Interview: How our outreach experiences have changed!

In this Q&A post, we visit with Jordana Lenon, B.S., B.A., the outreach specialist for the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center and the Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Center, both at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Jordana reaches her 20th anniversary working at the Primate Center this year. Here, she reveals how different her job is today from when she first began.

Speaking of Research (SR): How has your job changed in the past 20 years?

Jordana Lenon (JL): When I began in 1996, I was in charge of the newsletters and developing the center’s website. That was it. Today, face-to-face outreach events, mostly for K-12 groups, along with news media relations, is most of my job. I still edit the newsletters, but we are actually reaching more people we need to reach with our social efforts. And by that, I don’t mean social media, I mean in-person engagement. In the past five years alone, we’ve met with more than 35,000 students, teachers and community members through mostly school family science nights, science festivals, and visits both on campus and out to the schools and civic groups.

WNPRC outreachSR:  How have you advertised your outreach programs?

JL: First, the UW-Madison Campus Visit Program receives most of our on-campus requests. They promote all the science and other campus venues the public can visit on the university’s website. Second, the UW Madison Science Alliance outreach team has an awesome family science night Google docs sign-up sheet that teachers, parent volunteers and we campus presenters can access, which helps immensely with planning and logistics. Third, the power of good old word of mouth and referrals, from teacher to teacher, or from one civic organization chapter to another, cannot be underestimated.

SR: Are there any challenges to orchestrating so much outreach?

JL: Yes. This is the first year that I’ve had to postpone scheduling more than a few visits to the Primate Center Learning Lobby or Stem Cell Learning Lab. Demand is so high, with daily requests right now, that even with volunteers we just can’t meet it. I suppose that is a good problem to have! I would love it if more people would schedule visits in the Fall, because spring, especially April, fills up so fast.

SR: What is the most rewarding thing about your outreach efforts?

JL: Two things, actually. One is that more and more UW scientists and students have volunteered to help each year. This means a great deal to me, because I know how busy they are, how many different directions they are already being pulled in. When I see their faces, their looks of satisfaction, and hear from them how much fun it was afterwards, how great the students’ questions were, how smart the students were, and that they really “get” how important it is to share what they do and what the Primate Center or Stem Cell Center does, that is just an indescribable feeling. Another cool thing I’ve noticed over the past 20 years is that, when I began presenting, people didn’t know much about the Primate Center, where it was or what we did. They didn’t know about our research programs and how we take care of our animals, how dedicated our scientists, students, vets, animal caretakers and other employees are. There was always someone in just about every group who expressed strong feelings against research with animals. Today, it’s more like, “Yes, we’ve visited the Primate Center before and we wanted to come back again with another school group… what you do is so amazing… we support what you do… we know it’s not easy… my friend has Parkinson’s… my son has diabetes… I have MS… I just read you are working on Zika virus… I didn’t know stem cell research really took off here… I have a friend who worked at the Primate Center… I had no idea what you did before this visit… thank you…

Jordana Lenon takes a tour of the new Madison Science Museum with Ellen Bechtol, museum staff member. Behind them is one of the Why Files Cool Science Image Contest winners, of marmoset embryonic stem cells forming neurons, submitted by Primate Center scientists and students in 2015. http://whyfiles.org/category/cool-science-images/

Jordana Lenon takes a tour of the new Madison Science Museum with Ellen Bechtol, museum staff member. Behind them is one of the Why Files Cool Science Image Contest winners, of marmoset embryonic stem cells forming neurons, submitted by Primate Center scientists and students in 2015. http://whyfiles.org/category/cool-science-images/

SR: Are all the audiences so supportive?

JL: Most, but not all. And that’s okay. I want to know what people are thinking, what they know, what they don’t know. I want to answer questions, or find out the answers if I don’t know them. I learn a great deal from my audiences. Most of the complaints and concerns I get these days are from people expressing to me that it is taking too long for more stem cell research “breakthroughs” to get into the clinic. Rarely do I get someone in my groups anymore who tells me that they are an animal rights supporter (versus animal welfare). This may be because activists of all beliefs are using social media more to express their views. I am definitely seeing that our audiences have many more informed questions than when I first began. I think science education, blogs, shows, pro-science websites and social media are also helping, especially with the younger generation. More people are understanding the connections between the medicines and vaccines they take, and that it all began at some critical step along the way with biomedical research and humane animal care. Also, that the research benefits animals as well as people.

The hardest thing to tell people is why the research takes so much time. People are being wooed by these “miracle stem cell cures” on line, for example. So a large part of my job is explaining how research works, how to search clinicaltrials.gov, and what patients should be asking their doctors. But now that I’ve been here 20 years, myself, I can cite research that was ongoing when I began and that is now in clinical trials or even FDA-approved medical treatments and is saving millions of lives.

I am living proof, myself: UW-Madison scientists and physicians used several animal models, including our Primate Center monkeys, to develop new therapies for systemic lupus erythematosus in the 1980s through the early 2000’s. This research is why I am alive and healthy today. Twenty years ago, most patients with SLE were not expected to live a normal lifespan. Even surviving from year to year with this autoimmune disease usually meant forgetting about work or any real quality of life. People are still dying from lupus, but prognoses are getting better every year.

SR: Anything you’d like to add, plans for more outreach development?

JL: Well… I would like to do more social media… but I’m too busy being social to do it!

SR:  Thanks for your stories. Thanks for sharing the important work that you do!

JL: You’re welcome. We had 10 outreach events last week alone, so this week, I have a little more time to write and catch up on email… and get off my feet for a while!

Read more here:  https://www.primate.wisc.edu/wprc/outreach.html

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