Outstanding Talks, Weather, and Free Pens in Denver

Story and Photos by Jason Socrates Bardi

This week, Science Watch features a personal travel essay on the conference experience and the 2003 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world's largest general science organization and publishers of the journal Science. This year's meeting, the 169th, was held in Denver, Colorado.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

It is 8 AM and pouring rain when I get to the airport in San Diego. I take a commuter plane to LAX and, from there, a regular jet to Denver. Both legs of the trip are shaky. In fact, before we leave San Diego, the pilot announces, "I'm not going to lie to you—this is gonna be rough." And he is true to his word. When we deplane in L.A., we have to wade through several inches of standing water on the tarmac.

I make the trip worse by repeatedly telling myself that the same rain will reach Denver as snow a day or so after I do.

When I arrive in Denver, it's sunny, dry, in the low 60s, and, slight haze aside, it is gorgeous. How unbelievable that the weather in February is nicer in Denver than in San Diego.

By sheer coincidence, I discover I was on the same flight as Professor Floyd Bloom, who is chair of the Department of Neuropharmacology at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI). As the outgoing president of the AAAS, he has spent a year working on the details of this meeting and has more than a few responsibilities here, including delivering the opening plenary lecture and talking to members of the press throughout the weekend.

While waiting in the baggage claim area, he tells me that he just has to put the finishing touches on the speech he will deliver to open the meeting the following night, and that things should get easier from there—despite meetings and receptions throughout the weekend, starting with a 7 AM breakfast with members of the foreign press the very next day.

As we talk, the metal luggage carousel starts and I notice Bloom smile as he spots his suitcase rounding the carousel. "That's always a good sign," he says.

That night, my first task is to find a cyber cafe so that I can check my email. The concierge at my hotel tells me of one several blocks to the north and a few blocks west, and I walk there, happy to have my winter coat out of mothballs for once.

The cyber cafe is one in name only. The few old IBM clones they have are in a sort of antechamber beside the unisex restroom, and the barrista tells me that they haven't worked for months. So, on to Plan B. I ask him where the public library is.

"It's, like, pretty far from here," he says.


While I know of no statistics on such matters, the AAAS meeting is perhaps the largest event of the year for science writers. In 2001, for instance, about 1,100 of the over 5,000 people registered for that year's meeting in San Francisco wore press badges.

The National Association of Science Writers (NASW) piggybacks its annual meeting on the AAAS meeting every year as well. At the NASW meeting, hundreds of science writers gather for a morning and afternoon of workshops and meetings on every topic from reporting on climate change to helping scientists talk to the media. As much as I loathe the term "networking" I have to admit that these meetings are a rare opportunity to meet others who do largely the same thing as I do.

I attend a number of panel discussions in the morning and afternoon, and then pick up my registration materials from the AAAS representatives. I also discover that the AAAS has generously provided members of the press with a computer room, with a number of workstations, printers, and empty desk spaces. So I don't have to worry about finding the public library.

That evening, after the NASW workshops are over, I find my way to the hotel ballroom where Bloom is about to open the AAAS meeting with his plenary lecture.

As the introductory speakers take the stage, their remarks are transcribed by an unseen typist working to get the words down in print for display for the hearing impaired in huge type face on a screen behind the stage. As one might imagine, there are many minor typos and comical misspellings by the transcriber, who is heroically recording often technical and sometimes difficult-to-spell words in real time.

When Jack Burns, vice president for academic affairs and research at the University of Colorado, speaks, he takes a few moments to honor the seven astronauts who have recently perished aboard the Columbia shuttle. And he specifically names one of these seven, Kalpana Chawla, who received her doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado.

As Burns speaks these words of respect for Dr. Chawla, the typist spells her name correctly without missing a beat. "K-a-l-p-a-n-a C-h-a-w-l-a."

Dr. Burns' words and Dr. Chawla's name emblazoned 12 feet high behind the stage seem a fitting tribute to her person. I cannot imagine the typist spelling her name correctly so easily a month ago—a true measure of the esteem in which we have come to hold her.

At last, Bloom takes the stage to address the audience of thousands in the packed room. "It is time to seek a National Commission to Restore the American Health System," he says. An in-depth report on Bloom's talk is available from the AAAS.


