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STJR Program Prepares Student for Conference Reporting Opportunity

Posted February 12, 2013

First-year STJR student Mary Beth Schaefer recently attended the 2013 Beckman Initiative for Macular Research (BIMR) Conference in Irvine, California, as a science writing scholar.

The conference, held by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation on January 24-26, included breakout sessions where multidisciplinary groups tackled challenges relating to atrophic macular degeneration. In addition to experts from different fields, each group had a science writing scholar who wrote a report on how the group approached the problem and sought to solve it.

Age-related macular degeneration, a disease affecting the retina, progressively impairs vision in the affected eye or eyes. Currently only limited options exist for treatment. Several million people in the United States have age-related macular degeneration, and more are expected to develop the condition in the next decade as the population ages.

Mary Beth told us about her experience at the BIMR conference, and she described how the STJR program prepared her to attend as a science writer.


What made you want to attend this conference?

I wanted to attend the BIMR conference because it seemed to be unlike any other conference I had ever attended-or heard of. The conference brings together scientists from a range of fields, from microbiology to nanotechnology to genetics. [These scientists] spend the conference collaborating to work toward a better understanding of a disease that affects millions of Americans: atrophic age-related macular degeneration. I wanted to observe how scientists from different disciplines unite and deliberate to pursue a common goal.

What did you do as a "science writing scholar"?

As a science writing scholar, I was assigned to a task group to write a summary of their discussion during the breakout sessions and their conclusions made at the end of the conference. There were eight or nine science writing scholars, each assigned to different task groups, and we were led by professional science writer Barbara Culliton. I was also asked to write the summary for the entire conference as well as a report of the presentations made by recipients of grants from the Beckman Initiative last year. I will be completing these reports over the next few weeks.

What challenge was your group assigned?  Can you give us a basic idea of how they approached it?

I was assigned to the stem cell task group. Each task group is given a specific challenge along with guiding questions to help facilitate the discussion. Each group also had a leader to moderate the discussion. The leader could use a dry-erase board, poster board, or a computer projector to record major points or draw diagrams. The task groups were also free during some sessions to visit other task groups, usually to ask questions or gain insight about the disease from another perspective.

How did the STJR program prepare you to cover this conference?

The STJR program helped prepare me in quite a few ways to be a science writing scholar at the BIMR conference. First of all, because I have had practice interviewing researchers and writing stories, I am much more comfortable interacting with scientists, and I am not afraid to ask questions. STJR courses have also taught me the value of preparation before going into a conference or interview scenario. Lastly, I am much more self-aware about my writing because of STJR. We put a lot of emphasis on revising our work as well as receiving feedback from others. For this reason, I know what my strengths and weaknesses are, which makes doing independent revision (and receiving critiques from others) much easier.


You can find out more about the BIMR Conference here.

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