Three things I learned at AAAS 2018

Last weekend I grabbed a notebook and donned my cleanest business casual outfit to attend the largest science conference in the world: the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The three-day conference was both inspiring and utterly overwhelming. Here are a few things I learned concerning pigeons, climate change, and how to be a functioning human being.

1. Pigeons aren’t completely useless


Pigeons get a bad rap. People say say they’re arrogant and entitled, and sometimes describe them as “flying rats.” But it turns out these city birds might actually be useful for detecting environmental toxins such as lead.

You probably have more in common with the ubiquitous pigeon than you might imagine. Pigeons share our food supply, water sources, and exposure to environmental toxins. Since they metabolize those toxins similarly to humans and each pigeon has a relatively small home range, Dr. Rebecca Calisi from UC Davis speculated that pigeons could provide accurate predictions of the amount of lead pollution in that range.

Calisi used data on pigeon lead levels from the Wild Bird Fund and analyzed it next to levels from children in New York City. She overlaid this data on a map of NYC and found that in areas where pigeons had higher blood lead levels, so did children — proving that your local pigeons can be used to test whether there are unsafe levels of lead in the environment before it’s too late.

2. Playing music keeps your brain young


Neuroscience professor Nina Kraus demonstrated how your brain interprets music — and how the brain waves it creates can be deciphered and played back to mimic the original sound. 

Nina Kraus is the daughter of a classical pianist. As a girl, she would creep under the piano with her toys and blankets and sit there in the glow of  the music her mother produced.

Now a neuroscience professor at Northwestern, Kraus dedicates her time to studying the effects of music on the brain and the way speech and music are encoded in your neurons.

In a talk on Friday called “Sound and Brain Health,” Kraus showed how playing music — not just listening, but actually playing — can speed up your neural response time, which naturally slows as you get older.

One benefit of working out your brain this way? You’ll be able to hear better at parties. Seriously. Kraus said practicing musicians showed an enhanced ability to ignore distracting sounds and focus in on one voice or sound in a cacophony.


3. To make the biggest impact on how people see climate change, focus on people you can connect with

Climate change shouldn’t be up for debate. The facts are there, and the effects are already showing in our storms and sea levels and yearly average temperatures. But when the two sides of the U.S. political spectrum are playing a brutal tug-of-war over anything that can be grabbed and pulled upon, facts aren’t always enough.

That was the theme of the AAAS plenary lecture by Katharine Hayhoe, a professor at Texas Tech and a climate change expert. Hayhoe stressed the importance of using your connections and similarities with people to help them understand why climate change is a pressing issue.

No one can reach everyone. But each of us has a network of people with whom we share something. That’s how we can really change people’s minds, Hayhoe said. If you’re a Christian, reach out to those who share your faith. If you’re a mother, engage other parents. Whatever identities you hold, they are your key to helping — kindly and supportively — to make a positive impact on our planet.

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