University of Kentucky Professor Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikovaow on how being a AAAS Leshner Fellow enlightened her on new ways to engage/communicate with scientists and non-scientists alike and pushed her to grow as both a scientist and a communicator.
If I told you that one short week of orientation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was all it took to change the way I think about and promote science (#SciEngage), would you believe me? Well… let me tell you how being a AAAS Leshner Fellow enlightened me about new ways to engage/communicate with scientists and non-scientists alike and pushed me to grow beyond my wildest dreams both as a scientist and communicator.
My journey began in September 2016 when I learned I could apply for a 2017-2018 Leshner Leadership Institute Fellowship. The Leshner Fellowship aims to help scientists learn about different ways to engage with the public, train and mentor other scientists, and promote institutional change as it relates to public engagement. I honestly did not think I stood a chance of being selected as one of the 15 fellows, In my mind, I didn’t have much to offer. But, my motto in life is “If you don’t try, you for sure don’t get it!”, so I applied. The application process was so simple: a short personal statement, a letter of recommendation and some engagement samples.
In December 2016, to my greatest surprise I was informed that I was selected. I was elated and felt privileged to have been chosen to be part of this very engaged cohort of 15 scientists focused on Infectious Disease (Note: every year the scientific focus changes).
2017 AAAS Leshner Fellows | AAAS
In June 2017, I arrived in Washington, DC, ready for our week-long Leshner Fellowship orientation at the AAAS headquarters. This is where the magic began! Before orientation week, my public engagement work was focused almost exclusively on giving scientific talks at conferences and bringing weekly hands-on experiments to K-12 school in my city via the SciCats (Science Cultivates Academically Talented Students) outreach program that I created in 2013 at the University of Kentucky with the help of a graduate student.
During my week of orientation, I met journalists, storytellers, social media experts, and the other 14 amazing Fellows. I was opened to a world of new possibilities to #SciEngage, and just like a kid in a candy store, I wanted it all. I wanted to learn it all and do it all! And, this is what I did and keep on doing. After my week at AAAS, during which I made a new #SciEngage plan (Note: My plan keeps on growing and evolving), here are a few #SciEngage activities I have completed:
- Course on public engagement. After being blessed with all the new insights I gained at AAAS, I needed to share it. My college was very supportive and right away allowed me to create a course on public engagement. The students in the class wrote blog posts (you can find them here, here and here) participated and won national #scicomm contests, created YouTube videos, podcasts, and much more. I can’t wait to see what this year’s class will do.
- EiS “Everything is Science” Festival. I fell in love with science storytelling during the orientation week after a presentation by Shane Hanlon from the American Geophysical Union. So much so that I decided to create, organize, and run a yearly city-wide science festival called Everything is Science (EiS). I even went on TV twice to promote the event (another thing we practiced during orientation week). Last year was a success! This year the EiS Festival will start with a full day of hands-on experiments for kids followed by a whole week of science evenings with two events per nights where adults will enjoy learning about science in a way they can relate to in local bars and restaurants.
- Social media. From total inertia to full speed! I used to be scared of social media and didn’t see how it could bring value to my scientific life. Believe it or not, I couldn’t identify any common social media platforms. But, as part of my Leshner Fellowship, I was asked to at least try one, Twitter. AAAS had given me so much, the least I could do was try. While at the airport on my way home from orientation, I posted a tweet asking for supplies for my SciCats outreach program. Literally two minutes later I was offered thousands of dollars’ worth of lab supplies for free! From that point on I was hooked on Twitter. I now even use it to teach chemistry (#PHR912_2018). I have curated for other accounts such as @realscientists and @MeetAScientist. More recently, I joined Instagram and am now also using it in my classroom. Social media has changed the way I teach!
- Opinion pieces/blogs. I also started writing blog posts (you can find them here, here and here) and opinion pieces (here and here). Our voice needs to be heard and I find opinion pieces and blogs to be great ways to talk about scientific topics and career related topics in a way that people can easily relate. I use social media polls to interact with others and include what I learn in my articles.
- Interaction with policymakers. I am still learning about this, but as a first step I wrote a letter to my senator to talk to him about the importance of funding research on antimicrobial resistance. Interaction with policymakers is something that I am working on. I still have a lot to learn here.
- SciCats and new outreach to K-12. I of course keep my SciCats program running strong. I have even added Skype A Scientist and speaking at middle school career days to my list of K-12 outreach activities.
Is there more I can do? Of course! I am inspired every day by amazing people doing #SciEngage. For example, inspired by one of the Leshner Fellow in my cohort, Ina Park who had on her plan to write a book, I am currently writing a role-playing children’s book about fungi. I am also working on creating a YouTube channel called “Science with Sylvie”.
Through my Leshner Fellowship I got to meet 14 of the most amazing and impactful scientists and promoters of science you will ever meet as well as the truly engaged and knowledgeable AAAS staff. It is important to note that I continue to interact with my Leshner Fellow family. Once a Leshner Fellow, always a Leshner Fellow!
AAAS is now accepting applications for the next Leshner Fellow cohort, focused on Human Augmentation through October 1. I hope that all of you interested in reaching out to the public and creating changes in your institution will apply. I can guarantee you that a Leshner Fellowship will change your life for the better! It surely changed mine.
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions about my journey or the application process.
Video courtesy of Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova
About Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova
I am a medicinal chemist (Professor) at the University of Kentucky. My research focuses on understanding and combating infectious diseases, particularly bacterial and fungal infections. I am also the founder of the SciCats (Science Cultivates Academically Talented Students) outreach program. You can follow me on Twitter @GTsodikova, on Instagram @gtsodikova, and on Facebook.