Faculty and Staff Present at AAAS Conference

Elaine Vitone, wearing a black shirt, interviews Pitt alumna R. Swati Shree as a part of the Pitt Medcast. Both are speaking into microphones.Each year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science hosts an annual conference as part of its mission to advance science, engineering and innovation.

This year, the conference’s theme—“Envisioning Tomorrow’s Earth”—considered the ways that science and technology can respond to new challenges from both nature and the built world. Among its symposia, sessions and workshops were multiple presentations by Pitt faculty and staff.

Advocating for the role of science

Sandra Mitchell, Distinguished Professor and career director, and Michael Dietrich, professor and department chair in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, both presented at the conference.

Mitchell’s “How Evidence Gets Deformed” argued that policy should be based on our best understanding of the state of the world and projections into the future. “It’s not good enough to tell people what the science is anymore,” Mitchell said. “You have to advocate for its role. That’s a new challenge for people interested in a role for evidence in our decision-making.”

Mitchell, who also is the outgoing president of the Philosophy of Science Association, has been involved with AAAS since presenting a symposium in 2009; she has attended myriad sessions over the years. “You can just go and sit in a session on something you don’t know about and learn something amazing,” she said.

Dietrich organized “Nature Remade: Engineering Life from the Past to Future,” a symposium featuring Christian Young from Alverno College. The symposium considered representative cases where gaining knowledge of life has entailed its engineering, and where attempts to engineer life have posited new ideas of what can be controlled.

Tropical and temperature plant growth forms

Michelle Spicer, graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences, contributed a poster, “A Comparison of Tropical and Temperature Plant Growth Forms and Strata Distributions.” Spicer’s research illustrated a previously unquantified fundamental difference between tropical and temperate forests: what plant growth-forms are most speciose and where they ultimately live in the forest. 

Sustainability in pharmaceutical manufacturing

Donna Huryn, professor of pharmaceutical sciences in the School of Pharmacy, organized the symposium “Pharmaceutical Manufacturing: Sustainable Innovations to Produce Zero Waste,” which addressed efforts in both industry and academia to identify and optimize processes for the large scale production of pharmaceutical agents that minimize waste, energy, cost and impact to the environment.

In 2020, she assumed her position as chair of the Pharmaceutical Sciences section of the AAAS. “The AAAS meeting offers a unique opportunity to meet scientists from all disciplines and learn about topics outside of your own, typically narrow, scientific focus. The talks often give you new ideas and encourage you to think about your own research projects in new ways,” Huryn said.

STEM and individuals with disabilities

Rory Cooper, director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, presented “Universal Design for Innovation and Invention.” Among a panel of three scientists, Cooper described the real and perceived barriers that individuals with disabilities face in STEM careers and why inclusivity matters.

Cooper, himself a disabled veteran, has spent 30 years recruiting students with disabilities to HERL so that they can contribute to society as scientists and engineers. “Children with disabilities are exposed to technology at a very young age,” Cooper said. “There are 3-year-olds using speech-to-text or gesture-to-speech technology. Most people don’t learn that until college.”

Read more about Cooper’s press briefing.

AI and robotic companions

Faina Linkov, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine in the School of Medicine, and associate professor of epidemiology at the Graduate School of Public Health, organized “Robotic Companions and the Future of AI,” which considered improvements in robotics, machine learning, neural networks and artificial intelligence in the context of the sex industry.

Pitt Med presents at ‘premier science meeting’

Pitt Med magazine’s Erica Lloyd, editor-in-chief, and Elaine Vitone, senior editor, hosted a live recording of the magazine’s podcast, Pitt Medcast.

Their guest was R. Swati Shree from the University of Washington, who joined them to discuss how mothers and children share cells during pregnancy (microchimerism) and the long-term health effects on the mother. Swati Shree completed her obstetrics and gynecology residency at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in 2014.

“We felt honored to be there, at the premier science meeting,” said Lloyd.

The Pitt Medcast is available from most podcast repositories, including iTunes, and has been picked up by NPR, the National Science Foundation livestreams and Science 360. Visit the Pitt Med website for more information.