Penn Grad Students Share Expertise Across Disciplines to Address Social Problems

“In today’s world, the stereotype of the nerdy scientist, by himself, looking at a microscope, is no longer accurate and no longer useful,” says Gabriel Innes, a third-year student in the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “This program is a call to arms for a different view of what a scholar is and can do for society.”

Innes is referring to the program Emerging Leaders in Science and Society, or ELISS, organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Innes is one of five Penn graduate students beginning their journeys as ELISS fellows this spring. Four other Penn students are wrapping up their experiences in the program’s inaugural year and reflecting on the lessons they’ve gleaned about working across disciplines for the public good.

ELISS was the brainchild of Melanie Roberts at AAAS who envisioned the program as a way to empower graduate students with an understanding of how to address society’s most challenging problems.

“We have all these really bright people in our universities who want nothing more than to make a difference,” Roberts says. “The value of ELISS, I think, is really helping the fellows develop the skills and networks that allow them to become change agents.”

ELISS launched last year in partnership with Stanford and Purdue universities, the University of Washington and Penn, where students tallied the most signatures in support of the program. At Penn, the program is hosted by the Office of the Vice Provost for Education, which also sponsors participation fees for the fellows along with the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly. Two themes were chosen to guide the students’ experience for the pilot year: Health & Well-being and Energy & Environment.

The ELISS program, sponsored by the partner campuses as well as the Argosy Foundation and Rita Allen Foundation, among others, is structured as a 15-month process, during which the students tap expertise on their campuses and communities to better understand the options for addressing complex sociotechnical issues that impact their communities. By forming cross-campus and cross-disciplinary teams, the students meet with experts and stakeholders and eventually organize public events aimed at encouraging dialogue to address these challenges.  

The emphasis on cross-disciplinary exploration resonated with Penn graduate students Ben Chrisinger of the Department of City and Regional Planning in the School of Design, Madeleine Stone of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science in the School of Arts & Sciences, Johannes Eichstaedt of the Department of Psychology in Penn Arts & Sciences and Ruth Masterson Creber of the School of Nursing. They were selected through a competitive process to comprise the inaugural ELISS class on campus.

“As someone who has always been interested in community engagement and public communications, this was right up my alley,” says Stone, who recently defended her dissertation.

After being selected in the fall of 2013, the first class met their peers from the other universities during an orientation event in Seattle in January 2014. There, the ELISS fellows brainstormed ideas and formed three cross-campus teams united by an area of interest: mental health, public spaces and food and nutrition.

For the rest of the year, the fellows explored these topics, bringing their insights back to their teammates with an eye toward planning a culminating public event. The collaborative aspect of the program wasn’t without its challenges, including conflicting schedules, varying time zones and negotiating a shared vision of what their project would entail.

“As grad students we’re very focused on deadlines and deliverables and getting things done,” Stone says. “This whole idea of having this complex problem which you’re not an expert in, slowly getting a handle on that problem and figuring out points of leverage where you might make a difference was challenging for people.”

Part of the fellows’ preparations involved reaching out to experts. Stone, for example, met with employees in the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, while Chrisinger corresponded with representatives of the Healthy Corner Store Initiative as well as the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative, part of Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships.

Talking with people outside of academia increased their comfort level at making cold calls and collecting and organizing diverse opinions and data. There were tangible results as well. Through contacts made in the Office of Sustainability, for example, Stone was selected to be a member of a soil safety task force for Philadelphia.

“That’s an opportunity that I never would have found out about if I hadn’t made this connection through ELISS,” she says.

The event that Stone, Eichstaedt and Masterson Creber organized, held in November at Penn, focused on how public spaces in the urban environment shape communities and can be leveraged to improve the lives of residents. The organizers invited participants to discuss how they would design and build public spaces to encourage a dialogue on mental health issues, to create recreational space while avoiding toxicity from lead in the soil and to improve the health and social connectedness of elderly neighbors.

Because participants came from across Penn, including the PennDesign, Wharton School and health schools, the discussions were a prime example of working across disciplines.

“The students felt that this was an eye-opening experience,” Stone says. “They enjoyed thinking about issues that stretched them outside of their academic expertise.”

At a separate event on campus, Chrisinger convened expert panelists from the Food Trust, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and the Urban Nutrition Initiative to discuss how providing consumers with point-of-purchase food information could encourage healthy choices.

“What was really interesting was hearing the panelists’ different perspectives and the questions the panelists had for each other,” Chrisinger says. “It was a really rich experience for the audience not just to hear them responding to us but responding to each other in ways that they might not normally get to do.”

The ELISS fellows drew lessons from their on-campus discussions to craft events on the same topic to be held at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., in December, in collaboration with their team members at other universities.

While their formal experience in ELISS is over for the pilot class, the program is intended to be a life-long resource.

“I’m excited to see how the program evolves over the next five or 10 years,” Chrisinger says. “Over time the hope is that ELISS will accumulate this broad network of expertise through the program alumni. That’s a big part of what is to be gained from ELISS beyond the fellowship year.”

Stone is taking the lessons of cold calling and reporting into her current work as a science writer, while Chrisinger has been citing the team-building aspects of his ELISS experience in interviews for jobs. He will also be sharing lessons learned from the pilot year at the ELISS orientation event for the cohort for 2015, which includes Penn students Innes of Penn Vet, Michelle Munyikwa of Penn Arts & Science’s Department of Anthropology and the Perelman School of Medicine, Yun Rose Li of Penn Medicine, Simon Mosbah of PennDesign’s Department of City and Regional Planning and Monica He of the Population Studies Center’s Demography program.  

Innes, just embarking on his ELISS experience, hopes the problem solving and networking skills gained in the upcoming year will help him take on the challenges of a career in global health.

“I think this will help me get some perspective and break out of my little academic bubble,” he says. “Now is the time to work collaboratively and cross-disciplinarily. In ELISS, understanding the problem is half the battle.”

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