Risk Communication & Interdisciplinary Research with Dr. Shana Gillette

Communication is an integral component of how we understand risks and manage our environment. The way we communicate risk can determine if risk management actions and policies are widely accepted or rejected. In veterinary medicine, effective risk communication helps veterinarians and animal owners weigh risks and decide on actions that will ultimately improve animal health, prevent disease, and create effective disease-control policies. As a result, the field of veterinary medicine is recognizing the value of risk communication in animal health research and learning. Dr. Shana Gillette is one of a handful of faculty nationwide who conduct risk communication research in an accredited college of veterinary medicine. She is a member of the Animal Population Health Institute and an assistant professor in risk communication in the Department of Clinical Sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University.

Risk Communication Focus Provides New Research Opportunities at APHI

Dr. Shana Gillette in Republic of Georgia

Dr. Shana Gillette with
Georgian colleagues in the Republic of Georgia

Dr. Gillette joined APHI in 2006 hoping to expand her international experience from the work that she had recently completed in SE Asia with the US Geological Survey. In her first two years at APHI, Dr. Gillette participated in APHI research and training activities in Nigeria and the Republic of Georgia. Her experience working with veterinarians in both countries helped her recognize how risk communication could address cross-cutting issues in animal, human, and environmental health. Her interest in the interdisciplinary application of risk communication led to USDA-funded research and work as the Integrated Research Leader for Monitoring and Evaluation with the Collaborative Research Support Program, Adapting Livestock Systems to Climate Change (CRSP).

RIA meetin in Nepal

June 2011 stakeholder consultation in Kathmandu
to start the Regional Innovation Consortia

As the Integrated Research Leader and Co-principal investigator on the CRSP grant, Dr. Gillette applies her knowledge to address climate change impacts on small-scale livestock systems in countries in south central Asia. For many of these projects, effective communication across disciplines is key to the success of interventions to improve animal health, increase resource efficiency, and reduce climate change impacts. As part of her work, she is helping establish Regional Innovation Consortia that are designed to build research capacity, spur innovation, transfer results, and ensure sustainability of research networks. One consortium is established for West Africa, East Africa, and South Asia.

Goat herd in Mongolia

A herd of goats on the plains
east of Ulanbaatar, Mongolia

Dr. Gillette has found that an accurate understanding of risk can help producers with limited resources decide on preventive actions that save time and money. In discussions about risk, Dr. Gillette describes the complex interplay of factors that contribute to risk perceptions, attitudes, and behavior. For Dr. Gillette, there is more to successful risk communication than simply crafting a persuasive message. Social, psychological, and cultural factors can equally play a role in influencing risk perceptions and behavior. For example, public trust in institutions can influence public acceptance of risk. When people lack trust in an institution, they are likely to perceive the risk to be greater. The opposite has been found to be true as well, if people perceive a risk to be high, they are less likely to trust institutions to manage that risk.

Milking time at a dairy in Kazakhstan

Milking time at a dairy NE of Almaty, Kazakhstan
(The USAID regional mission is in Almaty;
Tajikistan is one of the countries it serves)

Literacy is another factor that can affect communication of risk. Dr. Gillette is currently studying how numeracy and health literacy affect a personís ability to understand risk. Risk communication for a diverse public requires the use of multiple visual aids and narrative devices. For example, many people have difficulty understanding scientific tables and charts. For someone with low numeracy, it may be better to present the information in images accompanied with a descriptive paragraph. The accurate communication of disease risk can be especially important during disease outbreaks when minor changes in behavior by the public can help slow disease spread. Dr. Gillette is currently applying her expertise to the development of a health literacy module for veterinary students that provides some strategies for enhancing communication with clients who have low numeracy and health literacy skills.

Applying Diverse Background in Communication

The opportunities for risk communication teaching and research in veterinary medicine continue to expand for Dr. Gillette. In addition to collaborating with CSU faculty from the different Colleges, Dr. Gillette collaborates with researchers from different disciplines at other universities in the US and abroad.

In the spring, she received a grant from the Infectious Diseases Supercluster to organize a workshop on the use of expert elicitation in modeling the impact of climate change on infectious disease transmission. Two other APHI researchers, Drs Traub-Dargatz and Salman are co-principal investigators on the grant. The workshop brought researchers from around the country to CSU for a discussion of best practices in expert elicitation.

Dr. Gillette received her BA in botany and history at the University of Iowa, her MA in journalism (science focus) at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and her PhD in communication (environmental focus) at the University of Washington. Dr. Gillette completed her postdoctoral work at CSUís Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology.