Consulting Work Adds Richness to Professor’s Teaching and Research

Posted: August 10, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Christopher Anzalone

Kathy Rowan
Kathy Rowan

Kathy Rowan, a professor and associate chair in the Department of Communication, began consulting while she was a professor at Purdue University. A George Mason alumna who graduated in 1975 with a BA in English, Rowan was also a member of Mason’s award-winning forensics team, where she learned the art of public speaking, a skill that has served her well in both her academic and consulting work.

“Although I’m a faculty member first, I do consulting because it’s fun and occasionally it pays well, but mainly because it makes my teaching and research better,” Rowan says. “I use my work with organizations to help me understand topics I’m researching and teaching.”

Rowan, who specializes in risk communication and ways to communicate science news through the mass media, began consulting in 1988 for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), after an EPA official observed one of her presentations at an academic conference. Since then, she has worked as a consultant and in other capacities with a variety of private organizations and government departments, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Library of Medicine, and the Garden Writers of America.

Rowan has found that organizations often find an outside opinion is required in making tough decisions. “One of my colleagues, Communication Emerita Professor Anita Taylor, says that sometimes academics need to give people the gift of honesty,” she says. “That task may be easier for an outsider to do than for an insider.”

Since 1999, Rowan has served on a study committee focusing on the health effects of low levels of ionizing radiation at the National Academies, which is comprised of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council.

“Everyone knows that large amounts of radiation are bad for you,” says Rowan. “The committee was charged with learning about the health effects of low levels, such as the small amounts humans get from eating, breathing, and medical exposures such as X rays. The National Academies wanted a science communication scholar on its committee because they wanted to make sure the findings were understandable to many groups of people. I worked closely with the radiation biologists and epidemiologists on that report. My contribution was to help write the ‘public summary.’”

Rowan, who earned a master’s degree in communication and journalism from the University of Illinois and a PhD in rhetoric and composition from Purdue University, feels that using her expertise outside the academic world has enhanced her abilities as a professor. “There is really useful research on effective risk and science communication. I can help groups think about how that research is relevant to them. We teach this research in our graduate program in health, risk, and crisis communication and in our undergraduate courses in public relations.”

This research in crisis and health communication is essential to the public, and Rowan finds her work often helps in surprising ways. While she was working on a book on effective emergency communication with other members of the Communication Department, Rowan got a call from someone in southeast Louisiana asking for help on ways to increase the number of people who would evacuate if a hurricane hit the area.

“People want to believe their homes will protect them,” Rowan says. “I described research on ways to help people question those theories, and to feel in charge of helping their family and friends stay safe. Working on that talk, and thinking hard about what would really help motivate people to evacuate, made the book chapter I was working on about emergency communication a lot better.”

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