Dr. Erin McKenney, lecturer and Academic Coordinator at NC State’s Department of Applied Ecology, won the inaugural Engaged Scholarship Prize in the faculty category. The prize recognizes scholars whose academic work seeks to address public issues and engage communities in collaborative processes that produce or apply knowledge. These scholars also advance service-learning and civic engagement in higher education and disseminate their work to a broader public. The prize recognizes one full-time faculty member and one graduate student.
“How amazing – how humbling – to be seen and recognized for doing something I love, that has value for me personally and is also valued by so many like minds,” says McKenney. “It was amazing to be in a roomful of 200 kindred spirits from different disciplines and institutions, who similarly dedicate their time and energy to community building, support, and engagement. ”
Through her research, teaching, and outreach, Erin McKenney not only grows knowledge of microbiomes, she empowers students and the general public to see themselves as scientists. In her research career, McKenney has investigated the gut microbes of primates and the root microbes of plants. Currently, she is focusing on the microbial ecology of fermented foods, including sourdough starters. Along the way, McKenney has partnered with colleagues, educators, and practitioners to translate research findings to outreach activities, including a series of citizen science projects that engage middle and high school students. For example, McKenney recently collaborated with three Wake County middle schools and with Boulted Bread, a local bakery, on the Sourdough for Science project. For the project, 275 middle schoolers grew and collected data on their own sourdough starters, then selected the top six based on scientific criteria. The bakery baked these starters into loaves for students to sample, and McKenney chronicled the effort in a series of blog posts for the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. She now consults with a growing network of farmers, millers, and bakers to experimentally develop best practices for sourdough baking techniques that incorporate microbial ecology.
McKenney believes the work on fermented foods is a natural path to engage the public in citizen science, as the topic provides – in her words – an “approachable, dynamic, and compelling system to address science, education, and food equity. Everyone eats.”
McKenney’s research has been published in peer-reviewed journals; and she shares her work in numerous webinars, workshops, and invited talks for both academic and public audiences, including a recent keynote address at the International Bread Symposium. Most of all, McKenney puts empowerment and inclusivity at the center of her practice. She writes: “I want my students to feel that science is immediately relevant … and to feel empowered to explore and share their diverse perspectives – and to know that their diverse perspectives contribute as much value to science as their data.”
Erin received the award during the Opening Session of the PACE Conference on February 12th at Elon University in front of 28 presidents and chancellors from across the state.
North Carolina Campus Compact is a collaborative network of 39 colleges and universities committed to educating students for civic and social responsibility, partnering with communities for positive change, and strengthening democracy. Dr. Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr. is the eleventh Chancellor of UNC Greensboro and has spent 30 years in higher education working as a scholar and administrator on community partnerships. UNC Greensboro has a long history of engaged scholarship and has been designated by the Carnegie Foundation as a community-engaged institution.