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Researchers talk science and society at AAAS national meeting

February 20, 2013

By Margaret Coulombe, Skip Derra, Richard Harth, Daniel Hooker, Ross McBeath and Jennifer Snyder

From germs in space, to supporting minorities in science and engineering, to communicating the importance of science to the public and developing effective science policy, Arizona State University faculty talked up science at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This year’s meeting took place Feb. 14-18 in Boston.

AAAS is the premier meeting in which scientists and researchers gather to discuss their latest findings. Here are the topics ASU researchers covered.

Germs in space

Performing sensitive biological experiments is always a delicate affair. Few researchers, however, contend with the challenges faced by Cheryl Nickerson, whose working laboratory is aboard the International Space Station, located hundreds of miles above the Earth and traveling at some 17,000 miles per hour. 

Nickerson, a microbiologist at ASU’s Biodesign Institute, talked about using the ISS to pursue research into the effects of microgravity on disease-causing organisms at AAAS.

“One important focus of my research is to use the microgravity environment of spaceflight as an innovative biomedical research platform,” she said. “We seek to unveil novel cellular and molecular mechanisms related to infectious disease progression that cannot be observed here on Earth, and to translate our findings to novel strategies for treatment and prevention.” 

During an earlier series of NASA space shuttle and ground-based experiments, Nickerson and her team made a startling discovery – spaceflight culture increased the virulence of Salmonella, yet many of the genes known to be important for its virulence were not turned on and off as expected when this organism is grown on Earth. Understanding how this switching is regulated may be useful for designing targeted strategies to prevent infection.

For NASA, Nickerson’s findings were revelatory, given their implications for the health of astronauts on extended spaceflight missions. A more thorough understanding of infectious processes and host responses under these conditions is vital for the design of therapeutics and other methods of limiting vulnerability for those on space missions.

Further research by Nickerson’s team pointed to important implications for the understanding of health and disease on Earth. Her group showed that one of the central factors affecting the behavior of pathogenic cells is the physical force produced by the movement of fluid over a bacterial cell’s sensitive surface. This property, called fluid shear, helps modulate a broad range of cell behaviors, provoking changes in cell morphology, virulence and global alterations in gene expression in pathogens like Salmonella. 

An urgency to support minorities in STEM

Evidence of a shift in U.S. demographics and importance of minorities took center stage during the Presidential election, but how do those growing toward majority acquire representation in our educational and technological communities?

Accelerating programs that mentor and move minorities forward to majorities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are one method gaining traction, said Castillo-Chavez, during AAAS.

Castillo-Chavez, whose own path to professorship is remarkable, shared strategies to increase interest and engagement in STEM, along with co-presenters Chrysanthe Demetry, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Jean T. MacCormack, University of California. While there is an overriding belief that promoting underrepresented groups cannot be addressed without long-term changes in the K-12 school system, according to Castillo-Chavez there are successful models being used now, which show that mentoring changes lives.

“Scientists have the responsibility to see that the American Dream is not just a theoretical construct but an achievable goal,” said Castillo-Chavez. “We can’t continue to waste immense talent because of their limited access to higher education.”

Castillo-Chavez is a Regents' Professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences and director of the Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Science policy needs to focus on outcomes

Given the huge investment and power of science and technology in the United States, it is surprising that more attention isn’t paid to the policy decisions that drive the enterprise, said Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at ASU. What appears to be missing from the equation, he added, is a focus on outcomes.

“Given the power of science and technology to shape and even transform our society, it is extraordinary how little attention is paid to improving our science and technology policy decisions,” Sarewitz said at AAAS. “There are different ways to think about enhancing the capacity of the science and technology enterprise to solve the problems people expect it to solve.”

Sarewitz, who has more than 20 years experience in science policy dating back to his time working on Capitol Hill as a staff member for former congressman George E. Brown, Jr., has written numerous articles and books on this subject.

“The standard ways we have of assessing science and technology efforts are not aimed at understanding the outcomes of science in society, but are aimed at maximizing the productivity,” Sarewitz said. “Despite the fact that the advancement of science and the development of technology are unpredictable, we can assess whether programs are appropriately structured for delivering the societal outcomes that we expect them to accomplish. By understanding these distinctions, we can make better decisions.”

The important (and underappreciated) role of science communication

Researchers today more than ever focus their work on real-world problems, often times making their research relevant to the public locally, regionally and nationally. But engaging the public in their research can be a daunting task for researchers professionally and personally.

Leah Gerber, associate professor in ASU's School of Life Sciences and a senior sustainability scientist in the School of Sustainability, has identified impediments to productive science communication and she shared her recommendations at AAAS.

As a researcher, Gerber and her group develop mathematical approaches that bring together the best available scientific information to make rational, efficient conservation decisions about endangered species recovery, ecosystem management and reserve design for oceans and fisheries. Getting that information to the public is a key component in her work.

She said barriers to communicating science include a lack of reward for engaging the public and decision-makers on science, limited communications training, and time pressures faculty members face while trying to obtain tenure. Other barriers include understanding the value in communicating their work to the public, and the need to push their comfort zone (and stand in front of a camera, for example).

While the culture is slowly changing within academic institutions, success in higher education still is largely measured by publications and grants, which demand large amounts of time. New institutional incentives need to be developed and implemented.  

“We must find a way to make engagement rise to the top of the pile,” Gerber said.

The social dynamics of science collaborations

Society currently faces profound social and environmental challenges that must be met to secure a sustainable future for humanity. A major challenge in achieving this goal is discovering how best to synthesize important findings and ideas from many disciplines and use them to produce scientifically informed social and environmental policy.

This task is not easy. Different disciplines use different theories and methods, and scientists and policy makers rarely work together. New types of research centers are needed, as are new ways of organizing collaborations between scientists and between scientists and policy makers.

New research by John Parker of Barrett, The Honors College at ASU and Edward Hackett of ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change works to identify the specific types of research environments and social interactions that facilitate success in these collaborations.

Parker presented the team’s analysis of factors that facilitate cross-disciplinary collaborations between scientists and policy makers at the AAAS meeting.

Parker and Hackett are using state-of-the-art research instruments, called “sociometric sensors,” in their investigation to study scientists as they work on real problems at several research centers around the world with the goal of identifying patterns of social interaction that are best related to collaborative success.

“What we are doing,” Parker said, “is related to what ASU is trying to do on a larger scale. By embedding engagement into activities, the university hopes to positively impact the social and environmental development of individuals and the community as a whole.”

Rachel Carson and saving environmental journalism

It has been more than 50 years since Rachel Carson published her groundbreaking book "Silent Spring." One area of Carson’s career that is often overlooked is her time as a government employee. This is where she got her true start in journalism and it is the area G. Pascal Zachary, professor of practice with the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at ASU, spoke about at the AAAS meeting.

“At a time when popular writers wanted to write about serious subjects and devote themselves to learning, there was little support for them commercially,” Zachary said of Carson and her early career. “I’m intrigued about how her career suggests a way forward for government to support serious writing and journalism about science and the environment.”

Carson served as an information officer with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries and the Fish and Wildlife Service for nearly two decades before becoming an independent writer. During that time, she reported on news and findings from the agency.

Zachary believes Carson’s experience and work in this field is what shaped her later writings.

“I’m trying to see Rachel Carson in both a historical sense and prefiguring and anticipating a movement that will reform or revolutionize science journalism today,” Zachary said.