News: AAAS 2011 Annual Meeting News
Huang Presidential Address: Science Diplomacy Must "Avoid Arrogance" to Succeed
Eduardo Palma was one of Alice S. Huang's first postdoctoral students, and she remembers now how she continued to collaborate with him after he returned home to Argentina. At the time, Argentina was in the midst of its "Dirty War," where thousands of opponents of the government were killed, and it was a partnership that made some of her colleagues uneasy.
"One of my colleagues asked how I could associate myself with a scientist from a country governed by an autocratic dictator," she recalled. "It never occurred to me that I should not work with Eduardo...we share a common passion, and that transcends any political differences we may have."
Huang's own practice of science diplomacy--in the lab and on the international stage--has convinced her of its power to address global problems such as poverty and women's economic development.
Alice S. Huang delivered the AAAS Presidential Address on 17 February at the Annual Meeting.
[Photo by Edward W. Lempinen]
"The United States has tremendous credibility to engage other countries in science diplomacy, because of our own capabilities in science and technology," she said in her presidential address at the 2011 AAAS Annual Meeting.
For the U.S. to succeed, she said, "we need to avoid arrogance and Western-centric views, and behave as true partners in advancing international science as well as the welfare of all citizens."
The AAAS Presidential Address is the traditional opening of the Annual Meeting. Huang was preceded by the meeting's local co-chair, Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and introduced by Nobel laureate Peter C. Agre, chair of the AAAS Board.
Huang, a senior faculty associate in biology at California Institute of Technology, spoke fondly of her 30 years' of groundbreaking research on viral infection. Using the vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) as a model, Huang and her collegues were the first to purify and describe defective interfering viral particles, the mutant viral forms that develop under high rates of infection and interfere with the replication of normal virus. The "predator-prey" relationship that develops between the defective and normal particles, where the populations of each kind grow and crash in relation to the other's success, has shed light on the mechanics of viral infection.
Watch Huang’s presentation as a Flash-format movie
Huang was also the first to discover that viruses such as VSV, the herpes simplex virus and HIV can trade their viral coats in a mixed infection, a "wolf-in-sheep's-clothing" effect that can have significant consequences for what organisms the viruses can infect and how well they are recognized and dispatched by the organism's immune system.
Formerly a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Harvard Medical School and dean of science at New York University, Huang also counts international collaboration, the advancement of women and minorities in science, and education among her passions in a life of science.
Huang has consulted on science policy for government agencies in Singapore, Taiwan, and China, and "I'm still practicing this kind of science diplomacy and enjoying it," she said. Her recent work in the Asia-Pacific region, she noted, has brought her face-to-face with American fears about the economic and technological growth of countries such as China.
She cited a survey from the Center for American Medical Innovations that found 65% of the American public believed that the country was losing its global edge in research and innovation. She acknowledged that some Asian countries have wooed American scientists with "prestigious positions, excellent research facilities, and solid financial support."
But Huang reminded the audience that the United States, which still supports more research than any other country, maintains some strong innovative advantages. "We do encourage risk-taking," she said, "but what is unique is our acceptance of failures as learning experiences."
To extract the full potential of American science, Huang said, science leaders must do more to promote women and minorities to "prestigious, lucrative positions." Women in particular have drawn closer to parity with men in the past 40 years, she noted, "but attracting them into science and retaining them will not be useful to society if they can not reach their full potential and have access to all the opportunities that exist."
A striking finding in recent data, said Huang, is that Asian Americans in fields such as science "stand now as having the lowest chance of success in rising to a management level, despite their education and notable achievements." She urged science leaders to study the reasons for this phenomenon and "to do something that narrows the disparity."
Huang also encouraged undergraduate educators to make their classes more applicable to the everyday decisions Americans must make about their health, finances, and technology.
"Since college might be the last formal science experience for many Americans," she observed, "we as educators...must learn how to teach science subjects in a more integrative fashion."
On 21 February, at the end of the 2011 meeting, Huang will turn over duties to AAAS President-elect Nina V. Fedoroff and begin a one-year term as chair of the AAAS Board of Directors. Fedoroff served as the science adviser to the U.S. Department of State and USAID from 2007 to 2010, and is now a Distinguished Visiting Professor at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia and an Evan Pugh Professor at Pennsylvania State University.
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