09 March 2016

Study trip to AAAS science conference

An incredible learning experience at the global science gathering in Washington DC.

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When we first signed up for this six-day trip to Washington DC to attend a huge three-day annual and global science conference, we had no idea what to expect. Not only is ‘science’ a broad term, but few of us had yet heard about the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science).

After some research and finding out about the sheer diversity of the offered talks, we became increasingly excited, and do not regret having joined this trip because, despite its short duration, we have gained more insight and first-hand knowledge than we could have hoped to obtain in or outside a classroom. 

Arriving in a huge, American-style hotel with dozens of different-sized conference halls and ballrooms, in which more than 50 lectures took place daily, was a little daunting on the first day for us, especially since we felt slightly young and unqualified compared to the more professional attendees all around us. PhD candidates, professors, businessmen, entrepreneurs, and all types of scientists roamed the halls confidently, and you could be sure of catching several intellectual-sounding conversations virtually anywhere around the hotel’s public floors. 

Perhaps the most incredible experience of the conferences was attending the talk from a LIGO physicist, giving a highly moving and inspirational talk about gravitational waves less than 24 hours after the first announcement of this confirmation of Einstein’s gravitational wave theory. To have a first-hand scoop of such a groundbreaking event was unparalleled to how we would have felt reading about the discovery on the news; the speaker was not only excellent and clear (after all, she managed to clarify Einstein’s theory of relativity, black holes, and dark matter to me, which is an accomplishment in itself), but she was so passionate about her job that she admitted having cried tears of joy when her team confirmed the recording of the gravitational wave.

To put into context for non-scientists, the wave lasted a fraction of a second and came from an event that occurred billions of years ago. What is so momentous about this discovery is that it confirmed Einstein’s suggestion that when two black holes merge, a bend in the fabric of space-time creates a ripple of energy released through a gravitational wave, which was detected last September simultaneously by the two LIGO centres in America. Even though we may never become theoretical physicists, the passion of the scientists involved has inspired us to be resilient in reaching our goals, and to never lose hope in something that seems impossible. 

We could go on and on in depth about all the incredible experiences we gained from both listening to such a range of inspirational speakers, and talking to them personally, or from the conversations that arose with our peers in response to the conferences, but some especially memorable talks were the ones about the emergence of Artificial Intelligence in the near future, the beautiful and intrinsic connection between mathematics and music (that even non-scientists would appreciate), and the future of DNA modification using the groundbreaking invention of CRISPR-cas9.

After four days of attending the conference, we had a chance to experience some aspects of American culture, including visits to the Smithsonian Museums, the esteemed halls of Georgetown University, a hotly contested ice hockey match between the Washington Capitals and the LA Kings, along with a tour of DC’s many instantly recognisable monuments and sights, which naturally included a group hug with the city’s enormous, cuddly Einstein statue.

If there’s one thing we have taken from this trip, it is the power that our generation has in engaging with and transforming a fast-moving world, and to harness the potential of human cooperation with nature. As scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, or political leaders, we all have significant roles to play if we wish to pave the way for a better future.

Sophie Thorel and Dan Newsome

View the Flickr gallery from the trip here

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