An Engineering Student’s Summer of Misinformation

September 29, 2020

BME PhD student Khari Johnson explored how misinformation affects people's receptivity to health initiatives

This story originally appeared on Duke's Interdisciplinary Studies site. 

Khari Johnson

Khari Johnson

Khari Johnson came to Duke to translate his love of science into engineering that can change the way medicine serves people. As a Ph.D. student in Biomedical Engineering preparing to write his dissertation proposal, he anticipated spending the summer of 2020 continuing his work on materials to be used in medical contexts. When the pandemic intervened, Johnson tapped into Duke’s pledge to provide summer employment opportunities for all Ph.D. students who needed them.

He secured a virtual internship with RTI International to assess how misinformation affects people’s receptivity to health initiatives. Guided by Brian Southwell, director of RTI’s Science in the Public Sphere program (and an adjunct faculty member at Duke), and Sarah Ray, communication scientist, Johnson worked with researchers who were interested in finding relationships between news coverage, social media patterns, online searches, and behavior related to medicine and well-being.

With collaborators in RTI’s Women’s Global Health Imperative, Johnson helped develop a survey of clinical researchers in various African countries regarding their perceptions of how medical misinformation is spread.Khari Johnson and Brian Southwell during the 12th Annual RTI Internship Showcase

Thanks to a relationship between RTI’s Science in the Public Sphere program and the public television show NOVA, Johnson also contributed to a project to increase minority representation in STEM. “I got the privilege to work with NOVA Science Studio and assist with their efforts in hopefully starting a webinar/workshop series,” he said. He explained that the goal is “to get high schoolers from diverse backgrounds interested in science and STEM, building science literacy early on so we can improve their representation.”

During the 12th Annual RTI Internship Showcase on August 7, attended by more than 150 people, Johnson said he hopes this work will help improve access to health improvements. “We can be doing a better job as far as expanding and diversifying the voices that are being presented [to reach a range of communities],” he said.

Looking back on the summer, Johnson highlighted the value of collaborative research. “For me, the biggest takeaway was that you can always find [people with] similar passions in the place you least expected it, and building on those collaborations can be very fruitful.”

Read his essay for NOVA, Finding My Voice.

Click here to read the full article featured on the Interdisciplinary Studies site.