During her childhood and teen years, Amanda Stearns had many teachers who encouraged her to explore her interests in science and the natural world. The support she received as a young aspiring scientist made a lasting impact and played a significant role in motivating her to pursue a career in science and public health.
In 2005, Stearns graduated from Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree in biology. She obtained a Master of Science in Public Health degree at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2016, along with graduate certificates in Food Systems, Environment and Public Health, and Global Health. Recently, Stearns gained experience in public health education and communications as part of an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) fellowship at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
The ORISE Research Participation Programs at HHS are educational and training programs designed to provide students and recent graduates the opportunity to participate in project-specific HHS research and developmental activities at HHS facilities that are related to HHS's mission. Having previously participated in two ORISE fellowships with other agencies, Stearns knew firsthand the value an HHS Fellowship could offer.
For her appointment, Stearns was placed with the Division of Education and Integrity (DEI) at the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in Rockville, Maryland. ORI is located within the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH) within the Office of the Secretary of Health and Human Services (OS) in HHS.
Under the mentorship of Capt. Stephen Gonsalves, Ph.D., USPHS, Stearns assisted ORI in monitoring the integrity of scientific research. This monitoring required Stearns to determine whether research articles considered compromised were retracted or corrected, so that science was not harmed by fraudulent information. She maintained a repository of data from multiple sources and synthesized multiple forms of quantitative and qualitative data. Her research contributed to ongoing efforts to quantify and monetize ORI's actions against the U.S. Public Health Service funding compromised by research misconduct. The information Stearns collected was used to monitor whether ORI's directives to institutions resulted in correction of the scientific research.
Stearns also created educational materials presenting information on research integrity topics, including social media messages and graphics, print and digital infographics, videos and blogs. Her contributions utilized social media as a platform for public outreach, specifically within the research community. She regularly evaluated ORI’s social media progress, monitored metrics and produced content for release. She implemented several new systems and initiatives that helped grow ORI’s social media audience and substantially increased its engagement and reach.
The goal of Stearns’ efforts was to better educate the research community about research integrity and misconduct. According to Stearns, research integrity is an essential part of protecting scientific research, preserving public confidence in science and delivering quality health services.
“When someone has a health issue, they generally make decisions with their doctor based on information gained from research,” she explained. “If the research was not conducted responsibly and with integrity, then results may not be reliable and people can’t depend on research to help them choose the best treatment option. The hope is that with more education about research integrity, research misconduct and the factors or behaviors that may make it more likely to occur, there will be fewer incidences of misconduct.”
Through the HHS fellowship, Stearns gained experience using social media to deliver public health messaging within the context of a governmental agency. She learned how to utilize new computer systems, implement marketing strategies, create educational materials and conduct research on research ethics. Stearns spoke positively about her time at ORI, and expressed her appreciation for her peers.
“I had some really great colleagues and supportive mentors who have taught me a lot about good teamwork, mentoring and leadership. They challenged me, helped me grow and gave me networking opportunities. They were enthusiastic about helping me to get the skills I will need for a successful career.”
She encourages others to participate in the ORISE Fellowship Program as well.
“I’ve had several different fellowships through ORISE, and I think fellowships are one of the best ways to learn right out of a degree program,” Stearns said. “The emphasis is on getting a good learning experience and getting the skills needed to land a great job. You get a lot of flexibility to learn from different people and teams within an office to pick up a variety of skills and experiences.”
After completion of her HHS fellowship, Stearns is eager to apply her new skills and hopes to obtain a full-time health communications position with a federal agency.
The HHS Research Participation Program is managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an interagency agreement between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.