Posted by Evelyn Mantegani, Manager, Public Engagement, Communications and Marketing, ASHG
Michael Bauer, PhD, is a member of the Public Education and Awareness Committee (PEAC) and is an Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, Arkansas. He is a bioinformatician who specializes in cancer genomics using Next Generation Sequencing and the integration of heterogeneous datasets. Since beginning his public engagement pursuits, he has found ways to communicate his science through formats such as formal conversations with local communities to casual conversations with friends and family. He spoke to ASHG to share how public engagement and education can empower members of the public to better understand their health and the benefits of one-on-one conversations.
ASHG: How did you get started in public engagement and education?
Dr. Bauer: I started in public engagement and education relatively recently when I was invited for a talk at the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton that was open to students and the rest of the community. Going in, I assumed the audience would be mostly students, but to my surprise there were many non-students in attendance. The audience had lots of questions and were so appreciative to have them answered. It was wonderful to see that even in this small town of Morrilton, Arkansas there was a strong desire to learn about cutting-edge research. I recognized that there is a desire among the public to learn about genetics and its application in people. That’s when I started to realize that the best people to do outreach are the people who do this research. Public engagement is not often something that is emphasized or encouraged in our work. It can be difficult for researchers to engage with the public because we have always been taught to give very technical talks to our peers. The challenge and opportunity to share our research in ways that the public can understand can improve our communication overall and be very rewarding. My experience opened my eyes to the enthusiasm the public has for learning and understanding genomic research. This is a major reason why I wanted to join the Public Education and Awareness Committee. I wanted to learn how to better communicate with the public and ways to do outreach locally from others who are equally dedicated and excited to do public engagement.
ASHG: What are your experiences engaging with your community around human genetics research?
Dr. Bauer: Actually, most of my interaction come in one-on-one social interactions. Family and friends are always excited to know the current state of cutting-edge research. I play for the Little Rock Rugby Club and teammates are always interested in what I am working on. In between drills we often have discussions about human genetics. These small interactions have further reinforced my belief that there is a lot of interest in genomic outreach. The most effective outreach is to one’s own community. Public engagement is important because it widens the reach of this information and also to people often left behind in genetics research, such as minorities.
ASHG: What are the common questions you are asked during these experiences and how do you answer them?
Dr. Bauer: Common questions are: “Have you found a cure for cancer?” and “Do you think we will ever find a cure?” I answer that we have not yet found a cure and I do think we will figure out how to treat and effectively cure most cancers. I understand these are the ultimate questions for us all. With more engagement and education, a greater number of people could understand the progress that has been made in cancer research as well as the current barriers. Additionally, in the past year there have been many questions about the mRNA vaccines. These interactions were eye opening. I saw how misinformation can spread in relation to this topic, but my one-on-one talks usually resulted in the person understanding the technology and having less fear. A greater public understanding of human genetics would go a long way to curbing the spread of misinformation.
ASHG: How do you make time for public education and engagement?
Dr. Bauer: I know we are all very busy, but it makes it easy to make the time for public engagement and education when we see how it aids our own research. I personally make time by treating it like another key component of my work. I have my research, teaching, administrative tasks, and outreach. We researchers do our work to serve the public and the greater good. We also often use public tax dollars and donations to do our research, so I feel it is also our duty to let those we aim to help know what we are doing and understand what we are doing.
ASHG: What’s the best memory you have of one of your educators when you were a student?
Dr. Bauer: I do not have one particular educator, but in my experience my favorite educators were very passionate about their work and presented it in an all-inclusive manner. Meaning that they broke down their research so that even those not fully immersed in the research could follow and gain something from the presentation.
ASHG: What’s the one thing you want the public to know about human genetics?
Dr. Bauer: Genetics is for everyone! We are entering a time where personalized medicine is becoming a reality. The problem is that these tools are not always offered or available to everyone. One way to combat the inequity is for the public to have a good understanding of the current state of human genetics and how it can provide improved diagnosis and treatment plans for a number of cancers and other diseases. They will then have the wherewithal to ask their doctors if a genetic test would be appropriate. If the general public’s understanding of genetics is increased, they can take charge of their health. Additionally, there is growing popularity of direct-to-consumer genetic health/predisposition test and ancestry analysis. Human genetic products can be fun and informative but can be sources of confusion and anxiety if there is poor understanding of risk and possible ancestry. A greater understanding of these results is important to fully comprehension of what they mean. Now more than ever human genetics is available to everyone.