Reflections on the AAAS 2019 meeting

Some of the CaSP members at AAAS 2019. Left to right: Jenny Bratburd, Sam Anderson, Caitlin Warlick-Short, Shannon Walsh, Grant Hisao, April MacIntyre, Amanda Hurley, Michael Bellecourt, David Lung

In February, twelve members of CaSP attended the 2019 AAAS meeting in Washington, DC. We hosted a CaSP recap event after the conference where various members presented on some of the cool things they learned. To complement our event, several members of CaSP also graciously agreed to reflect on what they took away from AAAS 2019 for the blog.

Amanda Hurley, Ph.D, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Dept of Plant Pathology

I attended the AAAS conference to learn more about the enterprise of science i.e. the state of science, how to make it better, and how to use it to inform policy. Furthermore, AAAS is an excellent conference for networking. My favorite session, given by Dr. Alan Leshner, was “Critical steps toward modernizing graduate STEM education.” I’ve felt for awhile now that graduate school isn’t functioning well because the training we receive isn’t suited for the jobs that most of us will acquire. Dr. Leshner outlined the current problems and described a recent report by the National Academies of Science to modernize grad education. This report focuses on explicitly training students in leadership, management, and communication rather than just protocols and powerpoints. The crucial requirement for change, however, is to shift professorial incentive structure away from publications and notoriety, which seems like a daunting task. One option is to emphasize mentoring outputs in federal grants.

In another “scientific integrity” session I attended, I learned that abstracts containing “spin” on scientific results are perpetuated in the media. To rephrase, the misleading hype about science in popular news could be coming from the very words that we use to enhance, or oversell, our own results. While grant writing rarely sees the light of day and requires a competitive edge, I hope to be really critical of my own published works so I don’t perpetuate mistruths. If I was to run a session next year, I would assemble a panel on the breakdown between science and journalism. The panel would focus on how we can groups of professionals can be more rigorous about what we write to prevent the erosion of trust in our institutions.

Sam Anderson, Integrated Program in Biochemistry, Department of Biochemistry

I have attended the AAAS Annual Meeting for the last three years because it is a place where I can be openly excited about science policy. There are people of all ages and disciplines who care about making sure our Congresspeople have the information needed to make many of the hard decisions required to lead a country. My interest specifically lies in science diplomacy, which is how science can inform international relations and soften negotiations. The base theory of science diplomacy states that if everyone starts from the same base set of facts, global advancement, collaboration, and cooperation will begin much earlier. Hearing stories from the people who do this work in the State, Defense, and Agriculture departments only reignited my passions after a year with my head down in the day-to-day lab grind.

Grant Hisao, Ph.D, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Biochemistry

My favorite session at this year’s AAAS meeting was the final plenary talk by Dr. Lucy Jones. I personally enjoyed this talk because it was an example of how scientists and policymakers can work cooperatively on a plan that will ultimately benefit everyone. Dr. Jones, a former seismologist at the United States Geological Survey (USGS), shared her success story in helping to develop the Los Angeles Seismic Safety Plan. The plan, the result of a partnership between USGS and the City of Los Angeles, was comprised of a report produced by Dr. Jones’s team highlighting the impacts a major earthquake in the city would have and recommendations on how to anticipate such events. Her team created the report by developing a model of a disaster based on consensus science and then telling a concrete story based on that model. This story-telling made the model accessible to the policy makers, especially when talking about the effects of a future event. Dr. Jones’s success was a refreshing story of collaboration, and reminded me that our governmental system can work well and that we should all aspire toward similar outcomes in future policies.

David Lung, Cancer Biology Graduate Program, Department of Oncology

In the late stages of graduate school, the question that constantly follows graduate students is, “What are you doing next?” Since the middle of last year, I ultimately decided to pursue a career in science policy because I wanted to make an impact in science beyond the bench. However, many questions have since arisen that I haven’t been able to answer, including how skills I learned in graduate school translate to science policy and what topics in science policy interest me the most. I attended the AAAS meeting to learn how and what skills to develop to be successful in science policy, and also to learn about different areas of study within science policy.

To get the most comprehensive experience, I attended workshops that reviewed the basics of science policy and discussed skills that would enhance our effectiveness in the field. I also attended talks focusing on the current state of science education and advocacy, and sessions concerning a variety of topics such as science diplomacy. These sessions narrowed down my interests towards developing policies to advocate for science, specifically research funding. Further, I was surprised to learn that many skills I’ve learned in graduate school translate well to science policy, such as science communication. Of course, I still have more to develop like non-academic writing. My most meaningful experiences were talking with experts in science policy/communication and other graduate students who made the choice to transcend the academia-based culture of graduate school. I’ve always harbored a degree of guilt for not pursuing academia, and to be able to communicate my concerns and freely talk about advocating for science was incredibly refreshing. Overall, the AAAS meeting affirmed my resolve to continue pursuing a career in science policy, and I’m excited to be a more effective member of CaSP now that I have a better understanding of the field.

April MacIntyre, Microbiology Doctoral Training Program, Dept. of Plant Pathology

I attended AAAS 2019 for the networking opportunities and was not disappointed! The excellent camaraderie I’ve experienced over my several years working with CaSP inspired me to meet people in other science policy groups like the National Science Policy Network (NSPN). Not only did I meet more NSPN folks and other like-minded scientists, but, as a Niemark travel award recipient, I also had the pleasure of meeting Rush Holt at a networking breakfast. In general, the other AAAS attendees I met and interacted with were memorable and refreshing. At scientific conferences within my field conversations tend to be very narrow and heavily research focused. This is usually fine, but I was surprised to see how much I enjoyed talking to other scientists and experts who 1) have more experience interacting with the non-scientific public and 2) a greater diversity of knowledge outside of my field. I treasured my conversations with people who regularly think about the value of science to society as a whole, and why science is important to them personally. I loved having the opportunity to discuss the philosophy of science, how to improve the scientific infrastructure in the US, and the historical context for science policy and scientific values.

I was amazed at the breadth of the scientific sessions at AAAS and loved Robert Sapolsky’s talk about neuroscience and how our brain primes us to react in stressful situations. As a recent UW-Madison Delta teaching and learning certificate recipient, I also enjoyed a STEM education talk re-examining how people learn, and how to structure inclusive learning environments to best overcome the achievement gap.

Waiting for ice cream cake at the reception celebrating the anniversary of the creation of the periodic table of elements.