Day 4: Scenes from St. Louis

Attendees spent a lot of time in science and policy sessions watching presentations and listening to plenary lectures in the conference center and surrounding hotels. Then there’s the exhibit halls and public programs such as Family Science Day occurring simultaneously. But a few more people and places caught my eye (and ear) in the past couple of days.

View a gallery of scenes from the meeting

We’re heading home tonight. Thanks for reading.—Rachel Petkewich, filed at 7:56 am CST
Photos by Rachel Petkewich

Day 4: Kroto on Science Communication

Chemistry Nobel Laureate Sir Harold Kroto told the audience at yesterday’s “Science Communication for All” symposium that he went to secondary school with the renowned actor, Sir Ian McKellen. “I taught Sir Ian everything he knows,” Kroto joked before launching into the most vibrant and engaging talk I’ve seen at AAAS.

Kroto is worried about how people perceive science, particularly in the U.S. “I think you’ve got a massive problem in this country,” he said. To illustrate his point, Kroto showed a clip from C-SPAN of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) speaking to a group of teenagers. A young man asks Lott what advice he has for aspiring politicians. Lott tells the teenager to make the most of his education, adding that the U.S. has wonderful educational resources.

The exchange seems pretty rote until Lott adds that he thinks the four years of math and science he was required to take as a student was “a waste of time and a waste of space.” The assembled teens applaud, and Lott suggests that economics, typing, or music might be more valuable.

“What a lot of crap,” declared Kroto, articulating what seemed to be the sentiment of the symposium’s attendees.

Kroto went on to discuss his work with the Vega Science Trust (C&EN, May 6, 2002, page 53), which broadcasts free science programs over the Internet. The project, he hopes, will help to dispel the misconceptions youngsters have about science and scientists.

Kroto has traveled round the world speaking to children as part of the Vega project. He closed his talk with a video from a trip he took to Malaysia in which a several of the gathered children balance buckyball molecular models on their heads.—Bethany Halford, filed at 8:20 AM CST

Day 3: Family Science Day

Kids of all ages, from toddlers through grandparents, braved unusually cold temperatures to attend AAAS’s free public event, which began yesterday and concludes today in the America’s Center.

At registration for Family Science Day, each kid gets a bouncy ball that lights up and makes noise and ricochets in many directions. On the Science Stage, a different show premiers every hour. I saw the first one, called “Cloud Nine,” where an educator from demonstrated how to make a cloud in a bottle: Add a little water, a bit of smoke as “seed particles,” and close the bottle. Adding pressure by squeezing the bottle creates clouds that impressed the kids. But the spectators were more intrigued by “fossilized raindrops.” Spray a little water in some cornstarch, filter off the cornstarch and voila—the droplets can be stored in a bag!

Famsciday1 [SCIENCE STAGE In the Cloud Nine show, people comprise a bar graph that shows how the temperature has dropped in the past few days. Photo by Rachel Petkewich]

Visitors also stopped at various booths. For example, people from the Aerospace Systems Lab of Washington University in St. Louis demonstrated how a large spacecraft moves around a smaller one. Monsanto brought a bus that visits local elementary schools and is called “My Investigation Station,” complete with biological specimens and a kid-sized climbing cave. Volunteers from the St. Louis Zoo discussed burying beetles, which have red spots that distinguish them from other beetles. But the longest line formed near the “roadway.” The St. Louis Science Center marked a winding road on the floor where visitors could test out a Segway.

But what is that dull roar in the background? Not a Segway. Lions from the zoo? More like thumping bass. I investigated and discovered that Family Science Day shared a wall with a motocross pit party. That’s where fans paid $10 admission to meet their favorite motocross riders and pick up motocross-related freebies before the Amp’d Mobile Supercross series competition kicked off at the Edward Jones Dome next to the America’s Center. Family Science Day had a steady stream of visitors, but nothing like the 45,000 motocross fans expected at the Dome.—Rachel Petkewich, filed at 7:54 AM CST

Day 3: Thinking About Title IX

AAAS has a reputation for addressing provocative policy issues at their annual meetings, and this year is no exception. I spent yesterday afternoon in a thought-provoking symposium, “Assessing the STEM Enterprise Through Title IX.”

I had always thought Title IX only applied to college athletics, but the language of the law is quite general: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be...denied the benefits of...any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Debra Rolison, the symposium’s moderator and a chemist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, wrote a guest editorial in C&EN several years ago (March 13, 2000, page 5), in which she boldly asked: “Is it time to convince Congress to “Title IX” U.S. chemistry departments for their entrenched inability to increase the number of women represented on their faculties? In other words, should federal funds be withheld from those universities that do not increase their faculty hires to reflect the pool of U.S.-granted chemistry Ph.D.s—one-third of whom are women?”

