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Edward Aboufadel: New Fellows to take a bow at Annual Meeting

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Edward Aboufadel

February’s AAAS Annual Meeting will be something of a debut for the association’s newly elected Fellows.

The 416 scientists and engineers named in November will get special recognition at the meeting, which convenes in Washington, DC on Feb. 14-17. It’s also a chance to their new status to help plug the cause of science at a high-profile gathering that brings together researchers, journalists and members of the public.

“They speak for scientists,” said Edward Aboufadel, a 2017 Fellow in mathematics who leads a review committee examining the Fellow nomination and selection process.

“These are some of our best scientists in this country, and it helps for AAAS to have that voice. To say, ‘We’re speaking for some of our leading scientists here,’ in terms of interactions with the federal government and society as a whole, is something that has meaning.”

AAAS has elected Fellows since 1874 for achievements within their disciplines. Potential Fellows can be nominated by the leaders of the individual AAAS sections; by three current Fellows, with the caveat that two of them can’t represent the same institution; or by the association’s CEO. The AAAS Council votes on the nominees, with the winners announced in the fall.

“It’s an honor for the recipient,” said Aboufadel, a professor and assistant vice president at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. “Sometimes, it’s a lifetime achievement award that reflects decades of work that’s considered high quality by peers, because it’s given by peers.”

This year’s annual meeting will include a Fellows Forum on Feb. 16. The new Fellows will receive a certificate and a blue-and-gold rosette pin they can wear to stand out in the crowd.

“These pins are really nice. People who are fellows wear them with pride as they walk around. I just have to make sure I don’t lose it,” Aboufadel said.  “I usually keep it at home in a special place, so it won’t disappear.” He said his wife doesn’t often attend conferences with him, but she came to the 2018 meeting in Austin “to cheer me on and call my name” when his name was announced.

Aboufadel has worked extensively in applied mathematics, harnessing equations to analyze everything from baseball payrolls to potholes. He’s been a AAAS member for more than 30 years, including eight in which he served as secretary of Section A, the association’s mathematics group.

But in 2015, a year after he gave up that leadership post, AAAS CEO Rush Holt asked him to take on a new task: Could he lead a review of how fellows are chosen? The organization wanted to figure out how the fellows could better reflect the diversity of their disciplines, to make the process a bit more selective and to set in place a way to remove Fellows in what Aboufadel called “rare cases” of misconduct.

Expanding diversity within the ranks of AAAS Fellows is also a way of encouraging more diversity within the scientific community, he said.

Fellows “represent our elite scientists,” he said. “If you look at a group of scientists and they all look like the stereotypical older man with grey hair in a white coat, it’s not clear how attractive that is going to be to the next generation … We lose talent if people look at the organization and don’t see themselves fitting in.”

And a more diverse workforce “tends to treat each other with more respect. You have fewer issues with abuse if regardless of your background, you are considered part of the team.”

How to put that ideal into practice is still a work in progress, he said. Demographic data about AAAS members is largely limited to gender, and efforts to collect more information about ethnicity are still being developed. The idea isn’t to require quotas, but for section leaders to review and “be more conscious” of diversity when it’s time to nominate a new class of Fellows.

 “We kind of leave it to them to look at that and ask themselves, ‘Does this reflect the distribution of males and females in our discipline, or is there something skewed here?’ With that information they can have a good conversation about it,” he said.

Aboufadel’s work on those procedures was a somewhat unusual assignment, since he wasn’t a Fellow himself at the time, while the other members of his study committee were. If that was an issue for anyone, it never came up, he said. And two years later, he became one in recognition of his work with that effort -- an honor he said that was a surprise.

“Being named a Fellow was a validation of the work I’ve done in my career, as an applied mathematician and as a contributor to the AAAS,” he said. “It also represents the professional relationships I’ve made volunteering for the AAAS for over a decade.”

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Matt Smith