From Plant Biology to Conference Behavior: Using Research Skills Across Disciplines

February 26, 2020
Taran presenting her poster at AAAS 2020
Taran Lichtenberger presents her poster at the AAAS 2020 Annual Meeting

by Ellen Brennan

**Editor's note: This post is part of a series highlighting members of the ComSciCon community who recently attended the AAAS Annual Meeting, which took place from February 13-16, 2020 in Seattle, WA.

The past decade has seen enormous landscape transformations, whether from the expansion of agriculture, wildfires like those in Australia and California, or even the slow changes of ecosystems. Such dramatic changes have led to an increased demand for restorative processes to physically reintroduce plants to their former environments. While this normally occurs by planting seeds or seedlings, researchers and restorative organizations have to consider a very important question: How do we know we’re getting the best seed to go back in that area?

Taran Lichtenberger, a masters student at Northwestern and ComSciCon-Chicago 2019 alum, is one researcher working to answer this question. “I look specifically at one species, and specifically at certain genetics of that species, which leads to my research addressing one very individual question,” she says. Taran explained that as we attempt to restore environments and landscapes, “we must consider whether we are introducing plants that will be able to stay around the longest and best provide for the animals and pollinators in that area.” While Taran will be defending her masters in April, her passions for science lay beyond the details of this one research question.

As a poster presenter at the 2020 Annual Meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Taran is focusing on an entirely different topic - codes of conduct at biology conferences. “We are very interested in how conferences and just academic settings in general can lead to dissatisfaction and attrition of scientists in their field because of instability and some not-so-great behaviors from some people…” In this project, which was spearheaded by a PhD student at Northwestern, they discovered that only 24% of biology conferences in the US and Canada had a code of conduct, and of those that did, 26% lacked a way to report violations and 35% lacked consequences for violating those codes. “We found a huge deficit in the number of conferences that actually have a standard ethical way to behave,” says Taran, but their paper, published in PNAS, highlights recommendations to help conferences improve equity. Taran's E-poster presentation was the winning entry in the Science and Society category at AAAS 2020.

This research project highlights some of Taran’s future goals in science. While she greatly enjoys the intensity and merit of scientific research, she is also passionate about access to science from other perspectives. “When I started doing my masters, I realized, oh wow - the more in or higher up you get, the more niche you get. And I wanted to go back into the broad look at science.” Taran hopes to land a job in science communication and public engagement that helps make a connection between the public and science being done at research institutions. 

When asked what one thing she wanted people to learn from this spotlight would be, she quickly focused on transferable skills. While graduate students and scientists may research one very specific topic, they can still take the skills they’ve learned in that process and apply them in other ways, just as she used her detailed analysis skills to approach the codes of conduct project. Taran’s parting insight was that “every scientist can take what they use and use it somewhere else.”

Ellen Brennan headshotEllen KW Brennan is a neuroscience PhD candidate studying cortical circuits underlying memory and navigation. She is also an improv performer and brings that training to academic research, aiming to foster a commitment to relationship building and open communication within academic institutions, as well as between those institutions and the public who funds them.


See also: Life Science