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Michael West Awarded Fulbright Scholarship

Dr. Michael West

Educational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communication can to the humanizing of international relations.

So wrote the longtime United States Senator from Arkansas, J. William Fulbright. The quote seems especially appropriate in a story about Lowell Observatory Astronomer Dr. Michael West. He is not only a gifted writer, but he is also the recipient of a prestigious scholarship named after Fulbright that will finance West’s travels to Finland to share ideas about communicating science.

West serves as Deputy Director for Science at Lowell and has been a prolific scientist for years. But he is also passionate about communicating science to the public and has accomplished this himself by giving popular lectures, writing inspiring articles for magazines and newspapers, authoring two books, and serving on various professional committees that promote science communication. His career, in fact, traces back to a book written by another science communicator. The book was titled The Cosmic Connection and written by none other than Carl Sagan. When West read this volume in high school, he became hooked on astronomy.

The Fulbright Scholarship will support the expansion of West’s science communications efforts. He will travel twice to Finland, during which time he will teach courses on Communicating Science with the Public at the University of Turku. The goal is to provide scientists with the tools necessary to become better science communicators.

Each course features eight weekly classes that address different science communication themes, ranging from theoretical aspects such as ethics, cultural connections, and misconceptions, to the nuts and bolts of best writing and speaking (and even photographing and drawing) practices.

Communicating Science with the Public

West wrote in his Fulbright application, “Communicating science with the public is an increasingly important activity for many scientists, yet few have been trained to do it effectively. In an age of media saturation and information overload, capturing the public’s attention requires scientists to think creatively and to embrace new ways of communicating their research to diverse audiences.”

West was awarded his Fulbright last December and he originally planned to travel to Finland in 2020 and again in 2021. COVID-19 travel restrictions have forced him to modify this schedule and he now hopes to make both trips in 2021.

When not teaching, West will visit several science facilities to learn current Finnish practices of communicating science. He said, “I’m excited to learn more about Finnish culture and to serve as an ambassador for American culture, embracing the Fulbright spirit of promoting cross-cultural understanding.”

West will supplement his classroom information with lessons learned on these site visits to create a guide to communicating science, which will be a free guide for anyone who wants to use it. West himself will use this to train colleagues at Lowell and will incorporate many of the lessons learned into helping design Lowell’s new Astronomy Discovery Center, set to open in 2023.

Lowell Observatory Director Jeff Hall said, “A Fulbright award is a truly prestigious honor, and it’s indicative of Michael’s stature as a scholar that he received one. This will be a great opportunity for him to expand his work in science communication, and I look forward to seeing the outcome of his work in Finland.”

The Fulbright Program is a United States-based, international exchange effort that involves more than 160 countries around the world. It promotes international collaboration and goodwill among scholars. Senator J. William Fulbright wrote that the mission of the Fulbright Program is “To bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.” Based on legislation introduced by Fulbright, the program was established in 1946 and, according to its website, awards approximately 8,000 grants per year to scientists, university instructors and administrators, journalists, artists, and others.