Caribbean Division to Celebrate 25th Anniversary with a Meeting Focused on Neurobiology and Human Rights

Twenty-five years after it formed, the AAAS Caribbean Division will convene next month with a program focused on issues that could be crucial in the quarter-century to come: neuroscience, science education, and the linkage between science and human rights.

The division will hold its annual conference Friday 24 September and Saturday 25 September in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with a special two-day program of broad interest to researchers, teachers and students, and the public. This year, the meeting expands beyond its usual one-day format, and it is built around two strong themes.

The conference theme is “Perspectives in Neurobiology and Human Rights,” and neurobiology will be the chief focus on Saturday: A plenary lecture and a panel discussion will offer a special look at addiction research, while workshops on neurobiology will be offered to current and future teachers and to students ranging from elementary grades through high school.

On Friday evening, the meeting will open with a forum on the human right to access the benefits of scientific progress; a panel discussion on Saturday also will explore the topic and how the right might be viewed in rebuilding and renewing Haiti in the aftermath of January’s deadly earthquake.

“It’s interesting that we’re celebrating our work over the past 25 years and yet we’re exploring totally new areas of interest and new projects,” said division President Jorge Colón. “We’re looking at what we have done in the past, but we see this as a stepping stone for what we want to achieve in the next 25 years.”

The Caribbean Division was founded in 1985 to create a hub for AAAS members in all of the islands and countries in the Caribbean region, from Venezuela up through the Dominican Republic and Haiti to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

AAAS had long had an interest in Latin America. As early as 1912, it authorized a Brazilian Division, but that plan never came to fruition. In the 1960s and ‘70s, a Mexican Division was discussed, and in 1973 AAAS marked its 125th anniversary with a special meeting in Mexico City.

The AAAS Board of Directors authorized the organization of the Caribbean Division in 1984 during a meeting in New York. The division met for the first time on 26 February 1985 in Puerto Rico. The late Juan Bonnet-Diez, who once served as director of the Nuclear Center at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and of the university’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, was the division’s founder and first president.

Jorge Colón, AAAS Caribbean Division president
Jorge Colón, AAAS Caribbean Division president

The 2010 meeting, to be held at UPR-Río Piedras, will feature a number of special guests and events to mark the division’s 25th anniversary. [No registration is required; see the schedule for times and locations.] AAAS President Alice S. Huang, a distinguished virologist and long-time advocate for women in science, will deliver opening remarks Saturday morning. An anniversary dinner Saturday night will honor the 11 past presidents of the Caribbean Division. Huang will be the main speaker at that event, with a talk tentatively entitled “Best Practices for Increasing Women and Minority Participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Research.”

According to Colón, the events on science and human rights will serve as a crucial view toward the division’s next 25 years.

SHR's “Human Rights: Fundamental to Human Life” poster
SHR’s “Human Rights: Fundamental to Human Life” poster

The right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications was first internationally recognized as a basic human right in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly. Global progress toward fulfilling that right has, however, been uneven at best.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has undertaken a multilateral effort to clarify the meaning and practical implications of the right to the benefits of science. In April 2010, the AAAS Board of Directors adopted a statement urging scientists to become more involved in that effort.

Such discussion is part of the mission of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program and also is a key initiative of the AAAS-led Science and Human Rights Coalition, which was launched in January 2009 and now includes 44 scientific membership organizations and more than 50 individual scientists. Colón said the Caribbean Division strongly supports the Coalition’s efforts and expects to become more involved in the months ahead.

The division’s Friday night forum will feature Jessica Wyndham, aacting director of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program. She is scheduled to talk about the unique role of the Americas in the effort to define and apply the right to the benefits of scientific progress.

“This right has implications for access to vital scientific knowledge and technological advances, science education, R&D funding, the protection of scientific freedom, and many other issues of central concern to scientists,” Wyndham said. “It is my hope that the AAAS Caribbean Division meeting will be the beginning of a sustained effort to engage scientists of the Caribbean and Latin America in our work to define this right, including by identifying the barriers to access that are particular to the region, and opportunities for addressing these challenges.”

Others set to speak at the Forum: Jorge Oyola, a representative of the Los Filtros community-based organization; Alfonso Román, a representative of Amnesty International Puerto Rico Section; Daniel Altschuler, former director of the Arecibo Observatory who will be representing the UPR’s UNESCO chair in education for peace; and Maricarmen Carrillo, representing the Puerto Rico-based National Environmental Law Association.

On Saturday, a two-hour session will focus on the intersection of human rights and advancing Haiti’s capacity in science and science education. That session will feature scholars and educators from Haiti, Puerto Rico and the United States; it will serve as a follow-up to a recent multi-national workshop, organized by the Caribbean Division in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, that focused on building Haitian capacity in the wake of January’s earthquake.

The neurobiology program has been organized by UPR Professor José E. García-Arrarás, scientific director of the Specialized Neuroscience Research Programs at the university.

The program will open Saturday morning with a plenary address—“Alcoholism: It’s Both Nature and Nurture”—by Steven Treistman, director of the Institute of Neurobiology of the University of Puerto Rico.

A two-hour neurobiology session will explore cocaine addiction and gender differences in addictive behavior, along with discussions of sleep and circadian rhythms and honey bees’ memory and learning.

Colón, a research professor of inorganic and bioinorganic chemistry at UPR, said the conference program suggests the breadth and potential of the Caribbean science enterprise. In the months and years ahead, he added, the division will seek to expand on its efforts to build a Caribbean network for science, engineering and science education—with climate change just one field that would benefit from researchers’ regional, multi-disciplinary engagement.

“The AAAS Caribbean Division has allowed scientists in our region to go beyond their own fields and interests and to think about science in a broader sense—the importance of science policy and science education, and how science should be looked at as a multidisciplinary enterprise,” Colón said. “And it has allowed us to reach science in the whole Caribbean region. That’s important, and it’s important that we increase these interactions in the future.”

See the full program for the annual conference of the AAAS Caribbean Division, to be held 24-25 September in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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