Balticon 49: What do fairies and elves need to know about plant science?

Sex, maize and how to feed the world (despite herbicide tolerance)

Balticon 49 – Established in 1967, Balticon is the annual convention sponsored by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. This year’s version (May 22-25) offered everything surrounding science fiction including comic books, movies, kids’ programs, the presentation of the prestigious “Robert A. Heinlein” and the “Compton Crook Awards,” and certainly also lots and lots of real science. The science fiction fans, science-interested participants, and (presumably costumed) elves, fairies and comic book heroes at Balticon had plenty to keep them engaged on many levels.


Thematic Tracks – Balticon celebrates science because science often catalyzes or reflects science fiction. So in tandem with lots of information about science, such as Space Shuttle flights, the moon landing, the Hubble telescope and the number of universes that were counted, the program included a Science Track to feature many recent updates from fields including: population dynamics of blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, proton therapy to treat cancer, biology of cloning, and the biology of allergies. And this year ASPB brokered an invitation so I could offer two workshops dedicated to plant biology.

Attention, please – Not sure just how strong a hook I’d need to attract attention at a SciFi event, I called my first talk, “Sex, maize and how to feed the world.” And I had healthy turnout. I reported on recent findings from my research team in the plant science department at the University of Maryland on how sex determination decisions in maize (who becomes a male tassel and who becomes the female ear?) are regulated by steroid hormones, which fulfill the same role of information molecules during sex determination in animals and humans. The separation of sexes in maize which provided the basis of the revolutionary hybrid seed technology and led to tremendous yield increases during the last century generated lots of interest with the audience.

Hot Topic – My second talk featured the currently more and more relevant topic of “Herbicide resistance in plants.” I focused on the spread of herbicide resistance in weeds since the introduction of herbicide-tolerant crops and the high-level adoption of this technology in US farming systems. The audience was interested in the recent multiple herbicide-resistant weed epidemic, which has a major impact on weed control and pest management approaches. We enjoyed good interactions over the ‘why and how’ of novel integrated management strategies which do not exclusively rely on chemical weed control. Participants at this session were very well-informed with interesting (not polarizing) questions.

It is good that ASPB supports events like this in order to reach a wide variety of audiences.

Science? So what? – Interestingly, a number of Balticon presentations dealt with the more general fields of reliability of science and scientific information, how to analyze the scientific merit of peer-reviewed scientific publications, the question about “Why science matters”, and an historic overview of women of science.

Plant biology has heroes, too – Overall, the audience reaction towards the presentation of plant topics was very positive. Cutting-edge plant science research can sometimes sound like science fiction, so representing just what plant scientists do to address societal and global challenges – which of course present themselves to us in everyday life – was an excellent fit for this crowd. The fairies, elves, comic heroes and just plain humans at my Balticon workshops truly were intrigued with understanding plant science. As one participant stated, ‘Plants are so cool!’ …Nothing else to add to this point.

Workshop Freebies (that you can get, too!)

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