February is the shortest month, but to me it often feels like one of the longest. Although the daylight hours start to lengthen, the persistence of the last of winter weather (gray, damp, and cold) leaves me feeling tired rather than energized. February also seems to be one of those months prone to over-scheduling, when many important tasks of the academic year collide. This year, however, I found new energy by connecting with others near and far through science. Although I’m still processing all that I’ve experienced, I thought I’d give a quick round-up of the highlights—plus my favorite science news of the month—before we turn the page to March.
This month, I was able to travel to Washington, DC to take part in the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This organization has been most familiar to me over the years as the publisher of the journal Science. I also knew AAAS for their role in providing career information for young scientists and its broad science news coverage. It was only recently that I learned of the more interdisciplinary reaches of AAAS members: public science policy, K–16 education, science writing and journalism, and more. Through my recent foray into the social media world of Twitter, I have become “acquainted” with scientists, science journalists, and others interested in broadening the scope of science education, communication, participation, and other interdisciplinary themes. A number of them had touted the annual AAAS meeting as a terrific opportunity to experience a unique scientific conference that spans disciplines.
When I learned that this year’s AAAS meeting theme was “Science Transcending Boundaries,” I decided that this could be a terrific opportunity for me to make some new professional connections beyond my local community and learn from others from across the country and around the world. With generous professional development support from my university, I was able to attend the meeting. Through engaging panel discussions and lectures, workshops, networking sessions, and informal conversations, I was able to immerse myself in discussions and events spanning my interests in genetics, undergraduate education, science communication, and public science engagement. I volunteered my time at events for students and families. And I came home with a notebook full of names and ideas, a tote bag full of flyers and pamphlets, many new professional connections, and a brain full of ideas.
After returning from the meeting, I plunged back into my regular routine, surrounded by curious students and a full slate of science in the classroom. I also quickly transitioned to preparing to supervise teams of middle school and high school students at a regional Science Olympiad competition that is hosted annually on the campus of my university. Our own students served alongside faculty, staff, and community members as volunteers to help the many events run smoothly and to make sure our competitors had a great day of hands-on science. A Saturday full of STEM engagement with kids in my community is both exhausting and energizing, as the momentum of the competition fills the campus with enthusiastic visitors, but always rewarding.
In quieter moments this month, I reread Hope Jahren’s book Lab Girl. It was this month’s selection for a community science book club, co-sponsored by a number of different local non-profit organizations working together to foster science engagement among adults. I first read the book a couple of years ago and featured it in an early blog post on this site. It was interesting to read the book again with the intention of discussing it with others in person. I thoroughly enjoyed the spirited panel discussion with female scientists from around the city and the small-group engagement with other participants in the book club this week.
I’ve written several blog posts about relationships between scientists and their local community (for example, see here and here and here). This month, I ended up expanding my own sense of community among different groups of scientists. Like many people, I’m not a natural at networking, but I’m finding that broadening my own network has become an important way to consider new ideas beyond the classroom and boundaries of campus. Meeting others in my community with various roles in science, education, or communication; learning from people across the country with different types of expertise; engaging with strangers over a book and an adult beverage… reinvigorating my own sense of place in the scientific community is rewarding me with new connections and ideas for a long time to come.
Oh, and as for that science news? Two stories caught my eye, for very different reasons. First: a group of scientists has been exploring how to expand the information storage of DNA, by designing “after-market” synthetic building DNA blocks and enzymes that can process them. Many scientists view DNA storage as a durable system that may one day replace computer microchips for human data storage. As a geneticist, this concept is quite fascinating to me, although the complexity of the system is daunting. Want to learn more? Here’s a summary from science writer Carl Zimmer (featured at the AAAS meeting) and, for the truly adventurous, a link to the original scientific report on what they’re calling “Hachimoji DNA.” As for the second story…well, let’s just say the idea of horses wearing zebra-striped coats for science is nothing if not eye-catching. Read here how zebra stripes may have evolved as a way to protect zebras from pesky biting flies, and how horses may benefit from these findings!
Science can take us to new frontiers of the tiniest molecules of life, or it can even look a bit like “horsing around” in different creative ways. Connecting the dots in nature and connecting people across disciplines both take work. This month had its fair share of work, but I’ve had many rewarding experiences to perk up my February. Plus, a new season is just around the corner, which is enough to put a little spring in anyone’s step.