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What I Learned From My First Big Conference

This week, I was at the American Junior Academy of Sciences (AJAS) Conference in conjunction with the 2023 American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Washington D.C. This has most definitely been one of the most incredible, fun, and exciting events in STEM that I’ve ever been to, and I’m so excited to finally share everything that went on at this conference!

What is AJAS?

First of all, what even is this conference? Many states have an Academy of Science that represents scientists, encourage research, and inform public policy, as well as sponsoring student delegates for the American Junior Academy of Science Conference. These are the list of states with an Academy of Science:

  • California
  • Florida
  • Washington
  • New Jersey
  • Texas
  • Massachusetts
  • Virginia
  • Oklahoma
  • Colorado/Wyoming (yep, they’re combined!)
  • Minnesota
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Washington D.C.
  • Illinois
  • Missisippi
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania
  • Wisconsin

Every year, the Academy of Science has either a competition or a selection process to select student delegates to attend the conference. For many states, like Virginia, the selection process is a seperate competition that you have to apply for and enter to be selected. However, for me, I was selected as one of the top two students from either a state or regional science fair, without a seperate application process, and I was notified of my selection in August after competing in my regional science fair. I found that the number of students selected tended to vary a lot, with Florida sending dozens of students to the conference, while states like Oklahoma only sending one student to attend. It wasn’t proportional to population either, since Minnesota sent more students than California did.

The most unique aspect of AJAS as a conference is that this is not a competition. Unlike ISEF where we’re sent to compete in more awards judging, AJAS makes it abundantly clear that we’re not here to compete. Instead, they stated that the goal was to have us arrive as equals, and leave as equals, being able to gain the experience of attending scientific conferences throughout the experience. So, it was definitely super chill and stress-free, which made the experience much more of a science-themed vacation than a competition!

October: Abstract Revisions with Mentors!

The experience at AJAS actually began much, much before I even arrived at Washington D.C. I was first notified of my selection in August (super exciting!), and in October, I was also notified that I had received a mentor to help me revise my abstract and scientific paper. Since our research abstracts were going to be published in the 2023 AAAS Conference Proceedings, they needed our abstracts to be publication-quality. Because of this, my state Academy of Science found me a mentor to give me feedback on my abstract. My mentor was a Professor of Molecular Epidemiology who studied antibiotic resistance, which was perfect for my project as I designed small-molecule inhibitors for the treatment of antibiotic resistance. For me, my mentor was super helpful. He was able to not only give me feedback on my abstract, but my full scientific paper as well. I also later on asked him for feedback on another essay about my research that I wrote, so I was able to stay in touch with my mentor even after I had submitted my abstract for AJAS.

January: Virtual Workshops and Events

At this time, we began having a lot more activities related to AJAS, which were held virtually! One of the first activities that we had was a session on making better scientific posters, which was held by Mike Morrison. Mike Morrison is known for being the creator of #betterposter, which is a movement for decluttering the standard style of scientific poster into a more comprehensible and easy-to-understand image so that the viewer can actually gain information from the poster. As I was talking about this with my group, I think many of us were a bit hesitant about this new format of poster sessions, because I described it as making an Instagram post for your research. As new scientists, we were hesitant on challenging the status quo of our presentation, but I do think that the new style made a lot more sense and is much better at conveying information.

The next session that we had was a session on creating an elevator pitch for our research. This helped us improve in our scientific communication, where we worked on conveying the problem and our solution to make our research problem better understood by the audience. In total, all of these workshops were to help us with our submission for AJAS, which included a headshot, poster, Mike Morrison “hero image,” and an audio recording of the elevator pitch for our research.

February: By now, we had more networking and social events! We first had a Research Roundtable event where we met with a breakout room group of around six students to discuss our entire research process, from our inspirations for our research to what we learned. We then had a Poster Session event, where it was an online Zoom meeting with a 20-minute time block for us to present our research to anyone who wanted to drop by our session. This included some scientists, chaperones, and students, and it was just like a typical online poster session where you gave a short spiel about your research and answered any questions. I met a couple people who were interested and asked lots of great questions! Finally, the last social event session that we had was a Meet the Scientists event, where they had scientists from all different fields talk about their work and allowed us to ask questions. We were split into different breakout rooms with several scientists per room, and we got to ask any questions about their journey to science and their research.

Now… Onto the actual trip!

This is the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport! Isn’t it gorgeous?

Day 1: Flying out to Washington D.C.

