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Phoenix Comicon 2016

The Center for Biology and Society was well represented at Phoenix Comicon. Five people participated in the panels, each presenting multiple times. Erica O'NeilTheora Tiffney, and CBS professor Dr. Matthew Chew presented the opening panel: Outbreak 2016: Zika Virus. O'Neil stated that "The panel attempted to convey that there's really no stopping Zika, but that it's not as scary as we hear on the news. Four out of five people never even have symptoms of the disease. And mosquitos already kill millions of people a year through diseases spread. Really the primary reason it's become a scary disease that dominates the news cycle is because of the birth defects Zika can cause. And because we know so little about how Zika works during development at this time, that unknown breeds fear. Overall the panel audience was good at stewing with us in that unknown, asking questions and becoming educated to keep the hysteria in check."

Chew added, "My contribution was primarily related to how the virus was spread from a localized population of African monkeys across Asia and the Pacific to Brazil, and from there, elsewhere in the Americas. I pointed out that only about 10% of the planet is now more than 48 hours travel time from anywhere else, and since most people who contract Zika don't ever know they have it, there's no way to screen travelers for infection." Tiffney focused on the controversy surrounding the Rio Olympics and the history influencing it, especially the question "If Zika is so bad, then why aren't the Olympics cancelled?"

Photo courtesy of Matthew ChewAlexis Abboud presented twice, first with Erica O'Neil in a panel titled X-men, Mutations, and You. O'Neil noted that, "CRISPR is a super awesome technology that allows scientists to mess with the genome for all sorts of reasons, to benefit humanity by eliminating disease, growing super wheat immune to climate change, or create an army of genetically engineered super soldiers." Abboud added that "CRISPR could potentially allow us to create real world mutants, which is how we spun it in the Comicon setting. And people were fascinated by it - what could we do, what couldn’t we do."

After this panel, Chew presented on two further panels. The first was Full Metal Alchemy: the Birth of Science. He noted, "Conceived by Bekah Brubaker, a Keck Lab Research Technician, this panel examined the relationship between alchemy as fictionalized in the popular manga and anime series Fullmetal Alchemist, and alchemy as an actual historical phenomenon. Since I deal with alchemy in BIO316/HPS330 and am a longtime fan of the anime, I was able to compare and contrast various aspects of the two, but I concentrated on the concepts of creating homunculi, the differences between modern and medieval conceptions of matter, and how (according to Paracelsus, whose writings inspired many aspects of Fullmetal Alchemist) to make a philosopher's stone. This was the second-best attended science Photo courtesy of Matthew Chewsession, exceeded only by one based on the Harry Potter series."

Chew's final panel of the event was titled When Poop Hits the Fan: What Happens After You Flush. Matt stated that "This panel was conceived by SOLS microbiology grad student Bradley Lusk, who is working on new bacteriological wastewater treatments. Also participating was Civil Engineer Mario Mendez, who works in potable water treatment. My contribution was to talk about where the Phoenix area's water comes from and where it ultimately goes, and to helpfully point out that the average total effluent discharge from all Arizona sewage treatment plants would be enough to completely fill the Phoenix Convention Center (including Symphony Hall) from floor to ceiling every 15 minutes."

Immediately following Chew's panels, Tiffney presented in a panel titled Mad Scientists Part 1!  Tiffney stated, "This panel discussed the misconceptions that really annoy scientists. Subjects discussed included the difference between facts and a theory in science, UFO sightings, and the tendency of marketing departments to assume the public is unable to engage with science. I covered CRISPR as an example of ethical discourse in science, and a counterargument to the trope of the mad scientist."Photo courtesy of Phoenix Comicon

Just over an hour later, Tiffney presented again on the panel Human Enhancement in Captain America Civil War. She had this to say about it: "This panel talked about the technologies in the movies, and whether or not they were scientifically feasible. Topics covered included: the biology of Civil War (can Ant-Man actually get away with shrinking like that? How unrealistic is Captain America's super-strength, really?), the state of modern robotics, and transhumanism. I covered the ethical issues of transhumanism, as showcased in the CRISPR debate, and introduced the audience to the basic discussion surrounding transhumanism."

Aireona Raschke's first panel on Saturday was titled Astrobiology of the Star Wars Universe - Biomechanics, Ecology and Evolution. She noted, "We covered a wide variety of topics here, first concentrating on the Photo courtesy of Phoenix Comiconscience behind the worlds of Star Wars, covering the things that don't add up, as well as how many of the planets shown in the original movies were surprisingly close to what we are now discovering. The second half of the panel focused on the ecology and evolution of different animals and planets that feature in the Star Wars universe. I specifically addressed the life cycle of the Dianoga, the creature that terrorized Han Solo and Luke in the garbage compactor of the Death Star, and how its accidental appearance in the Death Star and the sewers of Coruscant is similar to that of the invasive zebra mussel."

The second panel for Abboud was called Adventures and Disasters in Science, and roughly 260 people were present for this panel. Abboud noted that "The idea of this panel was really to have scientists come in and talk about some of the things that have happened to them while they’ve been conducting science. We had two ant researchers, two geologists, and then me. Given that reading legal documents in my office doesn’t involve a lot of adventure or disaster, I talked about the everyday things that scientists do - teach and publish - and some of the things that can go wrong with them. For example, when I wrote my first ever Slate article, instead of talking about “public policy” I talked about “pubic policy” for a full 24 hours before the article got fixed online. In that time, it was shared 2000 times on Facebook (not, I think, because of the spelling error, but still). People seemed to find it fascinating what researchers end up doing in the field on a day to day basis. The “attack of the ants” stories were especially popular."Photo courtesy of Aireona Raschke

Raschke was the only CBS graduate student to present on Sunday. Her panel was titled Shiny and Chrome: The Science of Mad Max. She said "There was a very wide array of expertise on this panel, so we were able to cover a variety of scientific topics in connection to the most recent Mad Max movie, Fury Road. We first discussed the realities of Max's statement that the group could drive for 160 days and still find nothing but salt, as well as the importance of the ocean to Earth's life. We taught the audience about aquifers and the mechanisms that would be necessary to utilize them in the way that Immortan Joe did in Citadel, and we covered the methods that the people of Citadel would need to use in order to survive in such a denuded ecology. Finally, our group also discussed the genetic mutations observed in the movie, and the social structure that the movie's villain constructed."

The Center is very proud of the unique contributions that our faculty and students made to the Phoenix Comicon!

More Information: Andrea Cottrell