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“Now do Heart Work” – A Faculty Perspective on Public Engagement

Monica Dus, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology

Perhaps it is because I am in Italy — in my mom’s kitchen to be precise — and a few days before the end of the two decades that spanned my scientific training, that thinking about public engagement for this blog ignited such an intimate reflection.

My career as an independent scholar has been relatively short, less than 5 years, but my time as a science communicator started long before I ever heard the words “public engagement” and “outreach.” As a first-year college student in the United States — a 13-hour plane flight away from my family and my homeland — the potential for a shared worldview, for a connection with a culture that felt so different from mine, felt beyond reach. For some, art, poetry, and music transform estrangement into belonging. For me it was science, and specifically talking about its unbound beauty, that put an end to my sense of loneliness and created a connection with the world.

For the past 20 years, public engagement has shaped my identity as a scientist and imprinted my scholarship. It has given me the opportunity to break the “fourth wall” of academia and to connect the imagination of scientific research with the reality of its impact on the public. It is for this reason that in the last 5 years at the University of Michigan I have included public engagement in all aspects of my job as a scholar: in the classroom, in the lab, and in academic service projects. 

Public Engagement as a Scholar

I have given talks about our research at events including the National Academy of Science “Distinctive Voices”, The Food for Thought forum, Nerdnite (A2 2016 and 2018 and NYC), and ScienzaCaffe (Italy). Starting in 2016, I collaborated with former LSA science writer Liz Wason to create and host two seasons of the How to Science Podcast, which explores the human side of science and its implications for society with 12 episodes of about 20-30 minutes each. The idea behind this project was to reach communities beyond the traditional campus boundaries and demystify the people behind the pipettes, microscopes, and computers. The podcasts have been downloaded 6,380 times with an 86% completion rate on iTunes and the webpage has been accessed about 16,000 times as of December 2018. In a survey we conducted, we found 80 percent of her listeners were non-scientists, with a large percentage of that population reaching undergraduate and high school students. The podcast won an award last year for its accessibility to non-scientists and debunking the myth of what scientists are like. In the last year I also worked with the U-M Museum of Natural History to create a multimedia research station that describes our research on the effects of dietary sugar on brain and behavior. This is currently on display in the museum until 2021. 

My current project, a workshop on Food & the Brain in the U-M Museum of Natural History, was recently funded by the National Science Foundation CAREER Award and will start in the Fall of 2020. This workshop is modeled after the one that I co-organized and taught at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC in 2013 as part of the Society for Neuroscience NYC Outreach Chapter activities for Brain Awareness Week and attended by about 800 people. In 2021-2025 the workshop will introduce about 4,800 8-12 year-old children and their families to eating behavior, the biology of the senses, the effect of the food environments using fruit-fly experiments I published as a postdoctoral fellow, a sensory experience lab, and a Q&A session. We will also develop an illustrated book that the kids and their families will complete at the museum and at home.

Science Communication in the Undergraduate Classroom

Throughout the past four years I have integrated public engagement in my undergraduate STEM curriculum by having students create essays and podcasts for the public on topics around genes, environment, and behavior as part of the final project for my MCDB 458 Neuroepigenetics class. I spoke about this project at the U-M Instructional and Learning Technology Workshop, “Using Multimedia Assignments in the Undergraduate Classroom.” “The Neuroepic Podcast” website, which was launched in June 2016 and is updated every time I teach the class, has 30 podcasts and essays, and has been visited 70,500 times by 33,191 visitors since June 2016. I am collaborating with the U-M Center for Education Design, Evaluation and Research in the School of Education to design and implement assessments that measure the effectiveness of my class to develop science communication skills in undergraduate students; this project is also funded by the NSF CAREER Award. 

Outreach & Academic Service

Throughout the past two years I have been a member of the “Undergraduate Curriculum” committee where we monitor, review, and update courses for the Program in Biology degrees. I complemented this work by creating FIRST (Future in Research, Science, and Teaching), the first pre-science undergraduate club on campus. FIRST engages students in the life sciences to demystify the process of becoming a scientist and supports their academic growth. At the graduate level, I have lectured and participated in several panels on how to become involved in science communication, most recently for the Institute of Social Change within Rackham’s Program on Public Scholarship on “Faculty Voices on Writing, Working, and Communicating with Communities and Public, the Communicating Science Convention “Engaging Diverse Audiences,” the MCDB Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion panel “Podcasts and Science Communication,” and several other presentations and interviews for the Women in Science and Engineering, the Association for Women in Science, and the Neuroscience and Cell Molecular Biology student associations at the U-M. I also spoke at the Ann Arbor March for Science.

These experiences have made me a better communicator, mentor, and teacher. They have enhanced the visibility and impact of my scientific work by reaching audiences beyond geographical and scientific borders and connected me with inspiring people. They have fulfilled my aspiration of bridging the rigorous, but slow, pace of the academic research lab with the potential of science to improve society and tackle its challenges. Throughout this process I was fortunate to have the support of my senior faculty mentors, my department, and LSA staff who valued my efforts and helped me find the resources to achieve my goals. Even then, sometimes these projects felt daunting; identifying the right resources on campus and developing a project with a manageable scope were particularly hard. This is why I am excited about the Public Engagement Faculty Fellowship; it is such an incredible opportunity for faculty passionate about outreach and science communication to find training, support, and advice.

As I enter my last pre-tenure year and contemplate my vision for the next decade as a scholar, I am reminded of the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke who said, “The Work of sight is done/ Now do heart work /on the pictures within you.” My work of sight — the observation and the pursuit of scientific knowledge — of course, will continue, but I also hope to keep expanding the “heart work” and share the beauty of science with the world.

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