Scientists Strengthen Commitment to Public Outreach at Bay Area March for Science

Caitlin Grzeskowiak

Last year, I attended the Houston March for Science as a Ph.D. student at Baylor College of Medicine. I marched to stand with my community and fellow scientists to foster support for research and scientific funding. I watched as thousands marched toward city hall, nerdy signs in hand, to demonstrate how scientific research has improved our medical care and shaped our understanding of the world. It was a watershed moment for researchers, making it apparent that a public voice for the scientific community was needed. I remember distinctly on that day: our message was heard loud and clear. Since the march, there has been an influx of scientists getting involved in local elections, and advocacy efforts became part of the larger conversation amongst my colleagues.

This year, as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University, I attended the Bay Area March for Science on Saturday, April 14 at Lake Merritt Amphitheater in Oakland California. Despite a relatively smaller crowd, the momentum of scientists and advocates at the event was not diminished. In fact, many scientists have doubled down on their commitment to public outreach. At a teaching booth, I met Allison Fritts-Penniman, a Marine Evolutionary Biologist at the California Academy of Sciences and Allison Ryan of Natera. Marching for their second year, both scientists articulated the importance of outreach and the importance of engaging with their community. “I really like doing outreach events [and] increasing the visibility of the science that I do for the public,” says Allison Fritts-Penniman. To policymakers, Allison Ryan says she wants to send the message that, “when it comes to science funding, to make sure we’re funding a diverse group of scientists [and] that we have everyone represented [in] research.” When asked how to get scientists more involved in the community, Ryan asserted that, “A lot of the scientists I know really like doing [outreach]” and for scientists just getting started, she says to just jump right in. “If they give it a try, they will realize it’s not that hard and its actually fun to interact with people,” she adds.

Shaking hands with schoolteachers, scientists, and advocates in the crowd, I found Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb, who is running as a candidate for State Assembly. I learned Kalb is himself, a scientist, and also the former Policy Director at the Union of Concerned Scientists in California. Kalb has voiced his understanding of the importance of the scientific voice in policymaking ever since he was a candidate for City Councilman in 2012, helping to bridge the gap for translating science for non-scientists. “When you work with scientists and engineers, you develop a sense of: they want to know the facts,” he said.

One of the common themes at the Oakland March for Science was a focus on inspiring the next generation of scientists to incorporate outreach efforts into their work. Sahithi Pingali, a high school student from Bengaluru who will be attending Stanford University next year, says she loves that science can solve problems she observes in the world around her. “I think science is unique, in that it creates solutions that are equally replicable. That’s what I found with my science project; something that I started in my own backyard grew to something with global scope.” 

Addressing the crowd in Oakland, Pingali says a critical way to maintain public support for science is to allow non-scientists to get involved, and to, “support youth science education because we are ready, we are here, we are aware, and we want to learn.”

Kevin Keyes, a postdoctoral researcher at UCSF, spoke powerfully of the future he envisions for science to be more visible and diverse for children. 

“Surveys have shown that scientists are among the most trusted members of our society. Our collective voice carries tremendous authority,” he says. When describing his responsibility to train the next generation of scientists, Keyes stated, “I see a future where I can ask a child to draw a scientist, and no matter where that child comes from… that child draws itself.”

Moving forward, I hope scientists continue to encourage each other to get involved in outreach efforts and mentor the next generation of scientists to do the same. We may find it difficult at times to incorporate public outreach into our research, but without such efforts, we would not have the support, public trust, or funding to ask the important questions. Martha Kuhl, a registered nurse and representative of the California Nurses Association summed it up best when she said, “we support science because it is the basis of our care. Without it, many would not heal.”

Caitlin Grzeskowiak is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University and a former Research!America Communications Intern.

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Without continued support for health research, many of the most promising young scientists, their ideas and a myriad of potentially life-changing scientific breakthroughs will vanish into oblivion.
Paul Marinec, PhD; University of California San Francisco