Early Friday morning, I make my way to the convention center to hear TSRI Associate Professor Shelley Halpain and two of her colleagues from other institutions speak in a scientific symposium she has organized, entitled "How and Why Brain Cells Boogie: Motility in Neural Development."

It is 8:30 in the morning and the room is filled with people as Halpain introduces us to neuronal motility, explaining how recent advances in high-resolution light microscopy and image analysis have enabled researchers to track dynamic changes in neuronal shape and motility over time scales ranging from minutes to days.

Particularly interesting to attendees of this symposium is the fact that Halpain and the others have been analyzing living neurons using time-lapse imaging. In addition to providing important insights into the molecular events that regulate neuronal structure and the establishment of brain architecture, these time-lapse videos are really cool to watch. Cells crawl, neurons branch out, and growth cones (which direct the neuron's developing structure) form.

Afterwards, I join Halpain and the two other speakers, Paul Forscher, associate professor at Yale University, and Lorene Lanier, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, for lunch at a local restaurant. The conversation centers around state-of-the-art microscopes—the relative advantages of Nikon versus Olympus systems—and the important molecular players in neuronal development.

In the afternoon, I attend the opening of the exhibit hall, where various scientific companies, non-profit organizations, government agencies, and publishers promote their products and hand out pens and keychains emblazoned with their logos.

When I was a student, going to these sorts of exhibits revolved around getting as much free stuff as I could. My general rule was that cheap items, like stickers and pencils, could be grabbed as I walked by, without so much as a glance at the person at the booth. If I wanted a freebee of slightly more value, I would strike up a conversation for a moment until the huckster became bored or distracted, and I could abscond with my mechanical pencil or frisbee or Rubic's cube keychain before I was asked to fill out a form with my contact information and what I thought of the organization.

Perhaps it is a sign of aging, but I don't want to bother with the free pens this time around. What really interests me is the opportunity to meet some of the communication associates for the major scientific journals whom I deal with back in the office. It is always nice to put a face with a name. I meet such a press officer for one major journal, and we chat for a few minutes about her journal's new online venture.

She convinces me to fill out a form and, to thank me, she gives me a combination highlighter/pen emblazoned with the journal's logo.

By Friday night, the conference is in full swing, which means awards and receptions. Today is also Valentine's Day—something I would have forgotten had I not been accosted by two young women dressed as angels handing out bags of candy hearts on the streets of Denver to advertise a local company.

The evening's highlight is the reception for reporters, public information officers, and other press registrants. Held on the top floor of one of downtown Denver's tallest buildings, the view is spectacular, there is a lively, talented band, and the company is superb. The event is dedicated to honoring the six winners of the 2002 AAAS Science Journalism Awards—one of the top awards for professional science journalists.

Later that night, a party at another hotel promotes a new "popular" science magazine. I have heard a lot of buzz about this new magazine, but still haven't seen a copy of it—in the grocery store or anywhere else. However, at this party, copies of the magazine are to be found on every table, including a stack of them on one table at which a group of writers—who are unaffiliated with the new magazine—can be heard betting on how long the magazine will last before it goes under.

Luckily this party is in my hotel, so I don't have far to walk after I leave.


A few flurries plus a little snow on the rooftops below my room in downtown Denver is evidence of the passing storm. Somehow it has missed this part of Colorado. But it is still headed east, and at the coffee cart I hear grumbles from other hotel guests who worry about their plans to return home the next day.

Large coffee in hand, I am back at the Denver Marriot by 8 AM for the Fellows Forum. This is the formal awards presentation where the AAAS members who were elected in 2002 are honored for their achievements. Last year, 291 new fellows (among them TSRI's Professor Kim Janda) were elected from such diverse fields as agriculture and psychology, and this morning, AAAS President Bloom is congratulating each one at the conference on stage.

The presentation is followed by an outstanding lecture on trends in U.S. energy consumption and new energy technologies from Richard H. Truly, director of the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory and former administrator of NASA. Also a former pilot and astronaut, he was the first pilot of the space shuttle Columbia when it lifted off in 1981.

As much as I would like to linger and ask him a few questions, I rush over to the convention center to the press briefings, which at this meeting range from "Allergen-free Shrimp" to "Socially Responsive Robots."

