AAAS 2020 meeting CaSP reflections

In February 2020 members of CaSP traveled to Seattle, WA for the 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting. The theme of 2020’s meeting was “Envisioning Tomorrow’s Earth,” and included talks and plenaries from experts in wide ranging fields like artificial intelligence, gene editing, food security, STEM education, and social policies. We asked CaSPers who attended to share some of their thoughts about the event and, unsurprisingly, received a diverse set of experiences and takeaways. AAAS 2021 will be next February in Phoenix, AZ, and we hope to see you there!

Sam Anderson, former CaSP Co-President and Central Hub Co-chair for NSPN

This year I was honored to participate on a panel where I presented the work CaSP has done over the past few years on forensic science reform in Wisconsin. The panel was titled “Science is Political, Not Partisan: Best Practices for Science Policy Advocates,” and it included NSPN leadership Holly Mayton (Director of Membership) as organizer and Eric Lee (Western Hub Co-Chair) as another presenter. 2020 was my fourth year attending the AAAS Annual Meeting on behalf of CaSP, and it was enlightening to be on the other side as a presenter. I witnessed how much work goes into organizing a short session in an enormous meeting when there are 15 parallel sessions. I was pleasantly surprised to see people packing the room at 8am to the extent where there was standing room only waiting to hear what Eric, Ali Nouri (Federation of American Scientists), and I had to say about getting involved with science policy. 

I spoke primarily about how CaSP transitioned from being a group learning about science policy to actually doing local policy work. This forensic science reform project was spearheaded by Jennifer Bratburd and Kassi Crocker, but it was inspired by a number of encouraging mentors along the way. CaSP educated the campus community through events, wrote a memo that was nationally recognized, and became a member of a non-profit governing board. It was a multi-year process and had its successes and failures. The main lesson we learned is that by putting all of the stakeholders in the same room, we were able to facilitate real progress. 

Marie Fiori, CaSP Co-President

This was my first AAAS meeting, and I really didn’t know what to expect going in. As an active member of CaSP who hopes to craft a career in science policy, I was excited to learn as much as I could about the AAAS’s Science and Technology Policy Fellowships. There were a ton of sessions on those and other fellowships, including a growing number of science policy fellowships at the state level. After spending my first few days at the meeting learning all that I could about these opportunities, it hit me that I am at least two (but probably more) years away from applying for any of these fellowships! At that point, I started looking more broadly at the meeting program.

I’m in my fourth year of graduate school in a pretty niche field (studying the way organic molecules pack together in non-crystalline solids), one that I didn’t expect to see well represented at a general meeting like AAAS. My assumption was correct, but I realized that there were a lot of other scientific sessions that I couldn’t wait to attend. I’m so happy that I did– I learned about the tools being used to assess racial gerrymandering, carbon capture technology in agriculture, and some of the latest views in the evolution of humans across the world. While the AAAS meeting didn’t necessarily advance my own research (though I did get to present a poster!), it did remind me that I really like science! Until the conference, I hadn’t realized that I was feeling a little burnt out in my research. Hearing about the fascinating work that people were doing outside my field data helped me get excited about my own science again. 

Edna Chiang, Microbiology Doctoral Training Program, Department of Bacteriology

This was my first time attending the AAAS Annual Meeting and my experience surpassed any expectations I had. I learned an incredible amount about science communication and science policy, but two specific lessons stand out. First is to leverage your network. I did this through science twitter, where I stumbled upon an opportunity to participate in the blog ComSciConversations. This blog is part of ComSciCon, a series of communicating science workshops held across the nation for graduate students. ComSciConversations is publishing a series highlighting ComSciCon alumni at the AAAS Annual Meeting and they needed interviewers and interviewees at the meeting. As a ComSciCon-Chicago alum, I jumped at this opportunity. This was a great way to meet other grad students passionate about science communication, learn how to interview a scientist, and practice science journalism writing.

My second lesson learned from AAAS was to be brave and push yourself out of your comfort zone. I did this by attending a town hall and mustering up enough courage to ask a question, something I had never done before at a conference. The town hall was a panel-style discussion about how to balance science with concerns about national security, a topic I’ve been vocal about since my summer science policy internship. I asked the panel, “How can graduate students contribute to this discussion and help?” While they were happy to see grad students interested in this topic, they didn’t share many tips on how we can actively contribute. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I received a message on Science Twitter inviting me to do a video interview as part of the AAAS Science Beyond Borders project! This was the exact initiative I was looking for: a program that gives scientists a voice in the discussion and engages policymakers, higher education leadership, and other stakeholders. Had I not challenged myself to do something new and ask a question, I would have never encountered this opportunity. This AAAS Annual Meeting reinvigorated my interest in science communication and policy. You can be sure that at next year’s meeting, I’ll continue to leverage my network and challenge myself to be brave.

