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Q&A: Dr. Barbara A. Spellman Comments on Why You Should Join AAAS

Barbara A. Spellman
(Photo: courtesy of the University of Virginia Law School)

Dr. Barbara Spellman currently serves as the Secretary of the Psychology Section of AAAS. After obtaining her law degree from New York University in 1982 and practicing tax law, Dr.  Spellman earned her Ph.D. in cognitive psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. As a psychology professor, she focused her research on memory and higher-order cognition. In 2008, having shifted her attention to the ways in which law and psychology are intertwined, she moved from the Psychology Department to the Law School at the University of Virginia. In 2011, Dr. Spellman was nominated by her peers to become a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

What led you to get involved with AAAS?

I joined about 15 years ago because I thought it was time for Psychology to get a seat at the table with the other sciences.  AAAS is a place to show other sciences what we know and what we have to offer them and the greater scientific endeavor.  AAAS has connections to media and funders, and is a major advocate for science policies, which I believe behavioral science is too often left out of – to the detriment of science overall.

Why is it important to have psychology well-represented in AAAS?

First, I should note that it’s not just psychology that should be better represented at AAAS – other disciplines within FABBS have a presence there.  AAAS has a small section on Linguistics and Language Science, and a larger section on Social, Economic, & Political Sciences; many people are members of more than one of these sections. There is a good-sized section on Education and a large section on Neuroscience, in which cognitive or behavioral neuroscientists have a very small voice.

As behavioral scientists, we all have a lot to offer the rest of science in general with respect to both content and process. We have contributions to make regarding a vast range of pressing scientific issues: from vaccine hesitancy, to the detrimental effects of virtual learning and social isolation, to policies for justice reform, to improving scientific publishing and practices, and even to selecting the right combination of people to make the long trip to Mars. 

When more behavioral scientists join AAAS, we get greater recognition and representation. This recognition would have positive implications for our community including:

            1. More money to be able to sponsor events at the AAAS convention (e.g., free student attendance; sponsoring speakers; an in-person or virtual social event). 

            2. The opportunity to get more people on the various committees and governing boards within AAAS.

            3. Securing more of the prestigious AAAS awards for our well-deserving scientists.

            4. Possibly obtaining greater coverage in Science or any future journals published by AAAS (no promises).

With over 120K members, AAAS is a major voice for science in DC.  More visibility for us, and more connections to other sciences, will get us on the “invitation” lists for meetings with funding agencies, policy makers, etc., and for inclusion in more interdisciplinary projects.

What are the biggest advantages of becoming a member of AAAS?

Many psychologists wrongly believe that the only reason to join AAAS is to get the journal Science, and they think that because they already have access to it through their university, why bother to join? As a member, AAAS is an avenue to get your research recognized in new places and to make connections within the scientific community.

Members can present research at the AAAS annual meeting.  (Actually, you don’t need a membership to submit, but it will get you a discount to attend.) Symposia are cross-disciplinary, which gets people to engage with other scientists, and also draws cross-disciplinary crowds. 

Check out the 2022 AAAS Annual Meeting: Empower with Evidence (to be held in Philadelphia and online in February 17 to 20, 2021).
Poster: courtesy of aaas.org.

What can members look forward to at the AAAS annual meeting?     

The annual meeting draws the best scientists in the world. Last year’s keynote speaker was, not surprisingly, Dr. Anthony Fauci. The meeting is flexible in that last-minute additions can be made to address emerging science-related problems. For example, at the February 2020 meeting in Seattle, various panels of scientists from around the world were created to discuss the emerging COVID-19 problem.  Bill Gates was a late-addition plenary speaker and described the Gates’ Foundation work to address global health crises. 

Symposia are interdisciplinary and engaging. The annual meeting is widely covered by the media and many symposia panels are invited to do 30-minute press conferences, which are well-attended by national and international outlets.  Reporters also contact speakers independently.

There are practical workshops for both older and younger scientists addressing topics such as teaching, scientific communication, and non-academic job seeking.

What can you tell FABBS members about AAAS opportunities in informing policy and in engaging with policy-makers?

AAAS has a wide range of opportunities for members. There is an upcoming Science and Technology Policy forum on October 12 and 13 about the essentiality of DEI to innovation. On Capitol Hill and in the Federal government, everyone is familiar with the Science and Technology Policy Fellowships – 250 fellowships for scientists of any career stage (post Ph.D.) to go to DC and work in any of the branches of government on science and technology issues. Applications are due November 1, 2021.  See FABBS interview with Jennifer Pearl

The Local Science Engagement Network (and other initiatives for scientists to connect) is a new program that also provides opportunities for AAAS scientists to connect with local policymakers on issues of climate change, sustainability, and other related topics.

You mentioned that AAAS members at the annual meeting can be contacted by reporters. What other science communications or networking opportunities does AAAS offer?

AAAS runs a source list of scientists who are available for journalists to contact when they need scientific expertise or context for their stories.  It is called: SciLine.

AAAS also runs boot camps for reporters and scientists to learn to engage better in getting out good science to the public.  They run shorter virtual “Communicating Science” workshop events as well, to train scientists how to write for and speak to the general public about their research.

In addition, members can learn what is happening in DC with science-related funding or policy, see what fellowships or workshops are available, and learn about important cutting-edge research in science through the newsletter or alerts, or on the homepage of AAAS. (Members also get access to the current and all back issues of Science – to 1880.)

Are there any particular membership benefits for students?

Students are offered opportunities for access and engagement that include: deeply discounted membership (sometimes free) and access to annual meeting, opportunities to present e-posters at the convention, and notices of fellowships to support student research. From now until September 28th, students enrolled in an undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral degree program are welcome to submit abstracts for the 2022 Student E-poster Competition. Confirmed presenters would have to register and pay the meeting registration fee for students by October 27, 2021 12:00 PM ET (the Silver membership for students is $25). See the full eligibility guidelines here.

Doctoral students can also enter the competition: “Dance your Ph.D.” This is another unique AAAS opportunity to reimagine a new way of presenting one’s research and winning a monetary prize. (See here for the winners of last year across all categories – including Physics, Chemistry, Social Sciences, Biology, and Covid-19.)

Students can participate in workshops designed specifically for them or for early career researchers.  In particular, the workshops at the annual meeting are designed to help students navigate through the scientific waters. 

Note that Science currently runs a series of articles called “Letters to Young Scientists” that addresses common concerns of early career researchers and is written (mostly) by psychologists.


In conclusion, there are plenty of benefits offered to AAAS membership! Please visit aaas.org to see more about the organization.  Join – and encourage others to join – currently a “supporting” membership is only $25.  (More information on AAAS membership here.)


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