This winter I escaped the cold Michigan winter to attended and presented a poster at the 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas. As a fourth year Ph.D. student, this was not my first conference rodeo, but the AAAS Annual Meeting, is not your average conference.
The AAAS is the largest multidisciplinary scientific society in the world. With the meeting’s theme of ‘Advancing Science: Discovery to Application’ as a rough guideline, the seminar topics ranged from the microbiome to sustainable cities to astrophysics. Taking advantage of the breadth of expertise at the conference, I spent my days stepping out of my academic comfort zone. I learned about efforts to use data from personal fitness trackers to assess the recovery of surgical patients, what statisticians believe went wrong in the 2016 election predictions, the impact of the phytobiome on crop production, and progress on using genomic data for precision medicine. The conference also boasted an impressive list of of plenary lecturers, including NASA’s Ellen Ochoa, Cori Bargmann from The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, renowned science communicator Katharine Hayhoe, and last (but definitely not least), Vice President Joe Biden.
While fascinating, at times I found the diversity and size of the conference overwhelming. However, I soon began noticing consistent themes cropping up in many presentations. First, was a call to develop cooperative and interdisciplinary approaches to solve big problems. In the era of big data, few labs, if any, have the resources to generate, analyze, and apply their findings without the help of other research groups. Because of the gravity of issues facing our society today, many scientists who are leaders in their respective fields were calling for collaboration across fields, institutes, and borders. There was also discussion of what cultural shifts need to take place in the academic community so that contributions to large integrative projects are given proper acknowledgement. For example, with current hiring and promotion decision often resting on the number of first/last author publications and primary PI grants, early career scientists are often deterred from collaborative work. Similarly, with competition to publish first and to get grants funded so fierce, sharing data and/or resources is often avoided.
Another noteworthy theme to emerge from the conference was one that MSU’s Environmental Science and Policy Program emphasizes in its curriculum, the importance of science communication. Whether it was communicating across science disciplines, to policy makers, or to a non-scientific public, scientists at the AAAS are clearly concerned about the difficulties surrounding science communication.
Attending the AAAS conference is like seeing a performance version of Science Magazine’s top breakthroughs of the year. To see the advances and challenges facing researching working at the edges of their fields is both captivating and exciting. Because working on a Ph.D. typically means digging deep into a very specific problem, it is easy to forget the big picture and even why you wanted a Ph.D. in the first place. At the AAAS conference, I was reminded why 15 year old me wanted to become a scientist. Because nature is amazing and by learning more about it we can hopefully make someone’s life a little bit better.
Thanks to ESPP for generously funding my trip to the AAAS meeting.
Christina Azodi is an ESPP and Plant Biology doctoral student. Her trip to Austin was funded in part by ESPP’s Interdisciplinary Conference Travel Grants. For more information on the grants and how to apply, go to http://espp.msu.edu/education/travelfunds_2018_final.pdf