There’s a moment every year at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Faculty Convocation when President Don Boesch reveals a secret he’s been keeping for some time.
Boesch, and maybe a handful of others, knows who will receive the President’s Award for Excellence in Application of Science, an honor he first bestowed in 1999. On a May evening, during dinner at a wooded lodge in Frostburg, after a day of lessons about science communication, he made his announcement: Cat Stylinski won this year’s award.
“I was really surprised,” Stylinski said. “I was excited because I thought he was going to honor a faculty member who has been doing great stuff in communication. He was acknowledging the importance of communication; I just didn’t think it was going to be me.”
Listen to Boesch and Stylinski talk about the award (approx. 10 minutes)
Stylinski’s background is a mix of science and communication. Before she earned a Ph.D. in ecology, she studied television and radio production and worked in television. Eventually, her two passions merged and she made a career out of science communication and education. Today, Stylinski’s research centers on public engagement in science and environmental stewardship. She studies technology use in citizen science and K-12 settings, and how scientists engage in training and outreach.
She also helps devise ways to get more people engaged in science. A current proposal of hers involves using art as a means of supporting science education by reaching out to youth who aren’t typically interested in science through their interest in art.
“I was really pleased that the work I do, both the outreach and research I do around public engagement of science, was honored,” Stylinski said.
At a time when science communication is under the spotlight, Cat’s skill at reducing a scientific topic down to the bare essentials, without over simplifying it, is critically needed and greatly appreciated here at UMCES.
When Boesch started the President’s Award 18 years ago, he considered there are many awards faculty can receive for research and teaching.
“But," he recalled thinking, "we don’t celebrate and reward people for what most people in Maryland think we’re there for, and that is to provide good science that can be used,” he said.
Boesch is stepping down as UMCES president this year after 27 years. He announced during the award presentation that he will endow the award to the next president so the tradition can continue.
In honoring Stylinski for her work in communication and education, Boesch said he is giving the award new dimension. Typically, the idea of applying science considers contribution to a management decision, legislation or another government action, but he noted it isn’t limited to that.
“Cat really works on environmental education, but she's really been terrific in taking the science that we do from our labs here—or even getting citizens involved in the science—and then using that experience to promote new ways and to be more effective in public outreach and in teaching,” he said.
While Boesch makes the final decision on who will win the award, he collects testimonies from those who work closely with the recipient and then reads excerpts during the award presentation.
Bart Merrick, education coordinator for the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office, has worked with Stylinski in various capacities over about a decade from serving on the board of the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education to working with her on the MADE CLEAR project.
“In each case, I have walked away from the experience a better educator with a deeper understanding of both the science of whatever topic we happened to be working on and ideas for how to approach the topic in an education context,” he wrote in his testimonial. “Cat did not make this happen via lecture or simply telling; she really pushed folks deepen our understanding of topics through deep discussion, pointed questions, access to new resources and challenging long-held assumptions serving as a guide on the side more than a director.”
Elena S. Takaki-Moschell, director of Project WILD, a wildlife-focused conservation education program for K-12 educators and their students, worked with Stylinski at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, National Geographic, and the North American Association for Environmental Education.
“I can attest to her professionalism, her drive to promote excellence in science education, and her passion for providing educators with quality materials,” she said of Stylinski.
Andrew Elmore, an associate professor based at Appalachian Laboratory with Stylinski, said he has noticed over time that his colleague can outright identify which aspects of science issue may give non-scientists pause. That talent helps her teach others how to prepare scientists to share their research with a wider audience.
“She asks difficult and insightful questions until both the scientists and teachers come together with a greater understanding, leading to more effective communication among ourselves and with our students,” Elmore said. “At a time when science communication is under the spotlight, Cat’s skill at reducing a scientific topic down to the bare essentials, without over simplifying it, is critically needed and greatly appreciated here at UMCES. Cat’s work is one of the reasons UMCES is different than other research institutions and as such she helps us to stand out and make a positive difference in Maryland, the mid-Atlantic, and the world.”
Stylinski is driven to building two-way dialogues between scientists and non-scientists. It was the theme of the Convocation that her award presentation was part of.
“When I went up and collected the award, I had this really strong feeling of pride that this institution has this strong commitment both to do public engagement, but also to be innovative and willing to grow in how it does it,” she said. “It just made me feel like I’m doing the right thing at the right time and most importantly in the right place.”
Stylinski displayed her new award—a wood-carved and hand-painted feather of a red-tailed hawk by western Maryland artist Gary Yoder—on a table in her office.
She hopes it will draw attention and spark a conversation about science.
Read about past President's Award recipients.