Opinion: Bridging Science and SMU

May 6, 2010  

By Kathryn Sharkey and Amy Andrus
ksharkey@smu.edu, aandrus@smu.edu

Scientific researchers, Nobel Prize winners, medical professionals, and two Southern Methodist University undergraduates. One of these things is not like the other. So how did two SMU undergrads end up getting a free trip to San Diego, California for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting from February 17-22?

SMU, in its attempt to improve their scientific programs, sought out undergraduates to attend the meeting. We ended up being the lucky two chosen to go- a journalism student, Kathryn Sharkey and a psychology student, Amy Andrus. AAAS’ purpose for the meeting was to bring together media professionals and science professionals to learn how to communicate with each other so that they could in turn collaboratively educate the public on scientific issues and research. SMU’s purpose in sending students was to not only provide exposure for the university, but also to help undergraduates get excited about science.

Both students had very different experiences. Sharkey saw passionate arguments between scientists and the media, whereas Andrus witnessed the progression of research in cognitive science.

Sharkey’s Experience at Lectures in the Relationship Between Media and Science

Whenever I was young and I thought of a scientist, the picture of Albert Einstein with his crazy hair always came to mind. After attending the AAAS lectures in science and the media, I know why Einstein’s hair was so out of control; he was pulling at his hair from frustration. The recurring theme I saw at all of the lectures was the frustration science professionals and researchers felt for how their work and discoveries were presented to the public by the media.

Their main problem, especially with the issue of climate change, is that instead of presenting the facts of the research, the media focuses on the politics of the issue. The media also presents the opinions of dissidents to the mainly agreed upon scientific theories with as much, if not more, air time than those who agree with the majority. I attended several lectures about climate change and several simply about the relationship between science and the media. Even at the more general topical lectures, climate change would be brought up and debates between audience members and panelists almost always ensued.

I was impressed and shocked by their passion. Their passion not only to make sure the public gets the real, true scientific information; but also to make sure that the public understands science’s impact on their daily lives. The role of relaying that message lies with the science reporters, which is a heavy burden that many of lectures proved is not being borne properly. There is an essential disconnect in how journalists approach a topic and how scientists relay the topic, so that there is guaranteed distortion in how that topic is presented to the general public.

It seems to be a conundrum that researchers and the media are working to correct, which was the inspiration for the name of the AAAS symposium- Bridging Science and Society. With some work, hopefully scientific issues can reach the public in a better way.

Andrus’ Experience at Lectures in Cognitive Science

When you think of science, psychology is probably not the first thing that comes to your mind right? I didn’t think so either until I discovered that the AAAS’ meeting would be offering symposiums over advancements in research in cognitive science. It was enriching to learn about the different research that was being done in the field.

For example, there seems to be much expansion in the field of neuroscience due to the discovery of a new possible deterrent for brain damage: progesterone. Who would have thought that a female hormone could possibly help protect against brain damage?

Another interesting discussion was the matter of allowing Magnetic Resonance Images (MRIs) in the courtroom. AAAS’ demonstrated this by role-playing a case in a pseudo courtroom. Real judges, lawyers, and neuroscientists came in and demonstrated how a case on the subject may play out and the audience served as the jury. A man committed murder against his ex-girlfriend and his defense attorney argued it was only because of lesions in his front lobe; i.e. brain damage. The frontal lobe is the cortex that controls our decision-making. There are some cases where a person with a brain injury classified as “mild” experienced a change in personality and began to not function properly psychologically, but there are also cases where there was not much change if any. This is just one complication the experts explained when it comes to the reliability of using MRIs in the courtroom as evidence.

There were other interesting symposiums to attend ranging in topic from the role of sleep to developmental psychology to old age. Here, they explained the importance of rapid eye movement (REM) during sleep. Studies have shown that people who take naps with REM sleep have an increased cognitive ability.

These were just some of the presentations on the new, upcoming research I was privileged to attend. In the field of psychology, there were also lectures on how music is interpreted in the brain, the process of language learning in deaf children, stress and it’s central role in the brain, and many more. It will be interesting to see what new research discoveries will be made over the next year and what symposiums the AAAS meeting in 2011 will offer.

SMU Goal Achieved

SMU’s goal in sending us to this meeting was to help get young people involved and interested in science. We would have to say their goal was met. We came away with some fascinating information to help guide us in our futures. Sharkey already planned to be a science reporter, so hearing the critiques on the media was especially powerful. Andrus was searching for an area within psychology to focus on and found neuroscience especially interesting at the lectures. It is our hope that in the future SMU will be able to find a bigger delegation of students to send to the next AAS meeting and others like it. If you’re interested in attending a lecture, talk to your school’s dean to see if the opportunity will be there next year.

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