Last month, several Genomics Salon organizers attended the University of Washington Praxis conference, an annual meeting hosted by the English department. The theme of this year’s event was “communicating across disciplines”, which seemed like a great opportunity for us to expand our horizons and learn how other fields approach discussion on complex topics. We registered to present a poster on our progress in building the Genomics Salon and each attended several presentations on topics that seemed relevant to the Salon or to our personal work at UW. Below are some reflections on the event.
Preparing for Praxis gave me the opportunity to think back to previous salon discussions and how they’ve changed over time. At the first-ever salon discussion on public understanding of science in June 2016, co-leader Molly Gasperini and I each gave five-minute “position statements” and then opened the floor to general discussion. Since then, salon leaders have explored many ways to incorporate case studies, graphs, figures, statistics, video clips, writing activities, and more as objects of discussion. Over time, it’s also become more common for us to break into small discussion groups so that more people have opportunities to speak. It was eye-opening for me to look through our handout archive and identify these diverse strategies for cultivating an open, inclusive discussion, and I’ll definitely be returning to these strategies in the future!
Designing our poster for Praxis gave me a chance to reflect on the success the Genomics Salon has achieved since it was founded 1.5 years ago. What stood out to me was the strong, consistent participation we’ve seen from departments beyond Genome Sciences and the variety of different departments we’ve been able to attract. We’ve seen participation from 40 departments, including STEM fields like Public Health Genetics, Biostatistics, and Astrobiology, and other fields of study, such as Philosophy, Law, and Communications. Their participation has brought a different perspective to many of our salons and makes me optimistic that we are succeeding in our goal to create a cross-disciplinary, diverse space for intellectual discussion.
Attending the Praxis conference was an opportunity to participate in the broader conversation taking place on campus about how to construct courses, assignments, and discussions consistent with the values of diversity, accessibility, and openness espoused so frequently across campus. As we think about the role of science in society, and how to use science in service of society, the presentations at Praxis brought home to me the importance and difficulty of developing authentic, two-way collaborations between scientists and the communities they seek to serve.
I attended a session called “Case studies of Oceanic Praxis”, led by a curator at the Burke Museum and 3 student assistants of Pacific Islander heritage who have worked together to research and build collective knowledge around the artifacts in the Burke’s Oceanic and Asian Cultures collection. The involvement of students and their communities in the Burke’s research efforts is truly collaborative – not only focusing on new insights into the meaning behind the objects in the Burke’s collection, but also on creating opportunities for communities to drive research directions and applications to be responsive to community needs.
I think it is so hard for scientists to develop meaningful collaborations like this one. In the biomedical sciences, we so often fall into a mindset where we are developing or providing something for the benefit of community partners, and the contributions of the community are often limited to supporting roles (i.e. providing data, guidance, outreach). As we host more discussions on science communication, or on the interaction of the scientific community with marginalized groups, I hope that we can think more expansively about the character of those collaborations, and how deeper collaborations could benefit both scientists and the communities they work with.
The thing that stuck out to me most at Praxis was the range of teaching practices being used by educators in the English Department to develop unique, impactful courses. Through my sessions I heard great anecdotes about stretch courses (one primary assignment over multiple quarters), service learning (assignments outside the classroom to encourage practice of a topic), and ways to get students to teach themselves in class.
It seems like many of the instructors who presented viewed their classes as little experiments into pedagogy. At the time I was totally drawn in by the specific stories these researchers shared, but since then I can’t stop thinking about the mentality in general. In the Biology world, there are a generally a few “right” ways to teach a course. When I’ve taught undergrads I’ve invariably followed one of these templates that match courses I took in college. Going forward, I’d like to incorporate some ideas I got from Praxis into courses I teach and spend more time checking out what professors in other departments are up to in the classroom.