Engaged Scholars: John Beacom

News — June 25, 2024

Engaged Scholars: John Beacom

June 2024

Engaged Scholars is a series highlighting Ohio State faculty who have made an impact in our communities through their community-engaged research and teaching. Pictured are members of the SciAccess team (L-R): John Beacom (faculty mentor), Anna Voelker (Ohio State alum and executive director of SciAccess, Inc.), Caitlin OBrien (Ohio State alum and now staff member) and Emily Macbeth (Ohio State undergraduate).

John Beacom
Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Director of the Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics (CCAPP)
College of Arts and Sciences

A key component of my community-engagement work is with SciAccess, for which I am the faculty mentor and an active participant. SciAccess seeks to "inspire, develop, and promote innovative approaches to equitable science access for people with disabilities." As the fraction of people with disabilities in STEM fields is roughly 3%, compared to roughly 30% in the general population, much work is needed.

SciAccess was founded in 2018 by my former Ohio State undergraduate student Anna Voelker, who won the Ohio State Presidents Prize, which provided $100,000 for innovative projects that championed social change. We began with the in-person 2019 SciAccess Conference, which had about 60 speakers and 250 attendees. Since then, we have held virtual conferences - allowing worldwide participation - in 2020, 2021 and 2024. These events have reached more than 1,300 registrants from 55 countries and all seven continents. (For the 2024 event, we will soon post videos of the talks that will include American Sign Language interpretation and accurate captions.) Since 2018, SciAccess has developed several spinoffs that complement the conference.

In addition to SciAccess, I am involved in a variety of other community-engagement activities. One example is Science Sundays, which is a free monthly public lecture series sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences.

Why is it important to engage the community in your research and teaching?

The laws of science are universal, but access to science is not. That's a problem. Because science depends on creativity, having a greater range of perspectives will accelerate discovery. Everyone deserves to appreciate the specifics of how science shapes the technology of our daily lives and to have a sense of wonder about our place in the universe. And everyone deserves access to the general tools of scientific reasoning that you'll remember long after you forget which element comes before nitrogen in the periodic table. Last, we want everyone who is excited about a career in science to have ways to pursue that. To advance these aims, we need scientists to take active roles in expanding access.

What led you to the path of engaged scholarship? How did you get started?

I guess I have always thought that knowledge unshared is like knowledge undiscovered. One key for me in getting started on community engagement was having several mentors who helped show me the way. Another key was the support of a 2005 CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, soon after I started at Ohio State.

For SciAccess in particular, I have also learned so much from the brilliant, inspiring undergraduates I have worked with, starting with Anna Voelker. Another recent alum who has been wildly successful is Caitlin OBrien (see below). And we are working with two outstanding current undergraduates, Rachel Horvath and Emily Macbeth, who are sure to do great things too.

Support and recognition from Ohio State have been critical for developing SciAccess and its spinoffs. We are grateful to the Office of Outreach and Engagement, the Enterprise for Research, Innovation and Knowledge (ERIK), Ohio State Energy Partners, the Presidents Office, the Keenen Center for Entrepreneurship, the Alumni Association and others.

How has your scholarship benefited from engaging with community partners?

The SciAccess efforts at Ohio State partner with SciAccess, Inc., a nonprofit led by Voelker, who is now based in Pittsburgh. And SciAccess has helped grow multiple spinoffs that work together. One is the Zenith Mentorship Program, which engages blind and visually impaired students in astronomy and space science. A second is AstroAccess, "a project dedicated to promoting disability inclusion in human space exploration by paving the way for disabled astronauts." And a third is Solstice Outreach, which was founded by Caitlin OBrien and others through a $50,000 award from the President's Buckeye Accelerator program, enabling them to purchase a portable planetarium system to bring science to underserved communities.

What has been a highlight of your community engagement experience?

With SciAccess and its spinoffs, we want to help create a worldwide community that will make both our science and our society better for all. It has been gratifying to see the testimonials from people who have benefited from these programs, many of whom have noted its "life-changing" impact. And, as noted above, it has been wonderful to see multiple Ohio State undergraduates develop to their potential.

What advice would you give to faculty and students who are interested in engaging the community in their scholarship?

Let's first address the people who think they are not interested in engaging with the community. If you are one of these people, what nourished your own interest in becoming a researcher? Almost always, the answer is specific individuals who inspired you through their scholarship, outreach and mentoring. Maybe you would also find it rewarding to inspire and empower others, knowing that it would benefit our society? But even thinking about things selfishly, doing outreach increases the visibility of your work, improves your communication skills and brings you unexpected opportunities. What's not to like?

If you think you are interested but aren't sure where to begin or are worried about the time commitment, look to partner with existing organizations that have already developed infrastructure so that you can focus on developing content. These same organizations have experienced people who can guide you. One great place to start is the STEAM Factory, which is dedicated to creating interdisciplinary connections between scholars and to sharing the fruits of those connections with the community. But this is just one example, and you can find many more through the Office of Outreach and Engagement.

Sample Engaged Scholarship

Here are several examples that were led by Voelker and OBrien:

2023 SciAccess Annual Report

SciAccess won the 2024 NASA Space Tech Catalyst Prize, a $25,000 award honoring SciAccess contributions to the growth of diverse innovators, researchers, and entrepreneurs in space technology.

AstroAccess has conducted seven Zero-Gravity flights in which disabled researchers lead experiments dedicated to advancing accessible space vehicle design. Watch Good Morning America coverage of one of these microgravity missions.

Peer-reviewed publication on AstroAccess in Acta Astronautica

SciAccess work has been shared through numerous international platforms, including the United Nations, NASA, the International Astronautical Congress, the European Astronomical Society, PBS, New York Times, and the International Astronomical Union, which published this paper on SciAccess.