Rolison’s challenge generated quite a bit of controversy, and in the six years since that editorial, her suggestion has gained traction within government. This symposium set out to provide a forum for discussing Title IX compliance for university faculty.

Although the symposium was intended for all disciplines, it paid particular attention to chemistry. AAAS’s Chemistry Section sponsored the forum, and two eminent chemists—Harvard’s George Whitesides and Stanford’s Richard Zare—were among the speakers. Other prominent chemists were in the audience and engaged in some spirited discussion.

It’s easy to see why chemists should be paying attention. The statistics in our discipline illustrate Rolison’s point perfectly. More than one-third of chemistry Ph.D.s go to women these days, yet women hold only 13% of tenure-track faculty positions in the top 50 chemistry departments. They are making gains at a glacial pace.

The numbers indicate that we’ve addressed the pipeline problem for the most part. Women are getting advanced degrees in chemistry. Even so, there’s still something entrenched in academia that’s keeping these qualified women out of the faculty club. Under Title IX, universities bear the burden of fixing this problem or risk losing federal dollars.

The panel and audience had some intriguing thoughts on why we weren’t seeing gains in the number of women faculty, despite the pipeline of talented female Ph.D. chemists. They also discussed ways to address the problem. I can’t say they reached any consensus beyond the recognition that there is, indeed, a problem. And it’s one that’s going to take some creative thinking to fix.—Bethany Halford, filed at 7:21 AM CST

Day 2: Tchotchke Roundup

Although few journalists write about it, the exhibition hall is a big draw at meetings like AAAS’s. The exhibition offers a break from cerebral symposia and brings vendors and their clients together. It also provides a good opportunity for conferees to check out government programs, new literature, equipment, and certainly the best place to grab a spare pen (or 10). So we decided to take a spin around the exhibition hall and take stock of the tchotchkes exhibitors are using to lure people to their booths.

Although the AAAS exhibition is modest compared to the hangar-sized halls of Pittcon or ACS national meetings, we still left with a respectable haul. Pens were popular, and we snagged more than a dozen without effort. We also slipped away with some sweets to elevate our flagging blood sugar. We liked the maple candies that the Canada Research Chairs provided. Germane and delicious, eh?

Tchotchkes[OUR HAUL Looks like we’ll need to make room in our suitcases]

Our favorite freebies: The National Science Foundation’s poster designed to attract girls to science and engineering. Titled “New Formulas for America’s Workforce,” it features colorful drawings of objects like a cell phone, a shoe, a ladder, and a hot air balloon, each tagged with the words “Created by a scientist.” We were also keen on the snazzy red water bottles offered by the Canada Research Chairs. And the folks at L’Oreal did their best to keep the attendees blemish-free with samples of acne treatment fluid.

On the basis of a couple of informal interviews and many squeals of delight in the aisles, we determined that the most popular tchotchke of the day was without a doubt Toxie—a small stuffed cat given away at the National Library of Medicine’s booth. Toxie’s job was to promote NLM’s Environmental Health & Toxicology database. Attendees at the exhibit hall had Toxie mania, and snapped up all of the cute kitties before we could get one.

Toxie[TOXIE So popular, and loving the camera.]

We were completely charmed by these Giant Microbes at the National Academies’ booth. They aren’t free, but they are photogenic. Clockwise from bottom left: Mad Cow, The Flu, Bookworm, Sore Throat, Martian Life, and The Common Cold.


—Bethany Halford & Rachel Petkewich, filed at 11:50 AM CST
All photos by Rachel Petkewich

Day 2: Reflecting on award-winning research

The Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) is a real publication. The same group that produces the magazine annually weeds through more than 5,000 nominations to find 10 winners for the Ig Nobel Prizes. To date, 150 Ig Nobels have been bestowed, all in rather spirited ceremonies in a prestigious hall at Harvard University. Last night, I attended an event hosted by AIR for AAAS meeting attendees. It’s a decade-plus tradition of noting selections from previous years. Only attendees who got to the room early got seats, but that didn’t deter people from lining the walls or plopping down on the floor for the duration of the laugh-out-loud event.

Marc Abrahams, who edits AIR and hosted the AAAS session, says the research of Ig Nobel winners first makes people laugh and then makes them think. “What they think is up to them,” he adds.

As reported in C&EN this past fall, the 2005 Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to a team who determined that humans swim at the same speed in water as they do in maple syrup. Last night, two sets of witty 2002 Ig Nobel winners discussed their work.