One briefing is on the "Statement on Scientific Publishing and Security"—a document drafted and signed by a collection of some of the world's leading scientific journal editors and scientists known as the Journal Editors and Authors Group. The statement, to be published in the journals Science, Nature, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, calls for the establishment of new editorial policies aimed at safeguarding against the dissemination of "cookbook" style information that could provide terrorists with recipes for producing or weaponizing dangerous chemical or biological agents.

I hastened to ask several of the presenters what this might mean for researchers at TSRI and for basic biology and chemistry in general. In the end, they said, there will be no impact on the vast majority of scientific research papers published—even those that deal directly with potential bioterror agents. And the statement does not advocate banning a paper because it might contain potentially dangerous details, but advocates the establishment of policies whereby editors work with authors to find ways to make the paper less revealing while providing "sufficient detail to permit reproducibility."

Reports from the briefing made the news on Sunday. "Journals to Consider U.S. Security in Publishing" read the headline in The New York Times. The Associated Press story ran in the Washington Post under the more descriptive headline "Science Journals to Join Fight Against Terrorists / Editors to Excise Material That Could Be Used by Militants to Help Make Biological Weapons." And the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) news online took an even stronger line, "Bioterror Fears Muzzle Open Science."

Later, I stop by another reception to chat with writers, munch soft pretzels, and try to refuel with too much coffee. Like most of the people in the room, I leave with a small party favor—a sticky, rubbery walnut-sized brain inside a plastic tin. The gag is that you can throw the brain against any vertical surface and it will slowly roll down. A label on the back of the plastic tin warns "May be toxic."

After two days of non-stop meetings and receptions, I think an ambiguously toxic brain that I can throw against the wall is exactly what I need.


On Sunday morning, I sleep in an extra hour and catch up with some writing and photography. In the afternoon, I go to hear Dr. Bloom's remarks at the seminar he organized, "Neuroinformatics: Genes to Behavior." Much of the session describes various database projects in neuroinformatics, a field that represents a confluence of studies in neurological and cognitive functioning and the science of managing and mining this vast amount of information.

In neuroinformatics, databases are employed to store large sets of data, such as on scanned brain sections. "Brain browsers" and other software allow researchers to access, view, and analyze the data. Significantly, researchers in other laboratories can access the data over the internet, and ask new questions. Also "meta" analyses across multiple data sets can be performed on data that would otherwise be left to gather electronic moss.

"Information that would ordinarily reside in a laboratory's archive [could then] be available to the public," says Bloom.

Later that day, everyone is talking about the weather. Snow has all but shut down the East Coast. Anyone from the east who was planning to come to the conference today will not arrive, and anyone who was planning to leave early will be stuck or delayed as some two feet of snow falls on every runway from Washington to Boston.


With most of the receptions and schmoozing events over, I decide to concentrate on attending scientific symposia and learning lots of new things in science.

In fact, I find great joy in doing the conference equivalent of channel surfing—going in and out of as many presentations as I can politely manage (luckily, the doors are at the back of the rooms and always open). I listen to a discussion of childhood infections in England and Wales and the ecology of infectious diseases, a description of the molecular correlates of post-traumatic stress disorder, an analysis of tobacco use by schizophrenics, a presentation on the structures called neuronal spines, and a presentation that coupled cholera outbreaks with the climate.

That evening, I attend a delightful lecture titled, "Bose-Einstein Condensation: New Results from the Ultracold Frontier" by Eric Cornell of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Carl E. Wieman of the University of Colorado. Cornell and Wieman are the winners, along with Wolfgang Ketterle of Germany, of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics for achieving Bose-Einstein condensation—a new form of matter predicted in the 1920s by Albert Einstein and the Indian physicist S.N. Bose.

Looking around at the audience, which is highly populated with what look like high school and college students, I can't help but to wonder how many of these young minds will themselves be inspired to study science as a career.


On that high note, I pack my bags—a major hour-long effort because I forgot to leave room for all the free pens (and I have a LOT of free pens).

Coincidentally, Dr. Bloom is taking the same plane back to San Diego. I congratulate him on what has been a terrific meeting. "How do you feel now that you are done?" I ask him.

"Exhausted," he says, smiling.



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