Scientific meetings — it’s nice to see you again

Coverage of scientific meetings has always been one of the pillars of Science News’ journalism. From the early days, our reporters showed up in person to get stories that no one else had. In the 1920s, Jane Stafford regularly reported from medical meetings, covering topics from the common cold to cancer. In 1981, Julie Miller, life sciences reporter at the time, attended a meeting where medical researchers were discussing the first cases of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. She came back knowing she had to write about it (SN: 11/14/81, p. 309). And Ivars Peterson, who covered physical sciences, math and technology, was introduced to a Web browser at a physics meeting in the 1990s.

The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted a lot of our face time with scientists. Virtual gatherings were no doubt necessary to keep people safe, but they just weren’t the same. “Going to meetings gives you a main line to the science,” says staff writer Meghan Rosen, who recently attended a meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics in Washington, D.C. “You get to immerse yourself in different subjects in a way that’s completely different from reading a paper.”

One of the perks is finding stories that wouldn’t necessarily make it into the journals. In 2018, physics and senior writer Emily Conover wrote an award-winning story about how ravens were to blame for a glitch in the gravitational wave detector LIGO — she got the tip at a meeting of the American Physical Society in Columbus, Ohio. In 2020, neuroscience and senior writer Laura Sanders attended the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, held in Seattle that year. During an interview with a researcher about an entirely different topic, Sanders was tipped off to a project about improving the ability to record brain activity in people with curly, coarse hair (SN: 4/11/20, p. 5).

I’m happy to report that we are back to covering scientific meetings in person. Staff writer Nikk Ogasa went 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. Earth and climate writer Carolyn Gramling was in Cincinnati for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting, where she was reminded of the value of chatting with researchers just after their talks. Like Rosen, Aimee Cunningham also attended the American Academy of Pediatrics meeting. Intern Saima S. Iqbal went to the American Society of Human Genetics meeting in Washington, D.C., alongside molecular biology and senior writer Tina Hesman Saey.

And early in October, seven Science News writers and editors, including myself, went to ScienceWriters 2023 in Boulder, Colo. We discussed issues in journalism, learned how to be better at our craft and attended scientific sessions. I heard researchers talk about the sun’s corona and solar wind, the world’s most advanced atomic clocks, air quality following the nearby Marshall Fire in 2021 and more. I met up with staffers who work remotely, with former interns and with some of our freelance writers whom I’d never seen in person before. Judging by the energy and enthusiasm at the meeting, I’m not the only one who was glad to be back. I look forward to attending more meetings — though don’t be surprised if I’m still wearing my mask.

Elizabeth Quill is former executive editor of Science News. She's now a freelance editor based in Washington, D.C.