Two URI faculty members named AAAS fellows

KINGSTON, RI – February 3, 2023 – The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has elected Clinical Professor Sunshine Menezes and Professor of Oceanography Steven D’Hondt to the rank of AAAS Fellow. The organization recognizes those whose work on behalf of “the advancement of science, or its applications, are scientifically or socially distinguished.”

The two were nominated by colleagues for the rank but were still surprised with the news. “I had zero expectation that I would be elected,” Menezes said. “The people who have been recognized in the past include a lot of really monumental figures in science. I’m just amazed and honored to be considered in the same sentences as these folks.”

“The award is important, but what was really nice is to have people nominate me and to have the support of my colleagues,” D’Hondt said.

According to the AAAS, Menezes was recognized for her work at the Metcalf Institute in contributing to science and environmental communication, and especially for her efforts to increase inclusivity in those areas. “The Association’s mission runs the gamut of scientific disciplines, and that is very rare for a scientific association,” Menezes said. “The AAAS has historically put a lot of stock in the value of science communication and public engagement.”

The issue of inclusion has been a top priority at the Metcalf Institute from the beginning, Menezes said. The Institute launched its first SciComm Symposium in 2018 with the aim of giving voice to a wide range of communicators. “The whole intention of that symposium was to demonstrate that there are people doing inclusive science communication in all kinds of ways. That includes journalism, but it also includes informal science learning at museums or after school programs and various types of public engagement and social media. There are people out there who really are focusing on equity and inclusion as the foundation for that work. And so we wanted to create this symposium as a way to bring those people together.

“In our training for journalists, for example, we’ve been attentive to trying to have a diverse range of speakers in terms of race and ethnicity and gender. In all our programs, we’ve become a lot more thoughtful and attentive to issues of accessibility. We’re learning along the way, so we hire sign language interpreters, we make sure that there’s captioning. We want to make sure that our programs are accessible, and we’re just much more intentional about it.

“We also are trying to help journalists figure out what inclusive journalism looks like. For example, when you’re covering an environment story, and there is some sort of marginalized community that’s affected by this issue, it’s very common for reporters to present that community simply as victims. And so, in our annual workshop we’ve been trying to address that by having sessions in which we talk about how to demonstrate the expertise and agency that communities are bringing to these issues themselves, whether the communities are affected by sea level rise, or air quality problems, or whatever. We’re developing programs for journalists to help them think about how they’re covering communities that often are either ignored or are portrayed in very simplistic or stereotypical way.”

Steve D’Hondt’s recognition was for his long-time work in examining subsurface life. “There have been people looking at subsurface life since the 1920s. The earliest studies were people looking at bacteria coming out of oil and gas wells, in the formation fluid. That’s a very special environment. And then in the 1960’s, marine chemists began noticing chemical signatures in fluid from beneath the surface, that in their mind required life. They were the sort of chemical reactions that only organisms undertake. Beginning in the ‘80s, people started actually looking for life beneath the sea floor, but it was an intermittent ad hoc kind of thing. A little over 20 years ago, I began pushing to take a more systematic view of it, leading expeditions and different kinds of analyses to try and understand what is down there and what it is doing. It’s that work that the AAAS is recognizing.” D’Hondt has spent most of his professional life looking at the interplay between the living and physical worlds, mostly through marine sediment. In beginning this work, he turned from simply regarding marine sediment as an archive of past life to recognizing it as a global habitat of living organisms.

D’Hondt says that his research group and their collaborators have not only uncovered microbes in the subsurface that closely resemble those living at the sea floor but found that microbes could live far longer than expected and withstand the extreme conditions found beneath the seafloor. Perhaps most intriguing of all, they discovered live microbes in conditions where they were not thought to exist. “The organisms are generally starving. We look at sediment as old as 100 million years, and we have microbes living in it that can be revived.

“I co-led one expedition with a friend from Japan, and one of our Japanese investigators did a study that showed that microbes from 104-million-year-old sediment, if we offer them diverse molecules, they wake up and eat them all. It’s like, oh my god, here’s a smorgasbord! And then they reproduce.”

D’Hondt credits the organization for publishing excellent journals. “They actually published the journal where my first paper came out. So in a sense, I’ve been relying on that community for my entire career, ever since I was an undergrad. It’s a community that works to promote and support science. And they’ve supported me by providing this platform.” D’Hondt credits the organization for its ability to go to the US government and the general public with concerns they may have on an issue, as well as being able to relay information from the government to its members.

“To me, it serves as an important player in the public conversation of science in America and it’s an important player in the discussion of science in the world. One of the things that is a little unusual about AAAS as compared to many other science-focused societies is you don’t have to be a scientist to belong. It’s essentially there to support and distribute scientific understanding.”

This article was written by Hugh Markey.