Snuggling up with Science Reporters at the AAAS Meeting

Earthzine Science Writer Sarah Frazier recently attended the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago. The science on display ranged from the finer nuances of climate change impacts to sweeping surveys of the American population and grand plans for pandemic preparedness across the globe.

I recently attended the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago. The meeting, from Feb. 13-17, featured dozens of symposia, five plenary speakers, an exhibit hall, and poster sessions.

The science I saw on display ranged from the finer nuances of climate change impacts to sweeping surveys of the American population and grand plans for pandemic preparedness across the globe. I met science journalists who were physics undergraduates turned science writers (like me) and those who had spent the better part of their careers knee-deep in research before turning to science communications. I attended a party whose guest list included a 67-million-year-old Tyranosaurus Rex. Read on for most interesting parts of what I learned, what I saw, and who I met.

I can truthfully say this is the first time I’ve taken a mirror selfie wearing a press badge. Credit: Sarah Frazier and mirror at the Swissotel Chicago

I can truthfully say this is the first time I’ve taken a mirror selfie wearing a press badge. Credit: Sarah Frazier and mirror at the Swissotel Chicago

Friday

Friday was my first day of attending sessions. After picking my way across an icy bridge over the frozen Chicago River (big adjustment for this native Texan), I picked up my press badge and made my way to “The Big Thaw: Impacts on Health of Marine Mammals and Indigenous People in the Arctic.”

The symposium offered a fascinating perspective on climate change. So much of our discussion is focused on mid-latitude effects or using polar bears as the poster animal for a changing climate — but there’s so much more to consider. Dozens of species are struggling because of the lack of ice that climate change is causing, but the melting ice is actually making things easier on some migratory animals. On the other hand, the changing environment is contributing to novel illnesses in marine mammals, which is compromising food security for indigenous people in the Arctic. It was mind-boggling to hear about how one thing—melting ice—can change so many outcomes in one ecosystem. I took a lot of good notes, so be on the lookout for additional coverage.

In the afternoon, I headed out to another symposium about scientific research preparedness in the face of pandemic, “48 Hours to Save the World.”

Usually, the first effort made by national health agencies when faced with a pandemic is focused on public health. Important as that is, initiating a timely research response is key to more effective patient treatment and preparations for future outbreaks. However, research is often limited by the unavailability of scientists on short notice, lack of infrastructure, and difficulty getting data for large-scale studies. As in many Earth observation projects, data sharing restrictions are a huge issue that hinders research. One of the speakers, Nicole Lurie of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told us that 40 percent of children who died in hospital in the 2009 H1N1 outbreak succumbed to MRSA—not the flu. With easier access to medical data and quicker research response, revelations like that could come in time for public health officials to make a difference in the outcome.

We had a mentor/student orientation session later in the afternoon. It was awesome to meet so many science writers who were willing to mentor students and new writers. We heard from Maggie Koerth-Baker, freelancer and science editor at BoingBoing, about the challenges of an online writing career — definitely interesting material.

Friday evening was the Kavli Science Journalism Awards reception at the Field Museum. I’ve never visited Chicago before, so I was excited to be able to visit the museum. Of course, we couldn’t really go to any of the exhibits, but just seeing the enormous size of the building was enough to make me want to go back. (Also, did I mention they have their own dinosaur-themed beer?)

National Association of Science Writers Undergraduate Travel Fellows at the Field Museum. Image Credit: Kelsey Kennedy.

National Association of Science Writers Undergraduate Travel Fellows at the Field Museum. Image Credit: Kelsey Kennedy.

Saturday

Saturday was my day to hang out in the newsroom and talk to other science reporters. In the afternoon, my fellowship program hosted an internship fair for us. It was exciting to be able to chat with editors from so many amazing organizations and publications.

Alan Alda spoke Saturday evening on science communication, and I heard it was wonderful. Appropriate to Valentine’s Day weekend, he compared science communication with stages of falling in love. People were tweeting about it all weekend—this sketchnote by Twitter user @sldewit gives an overview of his main themes.

There was another party on Saturday night, this time hosted by Chicago Science Writers. It’s starting to sound like journalists do nothing but socialize at these things, right?

Sunday

I was able to attend another session Sunday morning on the relationship between science and religious communities. The principal investigation was performed by Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist at my school, Rice University, so it was doubly interesting.

For anyone who’s curious, the results are encouraging. About 38 percent of respondents to Dr. Ecklund’s survey said that they think science and religion can collaborate. That’s more than the 35 percent who said that they are independent from one another and more than the approximately 27 percent who think that science and religion are in conflict. Her analysis is still in the preliminary stages, but the information from this survey has the potential to change the conversation between scientists and religious communities.

I had a great time and learned a lot at AAAS this year, and I definitely hope to return.