The Madison Vision Series invited plant evolutionary biologist Barbara Schaal to present a lecture about science serving the community Monday afternoon at Festival Ballroom A. Schaal, former vice president of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first scientist to be a part of the series, which is a set of guest lectures that invites speakers of different expertise to educate the citizenry on a variety of topics.
Executive Advisor to President Alger Mike Davis selected Schaal due to her solid background in the sciences and helped plan her visit with his committee. He ensured the committee that Schaal would speak about a topic broad enough to strike interest in a wide range of people.
“When I looked at [Schaal’s] resume, it was obvious that she wasn’t just speaking to scientists about science,” Davis said. “I watched a lecture she had done, and she seemed to fit really well with what we were trying to do with the series.”
Davis said the MVS had most of its guests talk about politics and business — Schaal was the first scientist in the lineup. Having the lecture on East Campus was intentional as well, as Davis anticipated students studying science and math would be interested in the lecture.
As a professional in the science world, Schaal was successful in making her explanations understandable according to Davis. Her audience was filled with students of various majors, faculty and citizens of the Harrisonburg community — almost every seat was taken.
“I’m not a science person,” Davis said. “I’m a student who struggled to pass science classes, so I think for me, I’m very curious about someone who’s an expert in an area who makes that topic accessible.”
Schaal began her presentation by defining “science” and discussed the need of a liberal arts education in scientific discussions. It’s important for people to understand both science and the humanities, as they’re both a part of human life, she said.
Basic research was a major idea in Schaal’s lecture. She discussed the importance of recognizing scientific discoveries in devices people use every day, such as GPS navigation. Schaal also spoke on the topic of policy in science. More political subjects like vaccinations, pollution and nuclear arms all have their roots in science.
“Science is more than just chemistry and biology,” sophomore psychology major Kyndall Hence said. “I think [Schaal] is significant because a lot of people don’t see that science can include communication and policies.”
Toward the end, Schaal discussed ethics and communication. According to her, science is hard to communicate to the public because there’s a disconnect between the citizenry and the science community. The public doesn’t trust and understand scientists, but respectful communication is key to changing that.
“You have to have public input into issues of science,” Schaal said, acknowledging her audience of different backgrounds. “To have members of the local community and students here, it’s really appropriate because these are people who have opinions about science.”
As the first speaker on science in the series, Schaal thinks it represents the importance of scientific studies at JMU. She visited a general education classroom prior to her lecture, and was impressed by the innovative things the university has done in collaboration with the sciences, social science and political science programs, as well as the number of students with interesting perspectives.
Schaal believes that science must be acknowledged on a daily basis. She sees it affecting the choices people make every day, whether it’s deciding to eat genetically modified organism foods or not, or even deciding to read about a disease outbreak like measles. Science isn’t just for those who study it — it’s for everybody.
“The science enterprise is important for future technologies, the wellbeing of our nation, and I think that’s been shown again and again,” Schaal said. “To have a vibrant scientific community and science education — even if you’re not going into science — to understand science is really, really important.”
Contact Kailey Cheng at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.