On Wednesday, I woke up at 5 AM to get on a 8 AM flight to Washington D.C. with my team, consisting of lots of me sleeping on the plane and listening to music. We arrived that afternoon, where I was absolutely blown away by the Reagan National Airport because of how gorgeous Washington D.C. was outside. Right outside the Reagan National Airport were cherry blossom trees, and as we took the metro to our hotel, the view was absolutely gorgeous and definitely the best-looking metro station I’ve ever seen. We then checked into our hotel and checked in to AJAS, where they handed us an umbrella, a book, and our badges. We were also assigned our tour, as we were asked to rank four tours by order of preference. After that, we had the opening banquet.

For the opening banquet, we listened to several speakers. The first keynote speaker was Eleanor Signest, a sophomore at Stanford University who wants to be the first person on Mars, but also an incredible astrophysics researcher and a STEM enthusiast. Absolutely loved her energy – she was incredible, really funny, super fun to talk to, and super passionate about her work. She talked about her journey in STEM, and how she became involved in such advanced astrophysics research where she got to send a payload off into space through a Blue Origin rocket, starting off with her first elementary school science fairs. The next speaker was Alice Bowman, who also talked about her work as the Operations Manager for New Horizons mission to Pluto and a scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and how they discovered a space object with a unique shape through data collection.

Also, there was a chocolate fountain at the banquet, which I got much too excited about and ate many, many chocolate-dipped bananas.

This was the fossils exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History!

Day 2: Touring Washington D.C.

On Thursday, we got to go on the tours that we selected prior to coming to the conference! The four tours were…

  • Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
  • Pharma
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology
  • USDA

For me, I got assigned the Smithsonian tour. We took the metro downtown – again, I was blown away by the city, and we arrived at the (Qrious) Educational Center within the Smithsonian. There were eight scientists in all different fields from anthrobotany to marine biology, and we could go up to their table to ask more about their work. All of their work was super cool – I enjoyed one on jellyfish and marine biology the most, as well as one on how human remains collected from Native American tribes can be returned respectfully. The most interesting aspect I learned about the Smithsonian was that the Smithsonian is primarily a research institution, so all of the museum curators were researchers first, before educators or scientific communicators. That really appealed to me, as I love museums and I would love to work as a researcher at a museum.

We also got to tour the attic of the Smithsonian. If you don’t know what the attic is, the Smithsonian has around 155 million items in total, but only displays a fraction of that for the public to view. Because of this, the rest of the items are stored or used for research in the attic, so we got to go up to see what their research areas and stored artifacts consisted of, which is an opportunity not available to the public. While I’m not allowed to post pictures, it was super, super cool. There were lots of taxidermied animals, interesting specimens, and historical artifacts from tribes and indigenous cultures.

This brought us to lunch. After lunch, we had the rest of the day to ourselves. I decided to tour the rest of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History with my friends, starting with the Outbreaks exhibit on the top floor, and going to see the gemstones and then the Human Origins and mammals display. I got to see the Hope Diamond (admittedly, a little underwhelming, but I also can’t really distinguish between shiny stones). However, my favorite exhibit of all was the Human Origins exhibit, where it talked about the evolution of human-like ancestors, and how our facial features and body parts changed as we evolved.

We then went off to visit the Smithsonian Museum of American History – because well, I’m a huge history nerd. We didn’t have too much time, but we were able to see the First Ladies exhibit and the American Wars exhibit. My favorite was the First Ladies one, because they have the inauguration dresses of all of the first ladies up until Jill Biden on display, which was super cool. Really wish we could’ve finished this museum, but unfortunately, it was time for us to meet at the convention center for the plenary session.

Instead of taking the metro, we decided to walk to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center for the AAAS Conference. This was where I fully decided that Washington D.C. is now officially my favorite city in the U.S., because the city streets are SO BEAUTIFUL and SO CLEAN. The architecture in Washington D.C. is super East Coast classic, and the streets were wide and really clean. On our way, we came across the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel – and of course, I really wanted to go inside just to take a peek, and of course, it was absolutely gorgeous.

We finally got to the plenary session, where the AJAS students were given a special shout-out by AAAS, and we heard from two speakers about the importance of science and humanities. After that, we went to dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant with the entire team, and had a nice metro ride back to the hotel.

