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2018 Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science Recipient

Johanna Varner

Johanna Varner

Johanna Varner is honored with the 2018 AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science for infusing her public engagement with multi-directional dialogue, reaching diverse audiences, and empowering participants to join in the entire process of science.

Varner is an assistant professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University, where she teaches courses for both biology majors and non-majors and studies the response of small rabbit-relatives, called pikas, to environmental change. Varner earned a bachelor of science in biology and a master of engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She spent several years traveling, farming in New Zealand and managing a Salt Lake City bakery before returning to graduate school and earning a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Utah. Varner also completed a AAAS Mass Media Fellowship at KQED Science

Pika | Shelly Sorrells

Varner’s primary public engagement is through citizen science engagement programs, which she views as an opportunity help volunteers appreciate the natural world, consider local consequences of climate change and participate in all aspects of science. She is a co-founder of Cascades Pika Watch in Oregon, a collaborative citizen science program to monitor the status and distribution of pika populations in the Pacific Northwest.

Varner has collaborated with two Pika Watch volunteers to initiate a new research project, drawing them into the process of conducting science from start to finish. She worked with these participants in developing research questions, designing field studies, presenting the results as co-authors on a poster presentation at a national conference and writing grants supporting the project. Varner also developed a long-term student-scientist program in Utah called the Uintas Pika Watch to engage middle school students in monitoring pikas in the nearby mountains.

Johanna Varner conducting field work. | Liz Pederson


Beyond these two programs, Varner engages a diverse set of audiences. She has given interactive presentations in which she encourages the audience to interpret data themselves in various settings including campgrounds, museums, science centers and jails. Varner finds value in public engagement, saying it has enriched her science by offering fresh perspectives, leveraging audiences’ skills and stimulating new inquires.

Read Varner's public engagement case study, “Engaging K-12 Students in Authentic Place-Based Research,” on our Case Studies page and read more about Varner in AAAS News.

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Johanna Varner, the 2018 AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science, gave remarks after accepting her award at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting. | AAAS

2018 Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science Finalists

  • John Drazan, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  • Jacquelyn Gill, University of Maine
  • Cameron Hummels, California Institute of Technology
  • Daniel Swain, The University of California at Los Angeles
  • Alice Williamson, The University of Sydney at Camperdown

AAAS’s First Endowed Award

As issues at the interface of science and society—from disease research to global climate change, evolution, human embryonic stem cell research, neuroscience, and others—take on increasing importance, the Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science seeks to encourage efforts to promote interactive dialogue between scientists and non-scientific, public audiences. By highlighting and celebrating successful examples of public engagement, AAAS and our partners aim to communicate the importance of such efforts and create models for other scientists and engineers.

AAAS is grateful to Bob and Margee Hazen for their vision in initiating this award and for their generous gifts to establish the endowment that funds it. We also wish to acknowledge Bruce and Betty Alberts, Alan and Agnes Leshner, David Evans Shaw, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Noyce Foundation for their leadership support, as well as the many others who made contributions to make this award a reality.