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Award to transform babble to benefit

March 10, 2009

What comes to mind when you look across grasslands? That they are major components of “drylands,” regions that cover more than 40 percent of the world's land area and home to more than 25 percent of the global human population? Or, rather, lyric phrases, such as “Leaves of Grass” and “Amber waves of grain?”

Authors and musicians commonly connect with their audiences through rich metaphor or simile, striving to evoke emotional landscapes. “I experiment with language” said noted poet Diane Glancy and author of “Asylum in the Grassland.”

A scientist studying grasslands, however, observes and experiments with nature, looking for patterns or relationships, developing “data” or “statistics” – using words of the intellect. How then can a researcher convey his or her experience and discovery in a meaningful way to the public?

“As the world is faced with increasingly complex environmental and economic challenges, the role of scientists in educating the public and influencing policymaking has also become increasingly important and imperative. This means that we scientists need to be able to reach beyond traditional expression of scientific discovery effectively,” says Jianguo “Jingle” Wu, professor in ASU’s School of Life and School of Sustainability.

Wu is one of 19 Leopold Leadership Program Fellows chosen for their scientific excellence, leadership qualities and desire to expand their communication and outreach skills beyond traditional scientific circles. 

“I feel extremely fortunate and honored to be part of this program,” Wu says. “My selection is reflective more of the overall strength of our interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary programs in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Global Institute of Sustainability than anything that I have accomplished as an individual.”

Anyone who has attended a gathering where conversation is filled with acronyms or jargon can point to how words can create immediate barriers to learning: earth-shattering inventions and insights can rank as mere babble in minutes. Recognizing that scientists commonly receive uneven or nonexistent training for public discourse, nurturing their inner communicator is one of the core goals of the leadership program.

Now hosted by the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, the Leopold Fellows program was founded in 1998 by Jane Lubchenco, Distinguished Professor of Zoology and professor of marine biology at Oregon State University. Lubchenco and two colleagues, all former presidents of the Ecological Society of America, recognized a need to fill “a gap in environmental decision making: getting the best scientific knowledge into the hands of government, nonprofit, and business leaders to further the development of sustainable policies and practices.”

The program, led by Pamela Matson, professor and dean of the Stanford School of Earth Sciences and scientific director of the leadership program, offers intensive leadership and communications training, networking and mentoring from leaders in science and public outreach.

"Our approach is to select excellent and highly credible scientists and to give them the tools they need to communicate their knowledge effectively,” says Matson. “Dr. Wu's scientific excellent and relevance make him a perfect choice for the Leopold Leadership Program."

“It's tricky to negotiate the leap from discussing scientific theory and approaches with professional peers to communicating science in accessible ways to the public, without training,” agrees Robert E. Page, professor and founding director of the School of Life Sciences. “Jingle Wu is gifted with a cultural dexterity that allows him to demystify complex environmental questions for others. The fellows program will fuel both his and ASU’s ability to create information that the public and legislators can connect with and use to improve daily lives and experience."

Multilingual and multicultural, Wu admits he may have an “added sensitivity to communication challenges.” However, he credits his field of research for extending his recognition of the hurdles that scientists face when translating their work into the public realm. Landscape ecology and sustainability science, Wu’s primary areas of study, have, he says, “developed holistic and humanistic approaches to studying the linkages of nature and society.”

Wu is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The prestigious scientific society lauded him for his “outstanding research, for leadership in the U.S. and international communities in landscape ecology, and for brilliant efforts to build links to Chinese landscape ecology.” He also received an award for International Scientific Cooperation from the group in 2006 “for pioneering efforts and outstanding contributions to international initiatives in support of sustainability science, specifically his conceptual modeling activities, commitment to landscape ecological research and mentoring of young scholars.”

A Dean's Distinguished Professor, Wu also directs the Sino-U.S. Center for Conservation, Energy and Sustainability Science (SUCCESS) – a joint venture of ASU and the Inner Mongolia University, Hohhot, China (where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1982). The center fosters the fusion of “ASU's rapidly growing research capacities in sustainability science and Inner Mongolia's enormous opportunities for large-scale projects of international significance,” Wu notes.

“Our goal is to promote a platform for partners in sustainability science to talk to one another, build international collaboration around the science and practice of sustainability in China, and push that information out for use globally,” he adds.

The 2009 Leopold Fellows come from a wide range of disciplines, from urbanization to freshwater fish and stream studies. They will join a network of 134 past fellows active in science outreach. The hope of the Leopold Leadership program is that these leaders in outreach, such as Wu, will return to their institutions and regions to help shape the understanding of sustainability science, connecting more closely with citizens whose understanding and support gives shape to U.S. environmental policy.

What words will Wu conjure up when he returns to talk about his next trip to his study site in the largest natural grassland in the world? That grasslands are where “fertile soil and flourishing agriculture coincide, where cattle roam and birds fly, where white clouds enjoy the accompaniment of a blue sky...” Wu may begin, giving voice to the excitement, purpose and human insight contained within grasslands – turning inscrutable facts into sustainable words to live by.

To view a full list of the 2009 Leopold Leadership Fellows