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Virtual Program Prompts Online Conversations Around Science Films and Podcasts

Two women sit on stage in front of microphones
Distillations podcast co-hosts Elisabeth Berry Drago (left) and Alexis J. Pedrick take part in the Paperless Media Program at the 2020 Annual Meeting. The Distillations team took part in the ongoing virtual program. | Robb Cohen Photography & Video

Did you know how sound motivates bubble movements or how maggots replicate people in line at a buffet? Have you heard about the use of spider silk protein in goat’s milk?

Through an interdisciplinary program and series of discussions on Twitter about science documentaries, videos, and podcasts, the AAAS Office of Meetings and Special Events has launched an initiative introducing participants to the paradigm behind the 2021 Annual Meeting: “Understanding Dynamic Ecosystems.”

The eight-week Virtual Paperless Media Program, which continues through May 15, takes place on Twitter – a fitting forum now that pandemic-related closures and social distancing efforts find many people working remotely and seeking out virtual connections, said Ashira Beutler-Greene, AAAS program associate for meetings and special events.

“This program builds upon our current digital community, which replicates but does not replace our physical meeting, as well as widening our potential base of contributors,” said Beutler-Greene.

Each Friday, Meeting staff share links to the following week’s video and audio selections. Participants are encouraged to watch and listen to the content at their leisure and join live discussions on Twitter throughout the week, with conversations on short-form videos on Mondays, podcasts on Wednesdays and longer-form documentaries on Fridays.

The third week of the program, for instance, focused on life indoors, exploring “different ways that people understand, react and re-envision their constructed environments,” according to the discussion’s description. The segments, Beutler-Greene said, “align somewhat abstractly with the experiences we’re having now. Let’s consider living indoors in different ways: someone might have to live on a submarine, on an oil rig, on Mars, in jail.” The week’s discussions highlighted the effects of architecture and the built environment on belonging, how other people shape our experiences of spaces and the role of virtual communications.

“The really great thing about this program is that it’s focusing on places in which science interfaces with society and lived experience,” said Joseph Fridman, a researcher and science communicator at the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory at Northeastern University in Boston. Fridman facilitated discussions for the Virtual Paperless Media Program around his work with the Templeton Foundation and the Sound Education podcast community.

This virtual program emerged from the podcast and film programming at recent AAAS Annual Meetings, said Beutler-Greene. The Paperless Media Program has sought to offer attendees opportunities to learn about “interesting, cutting-edge, surprising science” in a variety of forms, added Beutler-Greene. The in-person program has grown and formalized in recent years; in 2020, the Annual Meeting program included more than a dozen film screenings and 17 podcast tapings.

To select content and facilitate discussion, AAAS began by tapping into relationships forged at recent meetings. Fridman, for instance, got connected with AAAS as a result of work at the 2020 Annual Meeting with a special lecturer. Other connections have developed with new collaborators such as the founders of Nigeria’s Give Every Student a Laboratory and The Class of 2020 program in the Netherlands, among others.

Alexis J. Pedrick, co-host of the podcast Distillations, had taken part in the Paperless Media Program at the 2019 and 2020 Annual Meetings. The team behind Distillations – produced by the Science History Institute to “reveal science’s role in a complicated, ever-changing and often strange world” – was invited to share content and facilitate discussion during the first week of the Virtual Paperless Media Program that explored “Humanity Matters,” a discussion about what makes us human and the positive impacts of humanity.

"For us, it just felt like a natural way to continue the conversation,” said Pedrick.

Pedrick and her colleagues presented three episodes of their podcast. They selected episodes relevant to the moment, though not necessarily about health or disease, said Mariel Carr, Distillations’ senior producer. In selecting episodes about a desalination project in Texas, the history of Philadelphia’s water system, the fight against smog in Los Angeles, the Distillations team opted for work prompting conversation about “science’s role in humans solving their problems,” said Carr.

As more people joined the conversation, it was rewarding to see how the discussion expanded, Pedrick said. “We got to be this jumping-off point, and it just grew.”

“We ended up having this really fascinating conversation about humanity, the messiness of being human and practicing science, and how we make space for that in the conversation,” said Pedrick.

Tatevik Sargsyan, AAAS communications associate for meetings and special events, said, “In line with the Meeting’s general philosophy, it’s been a very interdisciplinary discussion.”

The same way that a conference like the AAAS Annual Meeting can catalyze tens of thousands of connections between people, Twitter, too, can serve a similar role until attendees convene at the meeting next February, said Fridman.

Said Fridman, “This is a really powerful way for AAAS to build relationships and engagement in community in this moment when we can’t connect in person.”

The full schedule of Virtual Paperless Media Program discussions can be found on the AAAS Annual Meeting website. The next conversation will be held on Friday, May 1 at 1 p.m. EDT on “Reactions to Sensory Overload.” Participants are asked to Include the hashtag #AAASmtg on Twitter to allow other participants to find your posts.

To continue conversations at the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting, submit a proposal to hold a scientific session or career workshop in Phoenix. The extended deadline is July 14, 2020.



Andrea Korte

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