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Scientists Use Public Engagement to Share Human Augmentation

Tattoos, Machine Interplay, Exoskeletons and Gene Editing Boost Human Capabilities

Tattoo artist works at American Samoa tattoo festival
The ancient practice of tattooing falls within the arena of human augmentation, a topic explored by the 2019-2020 Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement fellows. | Fotu Vaai/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

Anthropologist Christopher Lynn is working in Samoa this summer on ongoing research to test whether the ancestral practice of tattooing throughout this network of six South Pacific islands strengthens immune systems in humans and delivers benefits that ward off infectious diseases.

Lynn also will collect data for a book examining how the Samoans’ form of tattooing has contributed to a global resurgence of a once-stigmatized practice and helped increase interest in the island’s traditional tattooing. “One of the most fantastic aspects is the cultural continuity of tattooing in the South Pacific,” said Lynn, who is working with a filmmaker on a related documentary.

Such research falls directly into the multidisciplinary scientific arena of “human augmentation,” selected by the American Association for the Advancement of Science as the organizing topic for the 2019–2020 Alan I. Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science fellows program at the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology.

Lynn is one of 10 research scientists and engineers in the fourth contingent of Leshner fellows who participated in intensive training on effective and intentional public outreach about their research and its intersections with society during an orientation held from June 10-14 at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Since its establishment in 2015, the program has trained 55 scientists working across areas of climate change, infectious diseases, water security, and, now, human augmentation to address the increasing need for effective engagement between scientists and the public.

The topic of human augmentation is defined by the fellowship program as “the examination of new and developing technologies that attempt to temporarily or permanently change the capabilities of the human body through natural or artificial means, including using pharmaceuticals, surgery, or medical technology.”

This year’s Leshner fellows study a range of questions, including quantifying how machines improve human performance; supporting physiotherapists and enhancing the daily lives of disabled patients through technological advances in rehabilitative robots and assistive devices; and engineering gene-editing tools with safety and control features.

To share scientific advances in human augmentation and receive feedback from public audiences, fellows will participate in public engagement activities that include movies, videos, podcasts, public presentations, social media, and workshops, as well as ongoing programs with schools and museums.

Leshner fellows participated in a forum focused on gene editing, modeled after a collaboration between AAAS and the Museum of Science in Boston, to guide scientists in group discussions on emerging and controversial scientific issues.

For Lynn, the need to increase public interactions became evident once a 2016 study he coauthored was published by the American Journal of Human Biology. It drew wide public attention for its finding that some tattooed individuals may have healthier immune systems or, as the study stated, “signal underlying immunological and genetic quality.” Such biological responses also may be what motivates individuals to seek multiple tattoos, Lynn said.

The 2019–2020 Alan I. Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science fellows gather at AAAS
Leshner Leadership fellows Leia Stirling, seated left, Jin Kim Montclare, Tracey du Laney, Samira Kiani, and Oge Marques, standing left, Christopher Lynn, Bill Wuest, Robert Riener, Aaron Levine and Kafui Dzirasa, gathered at AAAS for week-long orientation. | Mary Catherine Longshore/AAAS

The midcareer science and engineering researchers will train and mentor other scientists in their communities and work to establish public engagement activities and programs at their academic institutions, said Emily Cloyd, director of the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology.

As with many Leshner fellows, Lynn already has been active in public activities such as establishing an elementary-level educational program called “Anthropology Is Elemental” that trains college and graduate-level anthropology students to teach anthropology in local elementary schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He also launched the “Sausage of Science” podcast that features interviews with scientists and researchers on the topics of human biological diversity and evolution.

As a window onto the types of institutional changes Leshner fellows are encouraged to pursue, Lynn plans to work with his university to integrate public service and public engagement activities by professors and researchers into its tenure and promotion evaluation systems. He also supports the establishment of a science communications certificate program for graduate students.

Leia Stirling, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, focuses her research on quantifying human motion and interactions with machines to make evidence-based decisions. She recently accepted a position as an associate professor of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan beginning this fall.

Stirling plans to use the Leshner fellowship “to learn how to engage in new ways, try out new techniques, and work with students so that they understand the different engagement opportunities earlier in their careers.”

“Public engagement is important because you have an opportunity to talk to people of all ages and you specifically have this opportunity to inspire and motivate the next generation of scientists,” she added.

During her time at MIT, Stirling has been active in the MIT Museum’s educational programs designed to expand participation in science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics studies for students in elementary and high school.

As part of her fellowship, Stirling also intends to develop a “create-a-thon” workshop to introduce Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics concepts to female middle-school students in underserved schools.

Robert Riener, a professor of sensory-motor systems at ETH Zurich, seeks to use his time as a Leshner fellow to expand global awareness of his brainchild, the Cybathlon, an Olympics-like competition among teams of academic researchers and private-sector developers of assistive technologies to test the effectiveness of tools such as robotic exoskeletons and prosthetic devices.

The second Cybathlon, slated to be held on May 2-3, 2020 near Zurich, will gather teams of individuals with motor or sensory-motor disabilities — the competition’s “pilots” — to compete against each other as they test the usefulness of assistive technologies in carrying out everyday activities. The pilots will evaluate the value of advanced stair-climbing wheelchairs, prostheses, exoskeletons, rehabilitation robots, or brain-computer interfaces. The competition will involve six disciplines, with 16 starting teams for each discipline.

Samira Kiani, an assistant professor of biological and health systems engineering at Arizona State University, focuses on applying CRISPR, the gene editing tool, to synthetic biology to develop safer and more controllable gene therapies.

As a Leshner fellow, she intends to continue developing a social media–based, collaborative platform that draws individuals from different universities and institutions to share knowledge regarding the power and societal ramifications of genetic engineering.

Kiani also is the producer of “Code of the Wild,” a documentary in collaboration with filmmaker Cody Sheehy that seeks to capture the promising and dark world behind genetic engineering. She helped bring early public attention to the claims of Jiankui He to have created the first genetically edited babies in the fall of 2018 in China.

“We have the capacity to change any part of our DNA code. This means we will have the potential to have new traits of new genetic capacities,” said Kiani in a AAAS video interview. “This is part of our new future. We collectively as human beings need to decide whether we want that world or not, and that’s why I believe that public engagement in this process is absolutely critical.”


A version of this article was published in AAAS News & Notes in the July 25, 2019 issue of Science.

[Associated image: Nicola Pitaro/ETH Zürich]