Chris Unterberger, CaSP Outreach Chair

I attended the AAAS Annual Meeting for a few reasons: to present my research, take a trip to Seattle, and travel with my colleagues to a career-relevant conference. I didn’t know what to expect, but my first AAAS Annual Meeting started off strong. The first session I attended—Science During Crisis—welcomed me warmly. The session’s panel included Gary Machlis, Amanda Vernon, a neuroscientist at MIT currently at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Rita Colwell, the first female director of the National Science Foundation under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The panel was about science during crisis response efforts. For example, World War II and the Manhattan Project, the Ebola Epidemic, Hurricanes Sandy and Maria, and the Deepwater Horizon cleanup efforts all leaned on science to form solutions. However, because many response plans have slow and uncoordinated systems in place, the panel argued that a system of collaboration between disciplines, understanding of uncertainty, and codes of conduct should be established by a central federal organization to properly respond to the next crisis. Drs. Machlis and Colwell co-authored the policy recommendation that they handed out at the session. In it they demand an expansion of federal, state, and local emergency funding for science during crisis. They also call for emergency response joint training among communities and a centralized clearing house for scientific research during time-sensitive missions. Federal agencies and universities must expedite administrative requirements and states should create a Chief Scientific Officer position to facilitate science during crises. Additionally, the authors want the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to refine the language on the use of science and technology during rescue and rebuild efforts to align with the above recommendations. Finally, these policy recommendations should create a clearer lens for the public to see scientists working to solve a material and immediate problem in the world. As Dr. Vernon stated: there is a hunger for information during crises. Somebody will feed the public regardless of their credentials. It is our responsibility as scientists to feed the public with correct and thoroughly vetted information.

The second panel that I attended addressed how to discuss climate change using science, culture, and religion. Susan Power Bratton, Vijaya Nagarajan, and Todd Mitchell kicked off the session by acknowledging the Native peoples on whose land we were able to meet to discuss the topic, namely the Swinomish people of the Pacific Northwest. Dr. Bratton focused on how Christianity has slowly transformed from a religion principally opposed to acknowledging climate change to a group of leaders who have embraced the fight against it by actions such as installing solar panels on a number of churches in London and building the first completely LEED-certified theological building at Baylor University. Dr. Nagarajan discussed how the Hindi people respect the practice of “feeding a thousand souls.” This practice gives food to non-human living beings through activities such as gardening or kolam rituals  so as to nourish the earth with more living beings like microorganisms and insects. Mr. Mitchell showed us the ways local tribes like the Swinomish in the region use Native fishing, hunting, and scavenging methods to reduce their impact on the environment and protect their ancestral lands. He also stressed the importance of educating the next generation of Swinomish tribespeople on how to best combat climate change through their practices. The session left me with thoughts on how I can leverage my own beliefs to address climate change.

I didn’t expect to hear from a former director of the NSF or a Swinomish tribe scientist. I’m inspired by what this large group of scientists has accomplished. I have high expectations and excitement for next year’s conference in Phoenix!

April MacIntyre, CaSP Communications Chair

2020 is the Year of International Plant Health and I was excited that AAAS 2020 featured many strong food security related sessions. Two of the sessions made an impression on me. The first session was Sustainable Agriculture: Launching Standardized Microbial Ecosystems. The speakers (Jo Handelsman, Kirsten Hofmockel, and Trent Northern) focused primarily on developing model microbiome systems and libraries for agronomy research and seemed to be funded from bioenergy and biotech sources. Of particular curiosity were Trent’s cute EcoFab systems (magenta boxes with an isolated microbe and plant) optimized for studying microbial relationships in a repeatable, standardized way using robotics and outsourcing. This was interesting, but I wasn’t sure how these models could directly be applied agronomically since they were quite simplified and since most microbes mined in microbiome studies are unculturable. When I asked if any of this research was being applied towards developing faster suppressive soils (monocultural fields where disease has been suppressed over time), they admitted that this was a much more complicated system than their models could address at the time.  

I also attended Food of the Future: Developing New, Sustainable, and Healthy Sources. Hiroshi Ezura from Tsukuba University discussed his creation of genetically modified GABA-overproducing tomatoes to lower blood pressure. Hiroshi’s tomatoes were neat and have successfully been negotiated to the market. However, more importantly, I thought he very skillfully presented the difference between GMO and GM crops, which have been difficult to regulate separately since GM crops are frequently confused with GMO crops. To explain the difference he showed a single slide demonstrating the main difference between GM and GMO crops, which is the number of genes (GM crops have 33401-1+1=33,401 genes vs. GMO crops have  33401+1=33,402 genes).

Reflection piece compiled and edited by CaSP Communications Chair April MacIntyre