Tessa Hill Weaves a Web of Engagement

Leshner Fellow Tessa Hill conducts a television interview at Tomales Bay, CA | Credit: Tessa Hill

As a scientist interested in public engagement, it can help to try different approaches to engagement to see what clicks. Marine scientist Tessa Hill, University of California, Davis, has certainly taken this approach -- name an engagement activity, and she has probably tried it. In 2016, she received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) in part for bringing ocean and climate change science into K-12 classrooms. She has also written blog posts on Medium.com, participated in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) that generated more than 800 questions, and engages regularly with oyster farmers to better understand the impacts of ocean acidification on shellfish farming.  

In her year as a Leshner Leadership Institute Fellow, Hill’s goal is “to create a web that extends beyond [her personal reach], and help the people around me in building up a practice of public engagement.” As part of that goal, Hill successfully developed and gave a one-week, intensive short course in science communication for UC Davis graduate and postdoc scientists, a distillation of a longer course she taught in 2015. Students who took the earlier course joined Hill as instructors for the new one, along with guest speakers from journalism, science policy and industry.

At the same time, Hill has been exploring other ways to boost the perceived value of public engagement among academic researchers at her university. In a Medium post, she described both “pushing and pulling” to motivate engagement by scientists (“pushing” through training and building confidence, and “pulling” through incentive structures). Since writing this piece, Hill has been contacted by other groups at UC Davis wanting her “to help them look at ways to formalize how faculty and students are rewarded for public engagement,” she says. She is now on the UC Davis Provost’s Advisory Board on Strategic Communications. With several other university organizations and state science agencies, she also just helped to organize and host a science communication workshop on campus that drew over 200 people. “The enthusiasm of the local scientific community for this training event was really exciting, and speaks volumes about the desire for scientists to engage publicly.”

While expanding her web, Hill works hard to maintain an active Twitter account (@Tessa_M_Hill), and continues to give media interviews, including an upcoming interview with the “People Behind the Science” podcast. Like many of her colleagues, Hill still worries that her outreach activities might mark her as “not scientifically rigorous” among her peers. This perception, she says, is something institutions can help combat when they encourage engagement, sending the message that it is a valued use of scientists’ time.

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.