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Turning Setbacks Into Opportunities: Julie Lesnik Aims to Merge Interior Design and Science

Julie Lesnik at Wayne State University "Knowledge on Tap" event in 2016.
Leshner Fellow Julie Lesnik giving a talk at Wayne State University's "Knowledge on Tap" series in 2016.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Wayne State College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

How can science communication be rejuvenating instead of exhausting for scientists? That’s a question Julie Lesnik found herself asking over the course of her year as a AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow. Several losses in her personal life made her realize she needed to let go of her main public engagement project to preserve the energy to fulfill her basic responsibilities (Lesnik is an assistant professor of anthropology at Wayne State University).

Her project, “Octopus and Ape,” was first intended to be a YouTube series produced with her husband, with 3-5 minute episodes on different subjects related to biology, and evolution in particular. They had already done quite a bit of publicity for it and had a launch date, so Lesnik acknowledges it was hard to let that go. However, after a few months had passed and she was able to step back and reassess, she gained some new and valuable perspective on her public engagement goals and methods.

The Octopus and Ape YouTube series was standard science communication, based on a formula Lesnik knew could work. But she had built it mainly with her audience in mind, not herself. It required her to be scripted in order to fit the content into short segments – not her preferred mode of communicating -- and to wear make-up, which she rarely does. Lesnik decided that to make science communication fit more naturally into her life, using the time and energy she realistically has, the answer was not to do more science. The Octopus and Ape YouTube series would have required developing a significant amount of content for each show. Looking around at the other things that she loves besides science, she landed on interior design, and came up with an idea to build science communication into that.

Ultimately Lesnik wants “reach a different audience than one that is just looking for science content,” and thinks that interior design and home renovations may be a promising avenue. Before committing to a video series or other project, Lesnik is immersing herself in design by working alongside her husband on the renovation of their Detroit home. There are many stories to be shared about the items decorating their home that were collected during Lesnik’s field research. She hopes that by sharing these stories, and similar stories from other scientists, she can engage a wider audience with both science and world cultures. Her task now is to bring these ideas together in an executable way.

Lesnik plans to take her time figuring out the right approach to this new idea. In the meantime, she also helped her department write new bylaws based around a model from the American Anthropological Association (AAA) for including public engagement in promotion and tenure guidelines (the AAA also provides other examples here). Lesnik, who was motivated and informed by going through the tenure application process herself around the same time, asserts that making this change was not a big lift for her department. Anthropologists are generally supportive of public engagement because it’s truly part of being a good anthropologist. But having the guidelines written down allows them to be sent to external reviewers, encouraging them to mention the candidate’s public engagement contributions in their letters to the college provost. 

In earlier public engagement work, in 2018 Lesnik published a popular science book, Edible Insects & Human Evolution, and she continues to do outreach and engagement related to that, including on the Ologies podcast and Skype a Scientist

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 a cohort of mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society. Julie Lesnik is part of the 2018-19 food and water security cohort. The 2019-20 cohort is focused on human augmentation, and the 2020-21 cohort (to be announced in February 2020) on artificial intelligence.