Stuart Zola: Communicating Science and Animal Research to the Public

  • Published1 Jan 2012
  • Reviewed1 Jan 2012
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

Stuart Zola is the director of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and a professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. Zola's work focuses on how the brain organizes memory and how this process relates to memory loss. Zola also is active in communicating science and research to the general public. Neuroscience Quarterly asked him about communicating science and animal research. He answered in collaboration with Lisa Newbern, Yerkes chief of public affairs.

Q: Yerkes is very proactive in its communication about the importance of research and the values that guide its work. As an institutional leader, how have you shaped Yerkes' communications approach and what is the public response?

In two words, proactive and positive! When I became director of the Yerkes Research Center, I knew I wanted to support a robust public outreach program to help members of the Emory community, the surrounding neighborhoods, and the greater Atlanta community truly understand what a unique resource the Yerkes Research Center is. It took about a year to find the right communications director to partner with me on this vision, but it's been nonstop since then. The positive response from the public is remarkable. Not a day goes by that we don't receive some type of request related to our educational outreach. From the internships we offer high school and college students to our speakers' bureau and tour programs, I believe we are taking all the right steps. By training future generations of researchers and leaders, as well as educating others about the incredible value of our research, we are enhancing scientific literacy locally and nationally. Moreover, we continue to share the view that we take seriously the stewardship of animals while at the same time meeting our obligation for developing knowledge, treatments, and cures that will improve the quality of life for us all. An important message that we always try to be mindful to deliver is that the discoveries, treatments, and cures derived from research with animals comes full circle to benefit animals, as well as humans. It is ironic but true that the ability of your veterinarian to diagnose and treat your pet successfully often depends on the very same research that animal activists oppose.

Q: What primary and secondary education programs has Yerkes found to be most effective in communicating the value and process of animal research, and why are they so effective?

I believe it's very important for our researchers to talk with members of the community, students, and others about what they do, how they do it, what results they are achieving, and how their results are improving human health. It's this hands-on approach that makes a lasting difference — when you hear directly from the person whose goal it is to discover treatments and cures for diseases, you remember that and, I hope, share it with others. Accordingly, we have developed a speakers' bureau through which many of our scientists visit both primary and secondary schools throughout the year. We have also developed an Open House program that brings many school groups into the Yerkes Center to talk with scientists and to see the animals firsthand. For several years we have had the opportunity to bring high school students and high school science teachers to the Yerkes Center for summer internships. Our research faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students agree to mentor the students and teachers, and they get the chance to do real, daily, hands-on research in a variety of different laboratories and research settings. At a special symposium, capping the summer internship, we typically hear comments from the interns about the summer of science at Yerkes being "a life-changing experience." We believe these kinds of opportunities help enhance the pipeline for developing students who will choose careers in science and improve science education in our school systems.

Q: What advice would you have for individual researchers to enhance their own communication about animal research? Would you have a special message for younger members such as students and postdoctoral fellows?

Work with and trust your communications officer! It truly is a partnership among administrators, researchers, and communications officers to ensure messages are being shared appropriately and that you never feel like you are on your own. Also, your communications officer will have a more global perspective about research at your center and across the country, so it's important to work together to develop messages that will resonate with the general public and inspire them to support what we are doing. Additionally, there are a number of both local and national resources, e.g., the Society for Neuroscience and the National Association for Biomedical Research, that provide information, talking points, and even public speaking training to help prepare individuals to engage effectively with the public and their colleagues about the use of animals in research. A key aspect of communicating with the public, the media, or anyone, is establishing trust. So, an important piece of advice to always keep in mind is to be sincere in your views about what you are discussing. If you do not truly believe in the value of what you are saying, it is probably better not to do the interview because you will not be able to communicate sincerely, and you will likely fail in establishing trust and in making your point convincingly. You do not necessarily have to be an expert in an area to believe in its value, and its value is what you want to communicate.

Q: What can institutions and organizations within the research community do to convey the importance of responsible animal research to medical progress? Are there roles that journals, meetings, societies, institutions, or others must play, either individually or together?

It is important that the highest administrative and executive levels of an institution or organization be informed about the issues of animals in research and that they communicate to all levels that carrying out animal research is recognized by the administration as an important part of the organization's mission. For faculty, students, and staff to be engaged in research with animals, and for them to engage in discussions with the media and the public successfully, they need to know that the highest levels of the institution or organization trust and believe in the mission and back them in their research with animals. We must work together, and we must be forthright and honest. It is the responsibility of each one of us to be able to talk about our research. That includes talking about not just the findings, but also about the care of the animals and how that can affect the outcome of experiments. If an error or mistake has been made in the context of animal welfare, we need to be upfront about that, determine the cause and how to prevent it from recurring, and communicate all of that openly and sincerely. Journals and meetings must underscore the importance of appropriate stewardship of animals used in research, and institutions must ensure that appropriate stewardship does take place. Together, all of these efforts will help the public understand, trust, and therein support the critical role of animals in research.