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Two ASU seniors sit at the back of a packed room that holds a judge, a prosecutor, experts for the state and the defense. Onlookers fill the seats and spill over onto the floor. One student has just called for three more rows of seats.
The atmosphere is expectant as Cynthia Cwik, the attorney for the defense, argues that the defendant, a violent offender, should be found “not guilty because of diminished responsibility.”
A “CSI” courtroom drama? No. These students are attending the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting as a session aides for an unusual symposium called “The Brain on Trial,” which examines the impacts of neuroscience evidence and new technologies in the legal system.
The students are two of the 12 ASU student session aide volunteers attending the meeting that took place Feb. 18-22, in San Diego, Calif., sponsored by AAAS, the Center for Biology and Society, Barrett Honors College and the School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research (SOLUR) program, which is supported by the National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
“Session aides monitor audiovisual, run errands, but most importantly, evaluate sessions. They monitor attendance, comments, problems, such as protestors – information that helps AAAS plan for future meetings,” said Melanie Hunter, AAAS session aide coordinator and researcher with Blood Systems Laboratory in Tempe, Ariz. It is Hunter’s sixth year coordinating the session aide program.
“Students come from all over,” Hunter, an ASU alumna, said. “It is a very diverse group of people, from high school teachers to college freshmen. This year we’ve had 110 volunteers, with ASU bringing the largest contingent of students.”
Hunter, in fact, first came to the AAAS meeting as an ASU undergraduate session aide with 15 other students in 1998, mentored by Jane Maienschein, AAAS fellow.
Maienschein, a Regents’ and President’s Professor in the School of Life Sciences and director of the Center of Biology and Society in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, recognized early on the benefits of attending scientific meetings which offer undergraduate students access to top scientific experts, decision-makers and leaders in science policy and experience in networking and communicating their research to the public.
In 2000, when she was named Parents Association’s Professor of the Year, Maienschein invested her award winnings in “intellectual capital funds,” by directing her monies to support student travel to the meetings. In 2003, her efforts were expanded by the participation of Margaret (Peggy) Nelson, associate dean of the Barrett Honor College and professor in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change.
“The students all love it!” Maienschein said. “Serving as session aides means that they are engaged with the meeting and feel part of helping to make it happen.”
Eight hours of work as a session aide translates into free admission to the meeting and, if the student is presenting a poster (as required by Maienschein and Nelson), a waiver for poster session fees. For 16 hours of service, students also get a free year of the journal Science (online). In addition, AAAS offers student travel funds.
“This was the first international conference I’ve attended, and it was one of the most eye-opening and humbling experiences I’ve ever had,” said Tian (Annie) Zhu, who is majoring in biochemistry and a life sciences’ undergraduate researcher. “The highlight of this conference was when I was able to talk about my thesis project with Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.”
This year, ASU student poster title’s ranged from “Inviting Stories, Creating Medicine,” about the use of narrative in medical practice, to “The Development of Prenatal Diagnostic Tools” and “Peer Influence on Student Water Use.”
The student poster sessions were arrayed in the exhibition hall, along with the AAAS Family Science Days booths for children and exhibits from vendors, publishers and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), U.S. Department of Energy, European Commission, World Federation of Science Journalists, the National Academies and the National Science Foundation, who was celebrating their 60th birthday with cake, and others.
"Going to AAAS was an amazing experience,” said Allyn Knox, who is pursuing a double major in biology and society and French. “The talks were interesting. Presenting my poster and getting feedback was constructive and gave me direction for my thesis."
Samuel Philbrick, an English literature student looking toward a career in medicine, agreed.
"Seeing the research of prominent scientists and having my own work held up to the scrutiny of professionals and students challenged me,” Philbrick said. “It was great getting to know so many other students from ASU and across the country who enjoy science and research!”
In addition to their peer-to-peer networking and session aide activities, several students volunteered at ASU’s “Ask a Biologist” Family Science Days booth. “Ask a Biologist” is an online science education Web site for children, teachers, parents and lifelong learners that teaches “from K to Gray,” quipped Charles Kazilek, School of Life Sciences director of technology integration and outreach and creator of his “Ask A Biologist” avatar: “Dr. Biology.” Kazilek and ASU doctoral student Arianne Cease handed out bookmarks, did demos and showed how to make ant farms from CD-cases.
“Being a part of AAAS Family Days was a fun and exciting adventure of learning how to communicate science behind the scenes,” Cease said. “My favorite part was meeting a family who returned a second day to say that they had stayed up past the kids’ bedtimes – everyone drawn to stories of biology on the Web site. How cool is that?”
The meeting was topped off with a Mission Bay fish dinner, with ASU’s student contingent joining faculty and staff wharfside – organized by the Center for Biology and Society’s staff member Jessica Ranney – and collective birthday wishes for Knox.
Students also had a surprise of their own for Maienschein.
“We bought a huge Mother’s Day card to thank her for all that she does,” ASU senior Ellen Dupont said. “Really that is what she is: our academic mom. We follow her around like ducks.”
Ducks whose ASU training, sense of community and AAAS experiences will empower them to change the world.