended to return in summer 2020 to finish filming, but the COVID-19 pandemic has extended the timeline. When the film is complete, Lynn hopes to get it into film festivals, and pair it with art exhibits about the science of “ink immunity” and how tattoos are part of intersectional identities and cultures (he is already working on a grant for the art exhibit component of this).

One of Lynn’s longer-term public engagement activities has been less affected by the pandemic: he co-hosts the podcast “Sausage of Science” with Cara Ocobock, under the auspices of the Human Biology Association. Lynn and Ocobock started the podcast unofficially at first, three years ago, but as it started to become popular, they affiliated it more formally with the association. The podcast has helped Lynn and Ocobock become more well-known in their fields, especially since they also run the association’s social media accounts (Lynn and Ocobock gave a workshop at the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting about how running a podcast can support a career in science).

Listeners of “Sausage of Science” are primarily scientists and graduate students, who sometimes use the podcast in their classes. Last year, there were 19,000 new listens to at least one episode. In fall 2019, the editor-in-chief of the society’s journal, the American Journal of Human Biology, asked Lynn and Ocobock to join the public relations editorial board. The board asked if they could further support the podcast, so Lynn and Ocobock requested a second producer. With the additional help, they have been able to put the podcast out every week instead of biweekly.

During his Leshner fellowship year, Lynn also began work on institutional changes to support public engagement by researchers. He started conversations with his associate provost for academic affairs, who was very supportive, about developing a fellowship program or certificate in public engagement and facilitating department-level changes to promotion and tenure guidelines to recognize public engagement. Lynn was asked to put together a small proposal, but as the year got busier and more difficult with the onset of COVID-19 and other challenges, he put this on the back burner. There has been an unexpected outcome from this project already, however: he was trying to create an infographic for the proposal, and after working on it for a while, learned there are software programs that make this much easier. He is now an advocate for incorporating infographic creation into graduate student training and considers them as valuable as PowerPoint presentations.

The benefits of the Leshner Fellowship may continue to support his efforts toward institutional change: he says one of the most important aspects of the program was discovering that AAAS “cares as much about public engagement, for the value of the science” as he does. “That institutional credibility that AAAS lends us in making this argument has been just mind boggling… when it happens, it has to come with that kind of backing.”

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 10-15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society