Exploring Science Communication and Science Policy: My Trip to the AAAS Annual Meeting

by Rebecca Reesman

Upon beginning grad school people often have aspirations of being a professor at a university or being a researcher at a national lab. In the long run, less than half of physicists with PhDs will still be in academia, though many will be at national labs or working in industry. However, during my 3rd year of grad school I decided that physics research is not what I want to do long term.

After I complete my PhD, I plan to promote science and reasoning skills through a combination of policy development, education, and communication. My love for physics and mathematics has taught me a great deal about using data to make decisions. This is true whether it is about astrophysics or life. My dream is to help people understand and appreciate the world in which we live using science, data, and evidence-based reasoning. Being able to make sense of numbers, such as statistics, is important for thinking critically. Our country remains low in science education and high in innumeracy. Making learning and understanding science more accessible and desirable for the general public is a key component of my aspirations.

Consequently, I have been looking into many of the fellowships that are available for scientists to transition into policy. The big one is the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship. This fellowship takes PhD scientists and puts them in Washington DC to influence policy. There are two general tracks, the executive and the congressional track. The former offers you the chance to work in a national agency such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the Department of Energy (DOE), for example. The latter gives you the opportunity to work in a congressional office, assisting with science related issues. As a result I have decided I should familiarize myself with AAAS — which is the American Association for the Advancement of Science. AAAS is an international non-profit organization that, according to their website, seeks to “advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people.” AAAS is also the publisher of the prestigious journal Science. They are in the unique position of supporting all scientific fields whether it concerns policy issues, education, or enhancing communication between scientists, the public, and the government.  A short video about the fellowship program is included below.

Back in February I was able to attend the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago, Illinois. I was even fortunate enough to win the Joshua E. Neimark Memorial Travel Assistance Award from AAAS to present a poster on my research at the conference. The research I presented dealt with looking at gamma rays, or high-energy photons, interacting with ambient light from stars. This allows one to understand the history of when stars formed. Through this interaction I can also look for new particles interacting with gamma rays as they travel to detectors on/near Earth.

Chicago! The meeting was held at the Hyatt Regency hotel.

Given the size and scope of the conference, and the fact that the poster sessions were open to the public, I got to talk about my research with a wide array of people. This included talking to a high school biology teacher, something that doesn’t get to happen at a physics conference. It was very cool to share my research with people of such diverse backgrounds; the range of attendees allowed me to practice explaining my research at a multitude of levels.

Prior to this meeting I had only attended conferences and workshops that pertained to my subfield, astroparticle physics, and the differences were substantial. Workshops typically consist of 30-50 graduate students and post-docs. Conferences focusing on a particular subfield are likely to have a couple hundred attendees and consist of many technical talks. However, the AAAS Annual Meeting consisted of thousands of people from a wide array of backgrounds. It was far and away the biggest and most exciting scientific meeting that I have ever been to! There were technical talks in all sorts of fields from mathematics to biology, talks discussing getting more women in STEM fields, talks about the math of elections, and talks about the science of science fiction. A talk titled “Where’s my flying car? Science, science fiction, and a changing vision of the future” included Lawrence Krauss, a well known astrophysicist.

There were many talks about science communication, and in fact the first day of the conference was dedicated entirely to science communication! Session titles included “Engaging with Journalists,” “Engaging with Social Media,” (see video below!) and “Engaging with Public Programs.” The speakers have impressive resumes, including Paula Apsell who is the Senior Executive Producer of NOVA and NOVA scienceNOW on PBS, Danielle Lee who writes the Urban Scientist blog on Scientific American, and Ben Lillie who is the Director of The Story Collider.

I was particularly excited to see Danielle Lee there, as I have heard about her efforts of getting underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. In fact I spoke with her, one-on-one, afterwards and discussed some ways to improve the Society For Women in Physics group at OSU! She suggested we get in contact with STEM minority groups already established on campus, such as the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), and get involved with their activities. Here’s a link to watch all of the talks about science communication.

One evening I attended a mixer for past/current/future AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellows. This was an amazing opportunity that allowed me to learn about the exciting projects that fellows get to do. I made many connections through this event — this included meeting an alum of the Ohio State Physics Department, Gregory Mack, who is a current fellow working at the National Science Foundation. Greg gets to work on STEM outreach initiatives such as finding ways to convey new scientific findings to the public.

This conference got me excited for my future. I got to learn about more ways I can get involved in both science policy and science communication. I learned about companies that focus on bringing together scientists, policy-makers, and other stakeholders to facilitate dialogue on science-related policy issues. For example, a company called COMPASS holds workshops and training sessions for groups of scientists to develop these skills. Based on my experience attending this conference, I am excited about one day applying to the AAAS fellowship program, but I also learned about other opportunities to pursue a career that embraces science policy and science communication.

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About Rebecca Reesman

becca becca2My name is Becca Reesman and I am wrapping up my PhD in Physics at Ohio State! In 2009 I received my undergraduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University where I double majored in physics and statistics. I have a horse (Dandy) who has moved with me throughout my collegiate career; being able to ride on a regular basis has been an important part of my life.

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