Coverage of scientific meetings has always been one of the pillars of Scientific news‘journalism. From the beginning, our journalists showed up in person to get stories that no one else had. In the 1920s, Jane Stafford regularly reported on medical meetings, covering topics ranging from the common cold to cancer. In 1981, Julie Miller, then a life sciences journalist, attended a meeting where medical researchers were discussing the first cases of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. She came back knowing she had to write about it (SN: 14/11/81, p. 309). And Ivars Peterson, who covered physical sciences, mathematics and technology, discovered a web browser at a physics meeting in the 1990s.
The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted much of our interaction with scientists. Virtual gatherings were undoubtedly necessary to keep people safe, but it just wasn’t the same. “Going to meetings gives you an inside look at the science,” says editor Meghan Rosen, who recently attended a meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics in Washington, DC. “You can immerse yourself in different topics in a completely different way than reading a newspaper.
One of the benefits is finding stories that wouldn’t necessarily make it into the newspapers. In 2018, physicist and senior editor Emily Conover wrote an award-winning story about how crows were responsible for a problem in the LIGO gravitational wave detector — she received the information at a meeting of the American Physical Society in Columbus, Ohio. In 2020, senior neuroscience writer Laura Sanders attended the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, held in Seattle that year. During an interview with a researcher on an entirely different topic, Sanders was informed of a project on improve the ability to record brain activity in people with curly and coarse hair (SN: 04/11/20, p. 5).
I’m happy to announce that we are once again covering in-person scientific meetings. Editor Nikk Ogasa traveled to Pittsburgh for the Geological Society of America meeting; you can read his story about how pumping cold water into rivers could serve as “air conditioning” for fish. Carolyn Gramling, an earth and climate writer, was in Cincinnati for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting, where she was reminded of the importance of talking with researchers right after their discussions. Like Rosen, Aimee Cunningham also attended the American Academy of Pediatrics meeting. Intern Saima S. Iqbal traveled to the American Society of Human Genetics meeting in Washington, DC, alongside Molecular Biology and Senior Editor Tina Hesman Saey.
And at the beginning of October, seven Scientific news writers and editors, including myself, went to ScienceWriters 2023 in Boulder, Colorado. We discussed journalism issues, learned how to improve our craft, and attended scientific sessions. I heard from researchers about the solar corona and solar wind, the world’s most advanced atomic clocks, air quality after the nearby Marshall Fire in 2021, and much more. I met remote staff, former interns, and some of our freelance writers who I’d never seen in person before. Judging by the energy and enthusiasm at the meeting, I’m not the only one happy to be back. I look forward to attending more meetings, but don’t be surprised if I still wear my mask.