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Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova and the University of Kentucky Embrace Best Practices in Upcoming Public Science Events

Sylvie poster
Advertisement for upcoming "Everything is Science" event in Lexington, KY.

The upcoming “Science is Everything” series of public talks, April 26-28 in Lexington, Kentucky, promises more than the average science café. Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova and the festival planning committee[1] are organizing the event during the Keeneland horse races, when many people frequent the local bars, breweries, and other public venues where the talks will be held. One of their events will be at the racetrack, another at an ice cream parlor. Not only will local scientists from across the University of Kentucky be speaking, but also elementary and middle school teachers, doctors and patients, scientists from private industry, and students. Each speaker was asked to avoid slides and jargon, and focus on a few key messages that appeal to “ages 5 to 105,” which they must send to the planning committee in advance. The talk topics – such as infectious diseases, sports, brewing and distilling, cancer, and substance abuse -- are intended to appeal to large portions of the community.

The idea for “Science is Everything” arose when Garneau-Tsodikova saw a similar event advertised on Twitter. Garneau-Tsodikova, a 2017-18 AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellow and associate professor in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Kentucky, had joined Twitter during her week-long fellowship training at AAAS headquarters, and was also excited about organizing a science café-style event because of a session on storytelling at the training, led by Shane Hanlon of the American Geophysical Union and The Story Collider.

Garneau-Tsodikova talking about "Everything is Science" on Live with Lee and Hayley (NBC LEX18).| CREDIT: Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova.

Garneau-Tsodikova was met with overwhelming support when she shared her idea with others at her university. Her chair asked her to discuss it at a faculty retreat, and after her College of Pharmacy put out a press release about the event, the College of Design, the College of Medicine, and the College of Agriculture asked to participate. Her PR team also secured her several spots on the local television station to speak about the event (view them here and here). The April 26-28 talks are all free, but any funds raised are being directed toward Garneau-Tsodikova’s ongoing public engagement effort, SciCats.

Through SciCats, she and graduate students and colleagues bring hands-on science experiments to schools in the area, especially those with populations underrepresented in science. SciCats came into being several years ago after Garneau-Tsodikova, who is from Canada, watched the documentary Waiting for Superman, about the public school system in the United States. It hit her that had she been born in the U.S., she may not have had the same access to science that she has had. Her institution quickly came onboard. They gave her an official logo for the program and her chair gave her some initial seed money and key contacts in the area. The program has continued to expand, in partnership with the College of Education.

Garneau-Tsodikova’s leadership of SciCats contributed to her selection as a AAAS Public Engagement Fellow. Since joining Twitter during the AAAS training week, she has become an active, regular user (she now has more than 3,500 followers on @GTsodikova) and has seen a variety of tangible benefits – from a donation of lab equipment for SciCats to an invitation to be a plenary speaker at a conference in Australia. She hears about science that she wouldn’t have otherwise, and is also using Twitter creatively: she is on the editorial board of the Journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and she recently started publishing opinion pieces in the journal based on polls she conducts on Twitter (the first one is called “What is Medicinal Chemistry?” and another is “What are the drugs of the future?”). For her Intro to Chemistry class, she uses Twitter to post a few problems each week. Students can use the thread of answers and responses to study for exams, and students outside the class sometimes respond as well, including from other countries. These inquiries have given her ideas for other topics she could cover in the class, and she intends to start a “Science with Sylvie” YouTube series to answer some of the questions she has received.

After returning from the AAAS training, she also started a course on public engagement for her graduate students. She and her students have helped to populate the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science’s new blog, and are starting their own, along with trying out many other types of engagement activities. When asked how she is managing her new commitments, Garneau-Tsodikova says she is becoming more disciplined about keeping to her schedule, rather than letting meetings run long, and about delegating work. She usually posts on social media while in line for coffee, or during her regular stretching breaks. Garneau-Tsodikova was previously nervous about joining Twitter, but her motto is, “if it doesn’t hurt you or others, you shouldn’t say you don’t like it until you’ve tried it.” She has recently expanded to other social media platforms, including Instagram (@gtsodikova) and facebook (gtsodikova).

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.

[1] Assistant professor Vincent Venditto, Alltech industry partner Janna Norton, postdoctoral scholar Stephanie Davis, and graduate students Jarrod Creameans, Kaitlind Howard, Rupinder Kaur, and Brittani Price.