NASW/CASW Joint "Science Smorgasbord" Lunch

Food and good conversation wrapped up the National Association of Science Writers' 2006 annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, and kicked off the annual New Horizons meeting of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. At the luncheon in the Tremont Grand Hotel, conference participants jockeyed for seats at 31 tables, each of which featured a local scientist discussing his or her current research.

Topics ranged from cancer treatment to ocean circulation patterns to the Hubble telescope. The most popular tables filled up quickly, and attendants raced through the aisles, torn between fascinating topics and hosts. "I was scrambling for a table," said Jackie Ruttimann, an assistant editor for the bulletin of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute who joined a discussion about gene therapy and breast cancer. "I didn't pick this table, but I'm really glad I sat here."

Dr. Ben Ho Park of Johns Hopkins University led that discussion with a summation of his recent work in the field, which prompted comments from around the table. "We ran the gamut," said Ruttiman, "Everybody has a story to tell about cancer — it's sad but true." Ruttiman, who recently joined the NASW and was attending her first conference, added that it was a worthwhile experience because she was able to take away a better perspective on "the lifestyle of a scientist," a focus of the HHMI bulletin.

Chris Emery, a science reporter for The Baltimore Sun, picked his seat at the luncheon well in advance. Over basil chicken pasta, he discussed models of schizophrenia in mice that might be extrapolated to treatment of the disease in humans. "I have a fascination with neuroscience and molecular connections to perception and behavior," Emery said. Dr. Akira Sawa of John Hopkins led the conversation with a presentation of his recent studies, and the audience peppered him with questions. "We didn't let him eat," said Emery, who hopes to follow-up on Dr. Sawa's research with a visit to his lab. As the two men left the table, they exchanged good-byes in Japanese, which Emery picked up while living in Asia for four years.

At my table, Dr. Jim West, also from Johns Hopkins, headed a discussion about efforts to quiet dangerous noise levels in hospitals. "Three years ago I didn't even know the problem existed; now I'm a world expert," he said. Research has linked noise pollution to premature hearing loss in medical staffs and slower recovery times in patients, but acoustic control is an expensive and complicated endeavor. The predicament was obvious to others at the table that had recently visited hospitals to see loved ones or chase a story. "I have a tough time finding a quiet place to interview doctors," said Robert Frederick, a radio broadcaster for KWMU. The luncheon itself was an oddly appropriate venue for such comments.

As guests filtered into the banquet hall and food was served, an NASW event organizer stepped up to the podium and asked that conference goers keep the racket down: "With so many interesting people in the same room, let's do our best to ensure that everybody is able to hear what is being discussed." Taking a cue, Dr. West likened the clamor in the room — about 60 to 65 decibels, he estimated — to the noise levels in hospitals. But with 30 other tables chatting about the hottest topics in journalism and science, there was nothing to be done. The din did not settle until the last desert plate had been cleared the coffee pots dried up — a fitting end to an engaging lunch.

Oct. 29, 2006