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STPF at Comic Cons: Bridging the gap between science and fiction

Do androids dream of electric sheep? When it comes to STEM enterprises, are mega-billionaires more Tony Stark or Lex Luthor? Are genetically engineered humans an inevitability?  

These are just some of the questions that the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) Team Affinity Group of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships tackle at multi-genre comic conventions like Phoenix Fan Fusion (PFF) in Phoenix, Arizona and Awesome Con in Washington, DC. 

Each year, tens of thousands of fans descend upon downtown Phoenix and Washington for multi-day, ultimate geek-culture events, immersing themselves in the worlds of science fiction and fantasy. While these genres exist outside the realm of reality, they often delve into themes and ideas that parallel real-world scientific advancements and possibilities. So, in addition to everything you might expect to find at a comic convention such as guest celebrities, extravagant cosplayers, and endless merchandise, these events provide a unique opportunity spark conversations about real scientific advancements and possibilities through the lens of popular culture.  

An environmental biotechnologist, a molecular biologist, a Mandalorian, and a parasitologist walk into Phoenix Fan Fusion 2022.


Science communication to infinity and beyond...the ivory tower

Scientific knowledge can often feel inaccessible to those outside the scientific community. Scientific journal paywalls limit broad accessibility to new scientific findings. Lectures, seminars and workshops are typically limited to academic circles and the limited efforts that escape these bubbles often contain an inaccessible amount of technical jargon. For the non-technical public who seek scientific information, sorting through the seemingly infinite amounts of non-peer reviewed content presents the challenge of encountering and spreading misinformation. 

STEAM Team members, Drs. Sithira Ratnayaka, Bradley Lusk, Eleanor Johnson, Carlo Quintanilla, and Ryan Avery, pose with fellow science panelists and cosplayers at Phoenix Fan Fusion 2023.


In light of these challenges, scientists like those in the STEAM Team are turning to popular culture. The fantastical, inspiring stories celebrated at comic conventions attract large, diverse audiences of all ages. Scientists can tap into this already vibrant community and help fans see their favorite stories through a new lens by participating on convention science panels. For attendees, these panels provide an opportunity to directly engage with scientists and start open dialogues in a safe environment where no question is too obscure. Beyond the science itself, these panel discussions often turn to the ethics involved in scientific applications, policies, and accessibility. Science fiction fans who have imagined the best and worst of a future humanity learn more about what science is achieving and do not shy away from questions about how to restrict or expedite technologies where needed.


The STEAM Team at Phoenix Fan Fusion (PFF) and Awesome Con

The STEAM Team’s involvement in comic conventions has so far been a resounding success. At PFF 2022, co-founder Dr.  Bradley Lusk, and members, Dr. Carlo Quintanilla and Dr. Ryan Avery, led engaging discussions on diverse topics, ranging from sleep paralysis demons and advancements in neurotechnolgies, to the ecology of the Dune-universe planet Arrakis. In 2023, the STEAM Team returned to Phoenix to serve on 15 science panels, representing approximately 20 percent of the science programming hosted and organized by the local Arizona non-profit RealtimeSTEAM. Their efforts in promoting science education and communication were featured on the Sci on the Fly podcast, providing further insights into the organizational efforts behind the science programming.

Left to right: Drs. Ryan Avery and Sithira Ratnayaka engage with audience members while Drs. Heather Masson-Forsythe and Carlo Quintanilla rejoice after a lively discussion on genetic engineering at Awesome Con 2023.


In another exciting milestone, the STEAM Team made their debut at Awesome Con in Washington, DC. The STEAM Team successfully secured two panels with a total of eight team members as speakers. One panel focused on genetic engineering, while the other tackled climate change.

Genetic engineering has captured the imagination of writers for decades, resulting in works that both inspire and warn of the darker implications of misusing this technology. A classic among these works is Michael Crichton’s 1990 Jurassic Park novel and Steven Spielberg’s 1993 screen adaptation. One of the central themes in Jurassic Park is humanity’s hubris in thinking it could wield genetic power for profit and spectacle. While we are unlikely to resurrect a tyrannosaurus rex or a flock of velociraptors, there are many concerns and potential dangers as genetic engineering technologies become increasingly sophisticated and accessible. Panelists in “Welcome to the land of the DNAosaurs” touched on several of these concerns, including gene patents, germ line editing and environmental impacts of genetically modified organisms. On the flip side, the discussion dove into the current landscape of research using genetic engineering techniques for good, including combatting climate change and using CRISPR to treat human diseases.

Another STEAM Team Awesome Con panel focused on the pressing issue of climate change: "Cli-Fi: Apocalypse Now?" Drawing from climate-centric science fiction, this panel delved into climate change challenges and solutions. The panelists outlined the crucial distinction between climate adaptation and mitigation to emphasize the importance of both approaches, and examined the changing narratives surrounding climate change presented in popular media in films like Don’t Look Up and Deep Impact. These examples served as reminders of the importance of communication and risk perception in mitigating, building resilience and adapting to climate change.

Left to right: Drs. Mathew Diasio, Bradley Lusk, Julie Snow, and Reshmina William intently listen to an audience member’s question during their "Cli-Fi: Apocalypse Now?" panel at Awesome Con 2023


Boldly going where no scientists have gone before

The STEAM Team’s impact extends beyond a single convention or topic. With their participation in 30 science panels across various scientific disciplines including environmental science, genetics, space exploration, artificial intelligence and brain machine interfaces, the STEAM Team is proving itself a catalyst for promoting scientific literacy. The STEAM Team members are also joining their placement agencies’ efforts at comic conventions, such as the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) scientific demonstrations at Awesome Con 2023.

Dr. Heather Masson-Forsythe demonstrates pH change using dry ice with NSF demo stage organizer Mike Davis at Awesome Con 2023.


Among their upcoming plans, the STEAM Team is setting their sights on New York Comic Con and San Diego Comic Con International, two renowned comic conventions that currently do not have dedicated science programming. Their presence at these conventions holds the potential to inspire and educate attendees, thus fostering a greater appreciation for the scientific principles underlying their favorite science fiction stories. By venturing into the realms of science fiction and engaging with the non-technical public, the STEAM Team aims to continue bringing science-fiction to science-reality.


Carlo G. Quintanilla, Ph.D.

Dr. Carlo G. Quintanilla is a molecular biologist, science communicator, and science policy analyst. He uses interdisciplinary and analytical approaches to identify trends in scientific progress and is a strong advocate for advancing scientific literacy. Dr. Quintanilla holds a Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology and was a 2021-2023 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow.

Heather Masson-Forsythe, Ph.D.

Dr. Masson-Forsythe is a science communicator, social media creator, a communications and research impact analysis specialist, a 2022-24 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, and Executive Editor of Sci on the Fly. As a fellow, Dr. Masson-Forsythe is placed in the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Computer & Information Science & Engineering. Dr. Masson-Forsythe holds a Ph.D. in Biochemistry & Biophysics.


Note: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS or the United States government.

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