National Science Writers Conference 2016 is in San Antonio, Texas. Credit: Courtesy / National Science Writers Conference 2016

The hottest tickets in science right now is leading researchers and scientists to the Omni La Mansión del Rio hotel on the San Antonio River Walk.

About 500 credentialed science writers arrived Friday to attend the National Science Writers Conference for five days of fascinating science and technology focused presentations and tours, as well as workshops geared to science writers, many of which prominently feature San Antonio’s science and technology community.

“The process for selecting the location of the annual conference is a competitive one,” Rosalind Reid, executive director of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW) said. “For San Antonio, it started over three years ago, with Ken Trevett (former CEO of Texas BioMed and the current board chair of BioMedSA) involved in highlighting San Antonio and what it had to offer for us.”

The scheduled speaker for Sunday’s opening address was Henry Cisneros, who jumpstarted the building of San Antonio’s bioscience industry when he was mayor in the 1980s.

When Cisneros was called away at the last minute, BioMedSA president Ann Stevens stepped in to provide attendees a brief history of science in San Antonio, starting in the 1940s when Tom Slick founded Texas BioMed.

“You’ll get a firsthand view of the progress we’ve made in the science industry here in San Antonio,” Stevens said. “Research is the fuel that drives innovation in the biomedical field, and in San Antonio it springs from three distinct and yet highly collaborative sources: research organizations, private sector companies, and the U.S. military,” Stevens said.

Presentations Showcase Cutting Edge San Antonio Research

Speakers from outside San Antonio as well as experts from various scientific and technical disciplines within the city gave presentations on a variety of topics.

With so many compelling sessions, many of them scheduled concurrently, there is no way for attendees to hear them all. Topics ranged from cyberterrorism to treating trauma, to quantum mechanics and lizard sex.

UTSA’s Max Kilger has spent the last 15 years exploring the psychology of hackers and cyber criminals behind digital crime and cyberterrorism. The engaging Kilger woke up the audience early Sunday morning with lively stories about using social science methodologies to determine motivations behind cyber hacking.

“There is the potential emergence in the near future of a cyberterror movement,” Kilger said. “I think we’re moving into the cyberterror movement now, so we’ll need to be prepared for that evolution.”

Dr. Robert Lanford, director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center and scientist in the department of virology and immunology at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, discussed the recent National Institutes of Health’s decision to stop supporting biomedical research on chimpanzees.

This decision is significant for scientists working to develop vaccines for viral hepatitis, for example. They now must rely on the molecular characterization of immune responses to candidate vaccines to assess their safety, rather than vaccinating chimpanzees to observe results.

“Only chimpanzees now are prohibited for research,” Lanford said. “When will science advance enough (to) where we will not need to do animal-based research? It is not today, nor in the immediate future.”

Sunday featured “Lunch with a Scientist,” where attendees could choose to have lunch with one of 16 San Antonio-based scientists and talk about their current research on topics ranging from infectious diseases to wound care, from fracking to cybersecurity, and more.

I sat in on Dr. Andrew Cap’s lunch talk. Cap, who is chief of the blood and coagulation research program at U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research (USAISR), discussed the latest research on storing blood products such as platelets and making them stable for a long shelf life.

I was surprised to learn that the leading cause of death in people aged 1-44 is “unintentional death,” or trauma. Cap told attendees that trauma is chronically underfunded, especially when compared to diseases like cancer.

Many conference attendees were astonished to learn there was so much science, technology, and cybersecurity research based in San Antonio.

“I’m familiar with the research at UTSA, because I’m a Ph.D. candidate (in a science field),” said Sanjay Mishra. “But I had no idea there was all this other research going on at so many other places in San Antonio.”

“I was surprised by all the cybersecurity research in San Antonio,” said Pam Frost Gorder, assistant director of university communications at Ohio State University. “I didn’t know the sociological aspects were so important. I thought cybersecurity was only technical.”

With many more thought-provoking sessions on topics such as novel insights into brain injury, stroke and aging, or how age makes a major difference in how the immune system responds to immunotherapy, highlights from the Juno mission, and future uses for ‘smart’ vehicles traveling on ‘smart’ highways, there is something for everyone.

In case you were curious about the aforementioned lizard sex, Michele Johnson, associate professor of biology at Trinity University uses Anolis lizards as a model system for courtship and copulation to test a number of ideas about the physiological basis of how behavior evolves. The hashtag for her session Monday is #lizardsex.

Tours Provide Up Close Look at San Antonio’s Science, Technology

If the presentations weren’t compelling enough, the touring opportunities alone would be enough for attendees to spend their days visiting various laboratories, facilities, and research organizations to talk to scientists and see up close demonstrations of cutting edge technologies and capabilities.

The Rivard Report had the opportunity to preview one of the tours offered at Texas Biomed to learn about infectious diseases, genomics, and animal science.

The Texas Biomedical Research Institute is one of the world’s leading independent biomedical research institutions dedicated to innovative biomedical research by developing vaccines and therapeutics against viral pathogens causing AIDS, hepatitis, hemorrhagic fevers, and parasitic diseases, as well as genomics of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and other diseases, and regenerative medicine programs in neurodegenerative disorders, muscle diseases, and diseases of the eye.

Texas Biomed is also the only independent research institute in the country with a biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory, a national primate research center, and a genomics research center on one campus.

CPS Energy, the nation’s largest municipally owned energy utility, offered an opportunity for attendees to learn about the goal of to have 20% of its energy come from renewable sources by 2020 with a tour of Alamo 3, a 70-acre solar farm built almost entirely from locally built components.

A behind-the-scenes look at the bioscience company Acelity’s San Antonio Innovation Center highlighted how Acelity creates and tests the next generation of innovative advanced wound therapy products, assesses how experimental therapies impact healing.

The staff of more than 2,700 researchers at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), one of the oldest and largest independent nonprofit applied research and development organizations in the U.S., specializes in the creation and transfer of technology in engineering and the physical sciences. Their tour features four sites: Fire Technology, Ballistics and Explosives Test Range, Autonomous Vehicle Test Track, and the Metering Research Facility, which includes the compressed gas gun that was used to launch a piece of foam at a shuttle wing to prove the cause of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. This was not SwRI’s first time to get to the bottom of a scientific mystery. 

UTSA offered dual tours on sustainability, robotics, and visualization, as well as on biology.

George Perry, dean of the College of Science, and JoAnn Browning, dean of the College of Engineering, welcomed guests for two separate tours at the UTSA Main Campus. The first tour highlighted UTSA’s research on sustainability, robotics, and visualization. The biology tour at UTSA focused on tissue printing, Lyme disease, and photodynamic therapy used to kill cancers.

The biomedical engineering laboratory has a rare piece of equipment that can print tissues and potentially regenerate organs. The device works similarly to a 3D printer and is the only one in Texas, as well as one of few at select universities across the U.S. The device is capable of printing cells and keeping them alive, allowing it to print living organs for regenerative medicine research.

The tour of the Clarity Child Guidance Center provided attendees a look inside the facility and its unique approach to mental health care for children ages 3-17.

Science Writers 2016 attendees can also tour Trinity University’s new science building facilities. The last tours on Nov. 1 include exploring Natural Bridge Caverns with an on-site geologist, or a walking tour of the Alamo and the River Walk with local scientists who will discuss the geology, archaeology, and urban ecology behind two of San Antonio’s most iconic attractions.

If you want to follow along and read tweets from conference goers, be sure to check out the trending live Twitter feed at #sciwri16.

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Iris Gonzalez

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.