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.


Next Page | Opening of the Exhibit Hall

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This year's AAAS meeting was held in Denver, Colorado, seen here at night from a hotel room downtown.







The Annual Meeting of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) coincides with the AAAS meeting every year. This year hundreds of science writers attend talks that range from reporting on climate change to helping scientists talk to the media.







Elias Zerhouni, the new director of the National Institutes of Health, delivers a talk to the NASW entitled, "Medical Discovery in the 21st Century.








"It is time to seek a National Commission to Restore the American Health System," says outgoing AAAS President and TSRI Department of Neuropharmacology Chair Floyd Bloom at the meeting's opening plenary lecture.