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Student Awards Bring Young Researchers to AAAS’ 2019 Annual Meeting

Vegetable-wilting diseases. Implantable medical sensors. Carbon dioxide emissions.

Those were some of the subjects that graduate-student researchers presented about at the AAAS Annual Meeting in February 2019, with the help of AAAS awards that supported their travel. AAAS CEO, Rush Holt, recognized their work at a breakfast for Minority and Women Scientists and Engineers on February 16th. Jessica Chen was the sole recipient of the Helen Froelich Holt Scholarship for Early-Career Women in Science, while five other young researchers Evvan Morton, Hannah Taylor, April MacIntyre, Raudel Avila, and Debora Mukaz were awarded the AAAS Joshua E. Neimark Memorial Travel Assistance Award. All six winners were graduate students whose posters had been chosen to be displayed at the Annual Meeting.

The Helen Froelich Holt Scholarship for Early-Career Women in Science award is named for Holt’s mother, a pioneering female science instructor and the first woman to hold statewide office in West Virginia, as Secretary of State from 1957 to 1958. Chen, a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at the University of Michigan, won this award, which provides up to $1,500 for travel to present a poster at the Annual Meeting as well as a one-year AAAS membership. 

 “It was such an honor to meet Dr. Holt and for him to tell me the story of…his mother becoming a scientist,” Chen said. It “felt so great” for her work to be recognized outside the lab, including her efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in science.

Chen said she hopes to attend medical school after her Ph.D. “In order to do the translational research I want to do and bring this therapy to humans, I need to learn more about the human body and the current state of medicine,” she said.

Travel expenses were also funded for five other researchers through the AAAS Joshua E. Neimark Memorial Travel Assistance Award, named for a MIT researcher who died of a respiratory illness at 30. Neimark’s sister, AAAS Fellow Edith Neimark, established the award in his memory to help other young scientists.

One of the Neimark winners, Evvan Morton, is working on a doctorate in sustainable engineering at Arizona State University. Her work focuses on tackling climate change by treating carbon dioxide emissions as a regulated waste product under federal law. Doing so would force those emissions to be captured, stored or repurposed in some way a timely subject as mitigating climate warming becomes more and more urgent. Morton is exploring the science-policy world and receiving the Neimark award gave her a chance to mingle in Washington with people already in that field.

 “I want to be able to use my engineering background to influence science policy and make sure that people that have knowledge in science are the ones helping to inform those policies,” she said.

Unlike the typical poster presentation, where researchers stand at their display and wait for people to ask questions, Neimark winners got their posters beamed onto a screen and fielded questions from a panel of judges and any bystanders who happened to watch.

“It was actually an interesting format for a poster, and I really enjoyed it,” said Hannah Taylor, another Neimark winner who is working on a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Utah State University. The CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tools that are opening new frontiers in biology have their origins in the immune systems of bacteria that Taylor studies. She’s focusing on a specific protein that can help CRISPR-Cas identify foreign elements, like viruses, in natural systems.  

Although Taylor spends much of her time researching, she has other significant interests. “I really like doing research, but I also really like teaching,” she said. “I’d like to have a career where I can do both of those things.”

All six award winners were attending the AAAS Annual Meeting for the first time. Some, like University of Wisconsin microbiology student April MacIntyre, who presented research about how sugar can inhibit a common bacterial disease in vegetables, had been to conferences for their own disciplines, but found the AAAS gathering a different experience.

“Because everyone was from a different background, and maybe because they were interested in the politics and the people side of science, they were much more willing to think of the values behind science and what it means to society as a whole,” she said.

Neimark winner Raudel Avila studied at Northwestern University where he focused his research on flexible electronic biosensors, which he said could be in wide use in two to three years. Avila said the conference and the awards bring people together “so they can learn how to communicate a little better, go back to their respective campuses, and implement the sort of things they’ve learned.”

Lastly, for Debora Kamin Mukaz who is studying epidemiology – specifically how Congolese immigrants are acculturating in America – at the University of Delaware, the Annual Meeting offered a chance “to see how policy and science can work together.” For her, the Neimark award was an affirmation “that my work is valuable and that the effort I put into it is actually important.”

Holt said the awards give the young scholars a chance “to make connections and stimulate what we know will be promising careers.”

Joshua Niemark Award winners and Helen Holt Award winner with Rush Holt at AAAS' 2019 Annual Meeting. Credit: Michael J. Colella

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Vegetable-wilting diseases. Implantable medical sensors. Carbon dioxide emissions.
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Matt Smith

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