Day 3: Going to the AAAS Conference

Friday was the day that we would be spending the most time at the AAAS Conference! That morning, we took the metro to the convention center again, and listened to another plenary session about the past, present, and future of research, which discussed a lot about scientific communication, gender equality, and scientific misinformation. We then got to explore the Expo Sessions happening in the outside area, where I went to booths from all different organizations and universities, from study-abroad fellowships in Germany and Japan to scientific journals. Even though most of the booths were targeted towards graduate students and post-docs, there were some pretty cool ones with freebies, as well as a booth to get a professional headshot taken for free, which I found pretty funny but helpful. They did offer many other talks and opportunities to hear from researchers, and I wish I had gotten to attend some of them. 

After that, I went to Teaism for lunch, got disappointed by the weather as it rained, and stopped by Starbucks for a while to get my work for school done. I then went back to the conference and attended some more Expo Sessions, but afterwards, it was time to head to the Smithsonian for a visit and an event for AJAS. As we made our way to the Smithsonian, we got to finish some more of the museum, where we visited the Objects of Wonder, Fossils, and Mammals exhibit. We then took a group photo with all of the AJAS delegates, and went into the Qurious room again to listen to some of the curators give a talk, while doing some silly activities with our team for fun. We then got tacos catered for dinner.

While AJAS had originally planned to have a walk at night to the National Mall that day, it had been raining all day and was still raining at 8 PM. Because of this, they cancelled the walk. Yet, my team and I were really, really interested in going on the walk, so we begged our chaperones to let us go in the rain. And I’m so glad we did – it became such a highlight of the trip, where I was running around and giggling in the rain with my friends, taking photos, while the sky was a beautiful pink and the monuments were all around us. It was super exciting, and I definitely recommend going to the Washington Monument – even at night when it’s pouring rain and the sky is pink.

This is the Washington Monument at night. The sky was pink and lavender, and even though it was raining, I had so much fun.

Day 4: Free Day to Explore Washington D.C.!

Saturday was a free day, so my friends and I had met up last night to create a trip iternary for where we wanted to visit in Washingotn D.C. This was something that we had been super excited for, because we were super pumped to get to explore the city. For our trip plan, we came up with the following places that we wanted to visit:

  • Lincoln Memorial
  • Jefferson Memorial
  • Museums (United States Holocaust Museum, Smithsonean Air and Space Museum, National Art Gallery)
  • U.S. Capitol

We started off the day with a Meet the Scientists event, where we ate breakfast with different scientists from all different fields, from astrophysics to botany, and got to have a conversation with them about their work. At my table, I got to talk with a biologist who worked in animal and behavioral sciences of sea slugs, a scientist who worked on investigating scientific misconduct at the National Science Foundation, a marine biologist who had worked as a contractor for diving expeditions, as well as the Director and CEO of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society. We discussed so many different topics – from scientific misconduct in the Pruittgate scandal, to the differences between working in academia and consulting in terms of work hours. I really enjoyed this breakfast, as I learned so much from them.

The event ended at 11 AM, so we began our journey touring all of the different places in Washington D.C. Long story short, D.C. is an absolutely gorgeous city – beautiful weather, amazing monuments and attractions, and really clean streets. I would definitely recommend visiting at least one of the government monuments, visiting the museums in D.C. (the Holocaust Museum is done really thoughtfully), and having the chance to walk around the city.

Day 5: Flying Back Home!

And that’s a wrap to our journey! We left our hotel at 5 AM Sunday morning for our early morning flight back home, and finally had to say goodbye to our team and the friends that we made throughout this week 🙂

Why should I be in STEM?

Wow, that’s quite the philosophical question. Just kidding – of course you should be in STEM if you’re truly passionate about it! But, having an interest in STEM isn’t what I wanted to talk about. Instead, before I started doing science competitions and being involved in all of these opportunities, I never realized how much funding and opportunities there were to encourage students to be involved in STEM. In the past few years, I have gone on many funded trips to amazing places and met some of the most brilliant people I know, all from science competitions and being involved in research. STEM for students is a really well-funded field, so oftentimes, these trips don’t cost anything at all because of donations from sponsors and grants that make these opportunities possible. Because of this, I really want to encourage more students to apply to these programs because these opportunities are a lot more accessible than you might think, with many more free programs, trips, and opportunities available out there than you might expect. It’s definitely not the same for many other fields, so if you’re in STEM, it’s a great place to really take advantage of it and make the most out of these opportunities that are available to you as an aspiring scientist – because honestly, the country wants scientists, so take advantage of the money being thrown at you!

Posted in Research & STEM

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1 Comment

  1. Silvergorila

    I do not even know how I ended up here but I thought this post was great I dont know who you are but definitely youre going to a famous blogger if you arent already Cheers

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