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Science Rockstars, Brass Tacks, and Improv Comedy: Insights on the Experimental Biology Meeting

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Author: Emily Boice | Category: Of Interest | April 03, 2015

I traveled to the great snow covered city of Boston with a number of other San Antonio residents (Dr. Linda McManus, Dr. Bruce Nicholson, Dr. George Perry, Dr. Teresa Evans, Dr. Rheaclare Fraser, Dr. Patricia Araujo, Nathan Mitchell to just name a few) armed with winter coats and ready to engage the world network of scientists and society members at the Experimental Biology Meeting on March 27 - April 1 in Boston, Massachusetts.

A number of us are members of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) and attended the career development events and poster session. The morning panel speakers ranged in career options from the bench, the boardroom, and everywhere in between.

Lunch and Dinner with Science Rockstars

I had the pleasure of dining with Dr. Joanna Klapacz from The Dow Chemical Company for lunch and hearing about her transition from the bench to now being a product sustainability consultant at Dow.

She shared her insights on the team dynamic found in industry settings, how to set yourself apart, and how to continue to find ways to mentor and engage the outside STEM community.

The other tablemates were at various points in their careers but were interested in consulting and industry settings. So those further along could provide their experiences as well at the job search process and get practical advice.

After the opening lecture by Dr. Joan Steitz on noncoding RNAs, there the opening reception provided an opportunity for conference attendees to hear about the outreach efforts supported by ASBMB.

Teresa Evans, director of the Office of Career Development, at UT Health Science Center, presented a poster on the “Teen Meetings Outside the Box (TeenMOB): Building Science Communication Skills through a Network of Graduate Level Trainees, Science Teachers and High School Teens.”

Also in attendance was another member of the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee, Dr. Hudson Freeze. The famed glycobiologist that discovered Taq polymerase who works in San Diego at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute on treatments for rare childhood diseases (perhaps the inspiration for Harrison Ford’s character in Extraordinary Measures-he kind of looks like him).

Dr. Freeze listened attentively to everyone’s background and in each instance, propelled us into trying to make our science communication skills better, and how to stretch outside our comfort zone with fun extracurricular activities like acting and singing.

His enthusiasm and passion is infectious and the whole community should be excited when he steps into his leadership roles with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB).

Day 2: Brass tacks – Getting $$ and how to spend it

The official EB2015 fun begun: the posters and vendor floor opened – that’s where the real magic happens!

As always the main exhibit floor of the conference is the best place for learning the most innovative ways to do the fundamental bench work that flourishes into these passionate stories we hear about all week in plenary talks.

The posters always encompass the newest ideas performed by all trainee level ranges and shown in their raw form.

You can almost fell the thick energy swarming through the crowds as they snack on their popcorn, hear about the new assays, kits and devices, and see the science in action at the posters. The ability to approach anyone and have them relate their ideas to you can stimulate sparks that start a collaboration, innovative ideas, and mentoring bonds.

Trainees come primed with freshly printed business cards and soak up the buzz in the air. Conference attendees tote around their bags of vendor swag and piles of literature to be digested later on the plane ride home.

The vendors entice people to stop by with dazzling games, songs and freebies. The attendees hear all about the newest techniques companies, large and small, have developed and need our help testing and marketing. Such a symbiotic relationship!

And where does all this money come from to buy the reagents and pay the trainees? As federal funding become more competitive, many people are pursuing other funding sources.

This year’s panel on “Who SHOULD be funding biomedical research?” was well attended and very engaged. This interactive session featuring Dr. Claire Pomeroy (Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation), Dr. Jai Ranganathan (SciFund Challenge), and Dr. Venkatesh Narayanamurti (Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences) allowed for stimulating conversation from passionate audience members and the panelists.

The topic turned on the heat when an audience member wanted to ask if the red states or the blue states were to blame. The moderator Dr. Ben Corb, tried to steer the conversation away from politics but as always, the topic drifted back up.

The ASBMB public outreach and policy efforts were also highlighted as way for society members to be able to make their voices heard at the local level and affect change. Crowdfunding was brought up as a possible option for funding.

But seeing that the quality of science is going down as people fight to make their data more impactful to get more grants, the level of scrutiny might also go down with crowdfunding holding little limits and oversight on how you spend the money.

The international community of scientists will have to come up with a more creative way to stimulate funding and how to regulate it.

Day 3: Improv for STEM Professionals: Creating Engaging Conversations

Today’s events provided opportunities to learn hands on skills in science communication. Dr. Teresa Evans talked about career development opportunities that happen in San Antonio and other panel members discussed what happens all over the country.

Dr. Suzanne Barbour at Virginia Commonwealth University and Dr. Phil Ortiz from SUNY offered the perspective on how faculty could engage the trainees and help them with career development strategies.

Dr. Evans and Dr. Kim Mulligan discussed how the trainees could lead their own opportunities and develop leadership skills and how we can think outside the box and focus efforts on the young groups that get overlooked sometimes, K-12 ages.

Two sessions were focused on improv for scientists and using it to learn how to be attentive to an audience and how to let the audience’s physical and audible responses inform how the talk is given.

These skills of deep listening, flexibility and spontaneous responses are not easy for most people and need to be practiced outside the confines of traditional scientific training. Why not do it somewhere fun? Like improv comedy!

The daytime event allowed conference attendees to get up out of their seats and get moving. The evening session brought the greater Boston area in and allowed us to see new sites in the city like Faneuil Hall Marketplace.

Dr. Raquell Holmes led participants through a combination of dialogue, comedic interaction and then a performance and discussion. The local community brought in area teachers, hospital nurses and doctors and those just interested in comedy and science.

This engaged culture allowed for a “living experiment” in how scientific conversations can flow and ebb depending on who your audience is.

We learned to focus on how to make our conversation partners look great instead of stumbling in our minds with what the next thing to say to make ourselves shine.

Definitely a recommendation for all – those who like comedy and those that need more practice in how to relate personally with others. 

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