First up, Theo Gray. He won the 2002 Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry for creating a periodic table table: a piece of furniture suitable for meetings shaped like the periodic table. In fact, each square contains a sample of the element in the table. He brought along an 11-lb sample of tungsten and mentioned that after he won the award, Oliver Sacks, came to see it. (Sacks’s book “Uncle Tungsten” contains passages that Gray attributes as indirect inspiration for his project.) Despite a collection of about 1,000 samples of the elements, Gray is still looking for a good piece of technetium.

The 2002 winners of the Ig Nobel Prize in Literature have something chemists who have bought used textbooks full of highlights might be interested to know. Vicki Silvers Gier and David Kreiner at Central Missouri State University published a research paper called “The Effects of Pre-existing Inappropriate Highlighting on Reading Comprehension.” Their research shows that if the previous book owner highlighted unimportant stuff, the new owner wouldn’t learn as well. Keep in mind, however, that test subjects provided with appropriately highlighted materials didn’t necessarily pass their tests either. Kreiner mentioned that he had met another researcher who replicated their study, and Gier said teachers who educate other teachers note (but do not necessarily highlight) their award-winning research.

—Rachel Petkewich, filed at 8:11 AM CST

Day 1: Facts And Figures

The halls of the America’s Center started to bustle early this morning as attendees scooted into scientific sessions, policy discussions, and the exhibit halls. Here are a few details about the meeting that attendees don’t necessarily learn in sessions.

  • History: AAAS is one of the oldest scientific societies in the U.S. It was founded in Philadelphia in 1848.
  • Public access: All plenary and topical lectures are free to the public. Family Science Days run on Saturday and Sunday at the America’s Center (more on that to come.) AAAS estimates more than 5,000 people will attend the meeting. Approximately 700 journalists from around the world are expected to be taking notes and hunting for power outlets, elusive prey with so many laptops in use.
  • Content: On average, AAAS says 60–65% of the proposed symposia ultimately become part of the meeting. This year’s meeting has a record number of symposia—almost 200!
  • Sleeping: About 2,000 hotel (sleeping) rooms are needed to house everyone associated with the meeting.
  • Java: AAAS will serve more than 525 gallons of coffee during the meeting. A gallon provides about 20 cups, so that’s more than 10,000 cups.

—Rachel Petkewich, filed at 12:49 PM CST

Day 1: Grand Challenges, Great Opportunities

The theme of this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting is "Grand Challenges, Great Opportunities." As I glance over my schedule for the next few days, it occurs to me that my most pressing grand challenge is to decide which of the nearly 200 symposia to attend.

If you’ve never been to a AAAS meeting, you may not know that they’re unique in the breadth of science represented. It’s the sort of meeting where you can hear about women in industrial research, climate change, and how insects fly—all within the space of a single morning. "Opportunities abound in this meeting to stretch ourselves, to learn something in fields other than our own," said AAAS President Gilbert S. Omenn at last night’s plenary lecture. I confess that for me it’s a refreshing change from most scientific meetings. I always leave a AAAS meeting with reenergized interest in science.

This year’s meeting has a special place in my heart because it’s being held in my hometown of St. Louis. AAAS hasn’t held its annual meeting in St. Louis since 1952. For a bit of perspective, in 1952 Harry Truman was president (he was the only Missourian to hold the office), Jonas Salk produced the first polio vaccine, and C&EN’s current editor-in-chief hadn’t been born yet. That’s quite an absence for a town that considers itself on the cutting edge of science.

Yeah, I know, most people don’t think of St. Louis as a scientific powerhouse, but there is a large scientific and medical community here. In fact, at last night’s plenary, meeting attendees were greeted by three leaders of the city’s scientific enterprise—Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden; Mark S. Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University; and Hugh Grant, chair and CEO of Monsanto, who pointed out that St. Louis is literally the center of agricultural science. Half of all U.S. agriculture is within a 500-mile radius of the city, he said. "You’re right in the middle of a really big piece of farmland."

The city, for its part, seems to be getting into the spirit of the meeting. There are AAAS signs around the meeting venue, and local weather seems intent on expressing its opinion on the climate change symposia. When I arrived at 1 PM on Thursday, it was a humid 70 degrees. A few hours later, heavy storms pelted parts of the city with three-inch hail. By the time I finished dinner, the temperature had dropped more than 40 degrees.

I just hope the city remains silent about the symposium entitled "Tremors in the Heartland: The Puzzle of Mid-Continent Earthquakes."—Bethany Halford, filed at 7:22 AM CST

About This Weblog

Daily dispatches from the AAAS 2006 Annual Meeting by Chemical & Engineering News reporters Bethany Halford and Rachel Petkewich.


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