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Science, humanities collaborate

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UD’s Fallik brings journalistic expertise to interdisciplinary research

world map showing mining locations

​A multidisciplinary UD research team is attempting, for the first time, to map and model the flow of illicitly sourced materials in energy-critical minerals based on original research in several source, transit and destination countries.

It’s not every day that an English Department faculty member is one of the principal investigators on a scientific research project, but UD’s Dawn Fallik hopes that her work in that capacity is just the start of a trend that values both collaboration and clear communication in the sciences.

Fallik, an associate professor of English and a medical and science reporter, joined four colleagues from other departments at the University as co-principal investigators on a project that recently received National Science Foundation (NSF) funding. With the support of this nearly $1 million, five-year grant, the researchers will work to characterize the illicit global trade in energy-critical materials.

The materials, which are mined in countries throughout the world, are essential in powering energy-generation technologies, including renewable, nuclear and fossil fuels. The interdisciplinary UD team will focus specifically on cobalt, lithium, niobium, platinum group metals, rare-earth elements and tantalum.

The project, led by Julie Klinger, assistant professor of geography and spatial sciences, will attempt to map and model the flow of these materials through the global supply chain. The focus will be on illicitly sourced materials, in which the lack of regulation is likely to lead to environmental and social abuses.

"It was a surprise and a great honor for an English professor to be invited to be part of an NSF team," Fallik said. "I hope this collaboration will open doors to humanities faculty and others to take part in other research projects. Maybe it will encourage the sciences and the humanities to work together more."

The team members, including faculty from geography, physics and computer science, are uniformly enthusiastic about the work, said Fallik, who credited Klinger with ensuring a smooth collaboration in such a diverse group. Each researcher will use their own areas of expertise in different parts of the project, with Fallik most directly involved in the first, information-gathering phase and then in the final phase, sharing the findings with policy makers and the public.

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Prof. Dawn Fallik

​Dawn Fallik, associate professor of English

​Initially, Fallik and Klinger plan to travel to countries on every continent except Antarctica to interview people involved in or affected by the mining of energy-critical materials. As they collect data, they'll be seeking information about such aspects of the issue as what it's like to work in the industry, what measures are taken to protect the public and how information is collected and reported. They want to investigate not only countries where mining occurs but also those that are buying the materials.

A former co-director of the National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting at the University of Missouri, Fallik has written extensively about health and science for NPR, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. She sees her twofold role in the research project as an especially good fit.

"Interviewing people on the ground about what the day-to-day operations are like in this kind of mining of materials ... is a good use of my background in interviewing  and in collecting and analyzing raw data," she said. "That process involves looking at what data is being made public and also what is not being collected and reported."

After the data is collected, other members of the team will analyze and map the findings. Then, Fallik will work to determine the most effective ways to communicate what the researchers learn. One possibility, she said, would be to develop a multimedia presentation that could be delivered at conferences and public events to inform non-scientists and policy makers about the team's findings.

"I think that's where having someone with a background in science communication can make a difference," she said. "The academic rhetoric and field jargon that researchers use as part of their daily vernacular [can] shut out the very people we want to be excited" about our work.

And, she said, she believes there will be a great deal of interest in the findings.

"The public wants to know about this," she said. "They want to know that the mining that produces the materials that make up their phones and power their wind turbines is being socially responsible."

Her inclusion in the grant also demonstrates a larger issue, she said, which is the growing recognition that explaining science to the public in an understandable way is critically important.

"Whether we are talking about patient safety in hospitals or what personal choices impact global warming or why mask recommendations changed so dramatically, science communication is a key factor," Fallik said. "The fact that the NSF and NIH [National Institutes of Health] are encouraging public outreach and communication as part of grant applications shows how much they value the practical skills professors and journalists like myself bring to the table."

At UD, she is working on establishing a "Narrative STEM" program in the Department of English, a concept that previously received support from 25 departments across the University. The program is part of a wider trend, she said, in which universities around the U.S. are developing narrative science and medicine programs aimed at helping undergraduate and graduate STEM students connect with the public.

The NSF grant is the second federal grant Fallik has received in the past year. A $10,000 award from the National Institute for Healthcare Management supported a project on loneliness that she did with National Public Radio.

Working with Joshua Zide, professor of materials science, she also helped develop UD's Words for Nerds program, a seminar in which graduate STEM students learn to use mainstream media, multimedia and social media to share their research with the public. This year's program begins in April with Washington Post TikTok producer Dave Jorgenson.

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About the NSF grant

​In addition to Klinger and Fallik, the co-principal investigators on the illicit-mining research project are Kyle Davis, assistant professor of geography and spatial sciences; Federica Bianco, assistant professor of physics and astronomy; and Xi Peng, assistant professor of computer and information sciences.

Saleem Ali, Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment, will also help the team as a senior personnel member of the project.

To read more about the research, see this UDaily article.

Article by Ann Manser and Adam Thomas; maps by Jeffrey C. Chase; photo courtesy of Dawn Fallik

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Science, humanities collaborate