The Struggle Between Fact and Fiction

Huang Fellow Alaa Osman Reflects on the 2021 Huang Fellows Symposium - The Struggle Between Fact and Fiction: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation

This semester, I was a member of the planning committee for this year’s Huang Fellows symposium, which highlighted the role that misinformation plays in vaccine hesitancy. In all honesty, my reasons for volunteering were rather shallow, ranging from the desire to kill some time to simply wanting to make a good impression. When I sent that eager request to join, still recovering from the excitement of orientation, I never could have imagined that I would become so invested in the event, nor that my network of friends and resources would expand so greatly.

From an outsider’s perspective, the line-up for the planning committee must have been quite underwhelming. The team consisted of eight members, most of whom were freshmen new to the fellowship, just like me. Moreover, virtually no one had ever helped organize a symposium or similar type of event before. However, what the committee lacked in experience was more than made up for through its diligence and zeal. Immediately following the first meeting (which I accidentally slept through), a grand planning document was created and shared with all of the members. It not only outlined the symposium’s format but also included a list of potential speakers and topics to be covered. Later on, we would also use the document to set deadlines and appoint members to specific tasks. Another medium that we relied on was GroupMe, which provided a quick way to share news and information with the rest of the team.

I’m so grateful that my peers on the committee and I were able to provide a stimulating learning experience for the Huang Fellows this year. Regardless of what year they’re in, I highly recommend that every Fellow help plan at least one symposium during their undergraduate studies”

Come the second meeting of the committee, I knew that I had to step up to the plate. We split the symposium into two distinct, largely independent tasks: recruiting the speakers and the actual marketing of the event. I was assigned to the latter, along with another first-year. Since this year’s symposium was virtual, the two of us chose to mainly rely on social media and email to reach out to the Duke community. Given that I don’t have any social media accounts (unless you count DukeGroups), it was a given that my partner would be leading the social media campaign. This left me with the tasks of obtaining promotional materials and requesting organizations at Duke to help spread the word.

Having worked with PhotoShop and similar programs in the past, I’m not the worst when it comes to graphic design. Nevertheless, I realized that in order to do the best job possible, I would have to ask for help from those with more experience. The graphic designers at Science & Society, for instance, created beautiful, concise materials that we could then email organizations, share in group chats or post on social media. For their aid in our endeavors, I am eternally grateful. Similarly, my thanks extend to all of the Huang Fellows, especially those in my own cohort. Upon request, the Fellows were more than willing to advertise the symposium on their social media accounts using flyers, posters, backgrounds, etc., that my partner and I provided. In this respect, our approach to advertisement exploited the new friendships and associations that we were able to develop by being part of this community of scholars.

As the date of the symposium quickly approached, I found myself taking care of more administrative aspects, such as attendee registration and Zoom security. As with the graphic design, I reached out to another specialist at Science & Society to help out with both of these important details. All the while, the committee members not assigned to marketing were sending out requests to speak at the symposium to professors, researchers, and other distinguished individuals in the Duke community. With an ever-shifting list of acceptances and rejections, correspondences between members, guest speakers, and the staff at Science & Society grew hazy at times regarding things like the date and time. Furthermore, we had to adjust our plans after obtaining fewer speakers than we had expected. For instance, it was decided that the symposium would consist of a talk from a keynote speaker followed by only one panel, rather than two as originally planned.

These unexpected changes were challenging—even exasperating at times—but the symposium went wonderfully despite all of our worries. From the engrossing keynote address to the lively panel discussion, the conversation seemed to take on a life of its own. I suspect that the attendees felt similarly; the questions that they posed to the speakers were so provocative that not all of them could be addressed during the Q & A sessions!

I’m so grateful that my peers on the committee and I were able to provide a stimulating learning experience for the Huang Fellows this year. Regardless of what year they’re in, I highly recommend that every Fellow help plan at least one symposium during their undergraduate studies. Looking back, the position made it exceedingly clear that no one is ever truly alone here at Duke. There are so many motivated, talented individuals who are glad to lend a hand if you just say the word. I’m looking forward to working more with them and future colleagues-to-be in the years ahead.

Alaa Osman, Huang Fellow ’24

Osman_Alaa Alaa is from Orange Park, Florida, and is pursuing a BSE in Biomedical Engineering.