Council for the Advancement of Science Writing

ScienceWriters2013 scouting report: Lively science amid palms and pines

I’d just landed from Boston, fleeing the long New England winter, and all my hosts in Gainesville could do was apologize about the weather. Weather? Right. A cloud or two in the sky, a hint of a raindrop.

It was mid-March, and I’d come to scout the ScienceWriters2013 conference site and interview prospective speakers for this year's New Horizons in Science program. I didn’t know what I’d find in this patch of Florida. Sinkholes, maybe.

In fact, five days in Gainesville gave me a lively taste of the abundant science of the place, not to mention the hospitality of Gator Nation. Science writers who come to Gainesville for this year’s NASW workshops, New Horizons science program and local science tours and adventures Nov. 1-5 will return home, as I did, with pleasant memories and a notebook stuffed with unexpected science.

A sprawling, bustling research university

This is the first time the New Horizons science-for-science-writers program will be held in Florida, and I hadn’t realized what a research powerhouse has grown up in Gainesville. According to the latest report (2011) from the Center for Measuring University Performance at Arizona State, the University of Florida ranks 21st in the nation in total research expenditures—eighth among public research universities. It’s especially active in the life sciences—more than 70 percent of UF’s federally sponsored research. UF does about $650 million in sponsored and contract research annually; it awards about 900 PhDs annually, making it one of the top five US research universities in PhD production.

Vacationers may have spotted Gainesville on the map—it’s north of Disney World and Tampa-St. Pete and west of St. Augustine. To reach the campus by flying, you can either get a direct flight to Gainesville (free shuttle to the hotel), drive up the turnpike/interstate from Orlando, or brave the speed traps by driving from Jacksonville. There are airport shuttles and even an express bus from Atlanta.

As you approach, you’ll find a sandy terrain dotted with palms, pine forests and citrus groves and softened by Spanish moss. Florida’s springs and limestone caves are nearby, and there are a few places where the karst plateau has dramatically collapsed: right in Gainesville, the Devil’s Millhopper is a 120-foot-deep sinkhole that started forming 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. Since then countless critters have met their end there, leaving a valuable fossil record in what is now a geological state park.

The vastness of this major state university strikes you right off. UF enrolls more than 50,000 students in 16 colleges on a 2,000-acre campus that forms Gainesville’s southwest quadrant. It includes a golf course, experimental fields and greenhouses, a lake (Lake Alice, shown above, is the best place to find actual gators on campus) and barns that are home to a huge bat population. Our meeting venue, the university-affiliated Hilton University of Florida Conference Center Gainesville, sits on the western edge across from the Florida Museum of Natural History and its lush Butterfly Rainforest. Buses loop by, moving students in and out of the older, relaxed central campus, where vehicles are not allowed. Artwork featuring a UF scene decorates every guestroom in the comfortable, sunny Hilton.

What grows in Florida

Butterfly collections at the University of FloridaNASW’s Tinsley Davis and I checked out the fine facilities at our conference and social event venues—the Hilton, the natural history museum and the neighboring Harn Museum of Art—as well as the excellent dining options in laid-back downtown Gainesville. (Gainesville has its share of college-town hipness. Most of the football faithful will be in Jacksonville when we arrive, watching the Gators in their annual interstate clash with the Georgia Bulldogs. But 300+ indie bands and fans will be converging on Gainesville for the 12-venue FEST 12.)

Then Joe Kays and Melissa Blouin took me into the belly of the UF scientific enterprise to interview prospective speakers for this year’s New Horizons.

The trip was a reminder of me how vivid science can be when it’s right in front of you. Florida is a state of growers, and they represent the U.S. food system’s first line of defense against pests and pathogens from tropical regions of Africa and Latin America. Not surprisingly, UF is known for the inventiveness of its plant scientists and geneticists and the quality of its plant pathologists, microbiologists and entomologists.

Into the greenhouses and labs I plunged. I met creative scientists using novel approaches to improving the productivity, nutritional value, resilience and sensory qualities of fruits, vegetables and horticultural products. Others were just back from expeditions around the globe or into the atmosphere; astrobiologists were examining plants brought back from the International Space Station. (Florida has an unusual concentration of space biologists, thanks partly to the proximity of the Kennedy Space Center.) There were plenty of scientists concerned with animals too, including humans; UF is a major medical research center, with basic and clinical research programs focusing on neuroscience, cancer, aging and genetics.

The Gatorade effect is one of the threads strengthening the fabric of UF research. Other institutions may be emphasizing entrepreneurship these days, but UF was famously ahead of the game, having earned millions in annual licensing revenue annually from Gatorade since the product was introduced in 1965. UF, which had $34 million in total patent and licensing revenue in 2011, reinvests that money in new research that, in turn, may bear dividends. The Florida Innovation Hub, an incubator for science-based ventures and a spot that will host one of our social events, is home to about 15 new companies. A new Institute for Plant Innovation is fueled mostly by intellectual-property revenues that faculty are encouraged to plow back into research.

It was terrific to see that the land-grant institution tradition is alive and well in Florida. Along with an agricultural communications program, UF has a major journalism school; a j-school professor has signed up to help prep the UF speakers, and ScienceWriters2013 will be swarming with student journalists.

Heading out of Gainesville, I had to taste UF’s latest invention. I swung by a Publix store and grabbed a package of the newest Florida fruit. As science writers learned at this year’s AAAS meeting, UF sensory scientists have figured out that intense volatiles, not sugar, create great old-fashioned tomato taste. And UF plant breeders have created a tasty new crossbreed that also satisfies the requirements of growers without sacrificing flavor.

I didn’t care which kind of scientist came up with the new tomato, I just wanted to get back to Boston and see what it tasted like. In a word: scrumptious. (And my juicy package made it past the TSA luggage inspectors!) Come to Gainesville, and you can have one too.

About that weather… storm chasers will remember that ScienceWriters2012 was the meeting dominated by an uninvited guest named Superstorm Sandy. This year's attendees will get a better-controlled serving of wild weather: UF’s hurricane and tornado simulation lab (wind machine, right) can generate torrential rain and winds over 200 mph, and a new wind tunnel is being prepped. Hold onto your sunhat: Gainesville will be a blast.—Rosalind Reid, CASW program director