AAPA and the March for Science

I am just back from the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in New Orleans. As always, it was great to catch up with colleagues and friends. I’m never quite sure about how I fit in to AAPA, but I certainly know a lot of people there (and, of course, I’m never quite sure about how I fit in to nearly any academic conference I attend!). I was struck by what seems like a pretty dramatic demographic shift from previous incarnations of AAPA. Overall, the assembled conference-goers seemed quite a bit younger. The image I have in my mind of AAPA is a bunch of stodgy old dudes wearing polyester-mix sport coats. Not so much this year. So much ink! There was even a bit more diversity, which is an encouraging sign for a field dedicated to the study of human diversity. I really appreciate that AAPA is taking an active part in changing its heretofore woeful diversity problem and I’m looking forward to seeing the payoff from the new IDEAS Workshop (thanks on that front to Ripan Malhi and Susan Antón for getting the grant to make the workshop happen).

I have to admit, I didn’t see that many talks. This is kind of my idiom at scientific meetings. There are so many people to meet and talk to that it seems a bit wasteful to spend hour after hour listening to podium talks of, let’s face it, rather mixed quality. However, I did spend a lot of time in the poster hall. I saw a number of really interesting posters. A couple that stand out in my memory: Saige Kelmelis, together with her advisor Jim Wood and my former student Mike Price, had a terrific poster describing the use of multi-state demographic models to infer the effect of leprosy on survival in medieval Denmark (lesioned skeletons had an overall increase in the estimated mortality hazard in excess of a factor of six!). Adam Reynolds at Emory, along with Paul Hooper and a bunch of co-authors, had a poster describing a dynamic-state model for herd management in Mongolia that looked really innovative (and left me with so many questions — a good thing in a scientific conference). Alaina Schneider, a student in Herman Pontzer’s lab, presented awesome work measuring the energetic costs of immune function in a mouse model. Emma Pomeroy of Liverpool John Moores University had a neat poster on the ancient origins of chronic disease risk in South Asian populations. That was one of those great ones where I knew nothing going in and felt like I actually learned something new after our chat.

I presented in one of the human biology sessions organized by Aaron Blackwell on some recent insights we’ve had into the statistical modeling of network data collected in the field using ethnographic methods. Be on the lookout for forthcoming discussion of ethnographic porcupines and how to deal with them. Current post-doc Ashley Hazel presented her great work on the epidemiological effects of isolation and mobility on HSV-2 infection among pastoralists of northern Namibia.  Ashely is also instrumental to the work that I presented and I’m excited about what should be coming out of our work in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future.

AAPA overlapped this year with Earth Day and the March for Science. In a statement of solidarity with this national movement, AAPA president Susan Antón and the conference organizers decided to cancel the standard plenary lecture and instead lend our support to the New Orleans satellite march.

I was an enthusiastic participant in the march, but I ended up having a bit of an adventure that I’ve come to think of as a metaphor for my own scientific career. Alan Rogers and I had gone to lunch at the House of Blues (quite a distance from the start of the march at Duncan Plaza). We got kind of lost in a wide-ranging conversation that included a discussion of fair productivity metrics for anthropologists to numerical calculation of eigenvalues to genetic algorithms to graph theory and Markov chains. At one point, Alan looked down at his watch and realized that we were late for the march. Having missed the  exodus from the conference hotel, we figured that we would just walk straight from the restaurant to the starting point of the march. The problem was, we thought that the march was starting from Jackson Square, not Duncan Plaza. I should have known that this wasn’t right because Jackson Square is more or less ground-zero for New Orleans tourism. It fronts St. Louis Cathedral and is across Decatur Street from the world-famous home of late-night beignets, Café du Monde. Seems hard to imagine Decatur Street being shut down for a political march on a Saturday in April!

When we arrived at Jackson Square, it was obvious that we were in the wrong spot. A quick search on my phone under the shade of the trees in Jackson Square and we realized our mistake. Unfortunately, we were unable to figure out the route of the march, since by this time, it had almost certainly started. We guessed and headed out for Duncan Plaza, figuring we might manage to intercept the march if our guess was right. Well, our guess wasn’t right. We walked the mile-and-a-half, didn’t encounter the march en route, and found ourselves at an empty Duncan Plaza (having acquired a couple other stragglers we encountered on the way) with no evidence of which way the thousands of people had gone!

A bit dejected — and very hot and sweaty — we figured we’d just head back to the conference hotel and get a drink and cool off in the hotel bar. As we approached the Marriott, I said “hey, I think we found it.” Alan , with a note of surprise in his voice over my seemingly terrible spatial cognition, said “yes, we’re nearly at the hotel. Don’t you know where we are?” I replied, “No, we found the march!” Sure enough, there they were, assembled in front of the Marriott, chanting, waving signs, and jamming out to the brass band which had accompanied the march.  Natalia Reagan captured a bit of the atmosphere in this tweet:

While it was a bit frustrating to miss much of the march, it was great to hang out with Alan while we comically tried to find a couple thousand of our closest friends as they marched, chanted, and made a whole lot of noise on the streets of a pretty small city, and I came to think of this as a pretty apt metaphor for my life as a scientist. I bumbled around, not entirely knowing what I was doing or where to look for an answer, mostly failing, but ultimately finding a modicum of success. That sounds like science to me. On this particular day, I enjoyed the great honor of bumbling around with one of my major scientific role models and fellow autodidact, Alan Rogers. We talked about a ridiculous array of technical and theoretical issues as we wandered, which is half the fun of science. Sure, maybe we felt a bit isolated from the field — perhaps even wondering if we actually belonged. This, again, is pretty par for the course of doing interdisciplinary science for me. But in the end, we managed to find our way into the field again, enjoy a sense of connection with the community and the history of our discipline, and let our voices be heard on some of the central issues of our time.