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In Response to Zika, Patricia Garcez Forged Collaborative Relationships with Journalists

Patricia Garcez
Patricia Garcez discusses the Zika virus with classroom of high school students in Rio de Janeiro.| Credit: Patricia Garcez.

When the Zika outbreak began in Brazil, Patricia Garcez became what she calls a “bridge between virologists and journalists.” She is trained as a neuroscientist and began studying microcephaly (a condition in which the brain and head are much smaller than normal) in her post-doctoral work, so could discuss the connection between the virus and congenital brain defects. With this expertise, as the Zika crisis unfolded Garcez found herself not just communicating, but collaborating, with journalists. Because very little was known about Zika, journalists became an integral part of sharing new knowledge with the broader public. Typically, scientists don’t share their research until it is published in a scientific journal, but Garcez saw this dynamic change during the crisis. She would hear of new information from other institutions directly from journalists, and was very impressed by their grasp of the science and their engagement with the process.

When Garcez was first interviewed about the Zika virus on a popular television channel in Brazil, her mother told her she didn’t understand a thing. Because of this feedback, Garcez has worked on improving her interview skills and explaining complex and often uncertain science in plain language. She also tries to provide the big picture and carefully choose from among many details she could share.

In addition to her media experience during the Zika crisis, Garcez credits a “culture of engagement” in Brazil and at her university (the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), and her Ph.D. advisor, for inspiring her involvement in public engagement. She thinks researchers in Brazil are generally very motivated to communicate with the public, and view it as part of being a scientist. Her university includes public engagement as one of the three pillars for evaluating faculty, along with teaching and research. In fact, some scientists do more engagement or more teaching than they do research, and that is considered acceptable, says Garcez. While her career has been more oriented toward research than engagement, she has also always easily been able to plug into various public events, such as “science busking” and school and lab visits, in part because her Ph.D. advisor was a strong advocate for these activities (he co-founded Ciencia Hoje (Science Today) magazine in 1982, the first science publication for public audiences in Brazil, which continues to this day).

While continuing to focus on research, Garcez also wanted to improve and expand on her public-facing activities and interests, so she applied and was selected for the 2017-18 cohort of the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement. As part of her year as a Leshner Fellow, she is looking for ways to build more of a strategy around her engagement. She hopes this will help focus the time she spends on engagement on a few bigger projects that she leads, instead of mostly joining in others’ projects as they arise. 

As a post-doc, Garcez participated in a group blog, and she really enjoyed writing about her work for a more public audience. She recently began transitioning her personal Instagram account to a public, more science-focused account, to provide daily stories about the laboratory routine. She finds the Stories feature to be particularly useful for this purpose – she can post photos or mini-videos that are online for 24 hours. She finds it challenging to actively engage with the Instagram community (e.g., comment on other people’s posts, add followers), since this is more time-consuming than just posting. However, people from around the world are finding her – for example, last week, a Ph.D. student in Thailand who is also studying Zika reached out to her. One of Garcez’s long-term goals across her different activities is to gather enough content to eventually publish a popular science book.

The AAAS Leshner fellowship has been useful to her in building a cohort of fellow scientists who all work in related fields and face similar challenges with finding time for engagement, and communicating about difficult, evolving topics. “One of the greatest opportunities given in the Leshner training is networking with cohort fellows and the AAAS staff,” she says. “It is been very stimulating and engaging.”

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.