Thursday, October 17, 2013

Reflections on the AAAS Annual Meeting (back in Chicago this year!)

Here two of our postdoc PDA members from our Public Affairs committee share their experiences attending the AAAS annual meeting, from the last time it was held in Chicago.  The AAAS meeting is returning to Chicago this February, and the PDA would like to encourage all of our UChicago postdocs to attend!

  In 2009, during my second year of graduate school, some friends and I decided that we’d all attend the AAAS Annual Meeting that would be held in Chicago in February. It was 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin, and AAAS had chosen to honor the great thinker by designing its premier conference around the theme “Our Planet And Its Life: Origins and Futures”. The lineup of talks featured luminaries from the evolutionary biology community such as Sean Carroll and Svante Pääbo, as well as a special address by former Vice President Al Gore, who had recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for his environmental advocacy—not to mention an Oscar for the documentary An Inconvenient Truth. For us young scientists just a few miles away in Hyde Park, the chance to bask in the glow of so much intellectual star power proved irresistible.
                The meeting took place at the Hyatt conference center on Wacker Drive. Outside, the Chicago winter was in full swing, with frigid blasts of air roaring through downtown and turning sidewalks into ice sheets; but inside, the meeting created a carnival atmosphere. Our foursome wandered among the crowds of attendees, program guides in hand, badges pinned to our shirts, stopping to look into the seemingly endless gallery of rooms where the workshops and symposia were taking place. Going down an escalator, we found ourselves in an open exhibition space. Here there were booths and tables staffed by representatives from scientific societies, publishing companies, and sponsors. I stopped at one table piled with books and monographs on various topics and picked up a small tome on protein crystallography theory and practice, which I thought might help me learn more about the method that would become the primary focus of my dissertation project. Across the room, at the National Science Foundation table, I talked to a woman about her job in science policy and how she had gotten there. It turned out that a few years earlier, she had been in a lab with a friend of mine from college!
                The plenary lectures took place in the ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel, across from the Hyatt. Even though the space looked like it could fit perhaps a thousand people, we got there early to choose seats before the conference-goers arrived en masse. Sean Carroll stepped to the podium first, and presented his talk on the history and future of evolutionary biology with the air of a master storyteller. He was followed by Al Gore, who gave a condensed version of his Inconvenient Truth seminar. The sense of anticipation in the room ahead of Gore’s talk was palpable, and when he concluded, he was met with enthusiastic applause that went on for nearly a minute.
                The experience of attending AAAS 2009 remains a very special memory for me. Having the conference back in Chicago in 2014 is a fantastic opportunity, and if you have the chance to go I would definitely recommend it. You’ll expand your scientific horizons, learn about important matters in science policy, perhaps investigate different career paths or make a new networking connection. But beyond these practical benefits, there’s something else you’ll get too. It’s the sense of community that arises from being around so many people who share your excitement and wonder at the natural world. After all, star power generates not just light, but also warmth.
--Kyle Dolan (Medicine)
       While in graduate school, I managed to get myself to the 2009 AAAS meeting by volunteering as a Session Aide.  In that role, I managed the checklist of speakers for two sessions and ensured that the room was unlocked, the microphones were on, and the speakers knew where to sit.  In exchange for those easy tasks, I got to attend the rest of the conference for free!  It was a fabulous opportunity, one that renewed my enthusiasm for the role of science in society. 
       Many of the scientific sessions were much more about the “big-picture” of science than I normally hear at conferences – about the future of new energy sources such as wind and solar, or the progress and challenges in developing batteries to support a “smart” electricity grid.  I attended a panel about Science Policy in which they speculated on the impact of the newly-elected President Obama’s stance on science.  Later, I sat in the overflow room to watch Al Gore present his argument for why scientists must get involved in changing public policy – I came home so fired up from his talk that I didn’t know what to do with myself.  A fellow UChicago grad student encouraged me to attend a luncheon sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, and together we talked with the leader of that esteemed organization over bites of finger food.  I later joined UCS and have enjoyed being a member ever since.  In the Exhibition Hall, I spoke with representatives from the NSF, NIH, and various national labs, and was invited by several to apply for postdoc positions in their organization (which is what I was hoping for all along).  I also got to learn about Chicago-area science organizations, such as C2ST, and meet the people who were behind them.
       So often, we scientists get caught in our narrow field of expertise and never look up.  The AAAS conference is a great way to lift your head and look around, meet movers and shakers in the broader community, and get excited again about making a contribution to the world.  We are fortunate to have the conference returning to Chicago in February 2014, and I hope many students and postdocs will be able to take advantage of it!
--Rebecca Pompano (Surgery)