One Way in which Science is Done

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April 19, 2008

Science is done in many ways. The branch of science with which we are concerned - paleoanthropology, or the study of human origins - is performed by research in the field and in the lab; writing papers based on that research; teaching; and meeting as often as possible with colleagues engaged in the same and related fields of study, to exchange ideas and discuss possible avenues for joint research.

Formal meetings take place periodically in the form of professional conferences; the most recent of these was held April 9-12, 2008 in Columbus, Ohio, the 77th annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

The first day was comprised of numerous committee meetings and some poster displays. The three following days comprised several simultaneous sessions from eight to noon and one to five each day, with many fifteen-minute talks packed into a single, four-hour session.

Here is an example of just one day, Friday:

From eight until noon

  • Session 13: Genetics & Human Biological Variation (61 posters)
  • Session 14: Integrative approaches to the study of human adaptations and population health (14 speakers and a break)
  • Session 15: Primate evolution: taxonomy & morphology
  • Session 16: Skeletal biology
  • Session 17: Paleoanthropology: functional & evolutionary anatomy

From one until five PM

  • Session 18: Skeletal biology & forensic anthropology (75 posters)
  • Session 19: Consolidating twenty years of bioarcheological inquiry: n emerging region picture
  • Section 20: The importance of feedback foods in primate ecology and evolution
  • Session 21: Molecular & primate genetics
  • Session 22: Functional & morphological evolution
  • Session 23: Women's health: endocrinology, sexuality & life phases

The three days of sessions were attended by hundreds of professional scientists. graduate students and media representatives. With several sessions overlapping each other, most attendees picked two or three talks from each session to attend; at the end of each 15-minute talk, in any particular room there was an exodus and entrance of people before the next talk began. And clusters of people at all times in the hallways outside, chatting with colleagues, discussing the most recent talk, etc. The room in which the posters were displayed had visitors throughout the day, as the author of the poster stood by to answer questions on his/her work.

Imagine! Anywhere from four to six sessions each morning and afternoon, fourteen talks per session, posters, and many colleagues and friends one had not seen since the last annual meeting. All this made for intense, stimulating thought and discussion. Every participant questioned said they came to learn about new research and to network.

By Saturday night the large hotel meeting rooms, bustling for three days with the comings and goings of hundreds of people engaged in intense discussion, were deserted and participants headed for the airport or the drive home.