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Professor receives public policy fellowship

Ann Marie Jakubowski | Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment has honored biology professor Jennifer Tank as one of this year’s Leopold Leadership Fellows, a group of 20 academics selected to undergo intensive training intended to empower them to impact public policy.

Tank will begin the fellowship with a training session this summer, joining the group from around the world at Stanford University in California.

Tank said she applied for the fellowship to improve her communication skills, which would better equip her to discuss her work and its implications with the general public and leaders who make environmental policy.

“The fellowship was developed a number of years ago because they were finding problems with scientists who were doing great work yet were unable to translate that science for the public,” Tank said. “It’s really a mechanism to link today’s great, cutting-edge science with better communication skills.”

Tank described the program as a sort of “nursery school in communication skills” for scientists, named after prominent environmentalist Aldo Leopold. She said the extensive application process included a series of essays meant to show a serious commitment to sharing research with the public.

“They want to keep the group very small because the program actually lasts for two years, starting with 10 days at a retreat center this summer,” Tank said. “When you go back for the second year, you’ve had the chance to practice, so you can focus on honing those skills you learned in the first year.”

She said her specialty within ecology pertains directly to public policy as it relates to agriculture.

“I’m a freshwater ecologist, so I work on streams and rivers, mainly on nutrient cycling,” Tank said. “The work I’ve been doing recently has to do with how land use, like intensive agriculture, influences freshwater resources.”

Tank’s work focuses on finding a proper balance between the economic needs of farmers and the health of the environment and considers issues like fertilizer runoff and irrigation, she said.

“You can’t protect the environment at the cost of the people who are supported by it, but you also can’t protect farmers at the expense of the environment,” she said.

Tank will learn communication skills through the fellowship that will help her better convey the product of her research with policymakers who can take action to approach this balance, she said.

“They really challenge you [through the fellowship] to see if you can relate the value of your research to the people who need to hear it, to see if you can give them a take-home message in a nutshell,” she said. “They’ll train you about print communication as well as various types of digital media, including the effective use of social network options like Facebook and Twitter.”

Tank said she hopes to apply what she learns about communicating with the public to her work in the classroom.

“All the things that go into being a good teacher also go into the process of being a good communicator,” she said. “I’m excited about it, and I hope I can do Notre Dame proud.”