Howard Garrison Advocacy Fellow

John Redden

John Redden is an Associate Professor-in-Residence in the Physiology and Neurobiology department at the University of Connecticut.

Describe your interest in participating in the program.

Redden: Creating effective evidence-based public policy requires substantial scientific expertise. As a physiologist and physiology professor for over a decade, I have developed broad expertise in biomedical science. However, there are many examples of scientifically sound policy recommendations failing in the development or implementation stages. For example, it is well established in medical literature that vaccination against SARS-CoV-2 reduces hospitalizations and mortality associated with COVID-19. Yet approximately one in five Americans remain unvaccinated, and overall vaccination rates have been relatively stable for the past year. Will a greater public understanding of basic biology concepts like RNA or more applied concepts like herd immunity improve vaccination rates? Most scientists would think so. Until very recently, I would have as well. Scientific training emphasizes deficit thinking. However, one quarter of the U.S. population has little or no confidence that scientists act in the public's best interests. 

Thus, the challenges of creating science-informed policy go far beyond science education, requiring 1) an understanding of policymaking processes, stakeholders, and contexts and 2) expertise in science communication and outreach. The COVID-19 example demonstrates the high stakes of successful science communication in a policy context – vaccination has saved over 3 million lives. Nevertheless, pandemic era failures reveal the challenges of translating rapidly evolving medical science for policymaking and public audiences. In particular, the more nebulous, less often considered factors like positionality, trust, risk, and uncertainty are inextricably linked to policymaking and public attitudes toward science. 

I hope to learn how to navigate these obstacles and be a more effective science communicator from this fellowship. Like most professional scientists, I have had many opportunities to communicate with other scientists throughout my career. However, opportunities to engage with non-scientists have been much harder to come by. At my current career stage, I am realizing that the latter is significantly more important to the overall health of science and our society, and I have pivoted my teaching and research towards science communication. I developed a science communication service-learning course for pre-medical students at the University of Connecticut that uses a dialogue-based framework to explore dis/misinformation, data visualization, scientific misconduct, and the translation of biomedical research into infographics, blogs, elevator pitches, and animated explainer videos for a public audience. We have partnered with and worked for several nonprofits in Connecticut to assist them with their science communication goals. Science policy is not only a logical extension of these skills I developed alongside my students; it's an area of deep personal interest and passion. Many of my colleagues are discomforted by the intersections of science and politics. After all, science is supposed to be "neutral". However, so many aspects of science (e.g., funding) are influenced by political processes. Research outputs are routinely politicized. In order for the scientific enterprise to continue as a public good, scientists and science communicators need to be involved in shaping public policy. I hope that this fellowship, in combination with my existing experience and expertise, can leave me well-positioned to meaningfully contribute to positive, evidenced-based policy changes.

How do you plan to use the knowledge and experience gained through your participation in the Howard Garrison Advocacy Program? 

Redden: I am a science communicator. I plan to use the skills, knowledge, and networking opportunities given to me by this fellowship to directly engage with the policymaking process (nationally and locally). Many of these skills will also be valuable for communicating with any public audience about science. In the coming years, I will be making a focused effort to do more popular science writing, ideally taking the form of a book (most likely as a sabbatical project). However, I am also excited to use the knowledge and experience gained from this fellowship in the classroom to broaden its impact. I plan to integrate science policy into my existing science communication course at the University of Connecticut. In the spring, I brought together a transdisciplinary team of faculty from Physiology, Ecology, Communication Science, and Urban and Community Studies to develop a health policy curriculum that can be integrated into core STEM courses like anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, and microbiology. Our project will map local bills and policies discussed in the CT legislature to the UConn STEM curriculum. We were awarded $30k in internal funding from my university to develop, pilot, and assess this curriculum in the coming academic year, with a longer-term goal of sharing it externally. Very little policy coursework is available at the undergraduate level; almost none is offered to undergraduate STEM majors. Participation in this fellowship and learning from the leaders in this field will help me and my colleagues to produce a more effective, relevant, and impactful curriculum.

Using no more than 250 words, describe your research as you would to a non-scientist.

Redden: My dad is a lot like Tom Brady. No, he isn't a millionaire; I've never seen him throw a football. But they both have really big hearts, about a third bigger than yours. This is called cardiac hypertrophy. Their enlarged muscle works harder to pump more blood and oxygen to their tissues. Tom Brady, an elite athlete, needs this extra boost to play three hours of football. His heart is bigger and stronger. My dad, 15 years out from open heart surgery, needs this boost just to do everyday tasks around the house. His heart grew bigger and weaker. My research focuses on people with heart failure—people like my dad—and the molecular changes that occur during hypertrophy.

I'm trying to understand how some forms of cardiac hypertrophy are beneficial and others lead to heart failure or death. Cells use identical enzymes for both! But when someone has heart failure, they put them together in the wrong combinations. It is like making a pizza with the correct ingredients but accidentally mixing the cheese into the dough. Heart failure is the leading cause of death in the U.S. We need better treatments with fewer side effects that don't target the beneficial enzymes too (who would want pizza with no cheese?). I'm particularly focused on a protein called AKAP, which functions like a recipe book for the heart. It helps the heart to decide which enzymes go together (to create healthy growth) and which ones need to be kept apart (to prevent disease).

Briefly describe any past or present participation in additional career exploration activities, experiences, and/or programs.

Redden: As an academic, I am highly collaborative. I have served as an education mentor for the national academic of sciences summer institute, supporting faculty from across the country in transitioning to more inclusive and more evidence-based teaching. Internally at UConn, I have worked in the faculty development office to support colleagues in integrating technology and service learning (i.e., working with community partners). I consider myself both a researcher and a SciComm practitioner. In April, I presented research related to undergraduate science communication at R1 Universities at the Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) Conference and have some forthcoming pedagogical work about teaching SciComm to undergraduates. I am the lead author of an Anatomy and Physiology textbook, currently in its second edition, which is distinctive in its use of a conversational tone and inclusive approach to presenting information. I organized a workshop for faculty at my institution to develop true, personal science stories in partnership with the non-profit StoryCollider. I was invited to tell my story at a live show in Hartford, Connecticut, which was also featured on the StoryCollider podcast – I have since been invited to join their academic advisory board. I hope to use this fellowship to gain experience in policy, as this is not an area I have worked in before! However, I did participate in the March for Science in 2017; I have a working knowledge of how our government functions and have voted in every election possible since turning 18. I'm excited to learn!

John Redden is a member of American Association for Anatomy and American Physiological Society, FASEB member societies.