Same great content, just a different location: the Cellular Culture Blog can now be found at: http://cellularculture.asbmb.org/
How should science be taught in the 21st century? In this month’s ASBMB Today, authors Morgan Thompson, Jon Beckwith and Regina Stevens-Truss argue that, in contrast to the traditional siloed approach, modern training in science requires perspectives that incorporate public discourse and consider the societal context of scientific research. Their solution is the Science and Social Justice Project, a joint collaborative between Kalamazoo College and Harvard Medical School that “seeks to identify, connect, and coordinate scholars doing science and social justice teaching and research.”
The idea of applying such an inclusive approach to scientific training is one that is gaining traction throughout the scientific community. Sonny Ramaswamy, Director of the Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture program, has argued that science communicators should be involved in research projects from beginning to end, in an effort to bring broader social, ethical and political perspectives to experimental design and interpretation. Meanwhile, collaborations that address the overlap between scientific and societal issues have become more common and more formalized. Numerous institutions now feature such programs, including Princeton University’s Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy and the Stanford University Program in Law, Science & Technology.
As the Science and Social Justice Project grows, the project leaders hope to get more and more scientists involved in their effort. A major step will be the WITH/OUT — ¿BORDERS? Conference, held September 25-28, 2014. The conference will create “conversations on emerging epistemologies, radical geographies, critical solidarities, and transgressive practices that transcend and theorize across disciplinary and academic/activist borders.”
The role of science within popular culture is rapidly expanding. Ensuring that upcoming generations of scientists and non-scientists are able to freely converse and navigate between their respective areas of expertise will improve not only science, but society as a whole.
The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is a hodgepodge of talks, presentations and workshops from across the scientific spectrum. In recent years, the theme of science communication has featured prominently throughout the meeting. This year’s version, held last month in a frigid Chicago, continued that trend.
The meeting kicked off with the annual International Public Science Events Conference (IPSEC), attended by outreach and public science professionals from across the globe. With an overall theme of incorporating science into popular culture, IPSEC 2014 featured several sessions focused on strategies for going beyond standard outreach activities to reach non-traditional audiences. A wonderful example was presented by Mark SubbaRao from the Adler Planetarium, who worked to have astronomy images displayed in various public spaces around the greater Chicago region, including in subway trains, at O’Hare airport, and even in local penitentiaries (he is still awaiting feedback from the Blues Brothers). Examples of other novel outreach approaches abounded, from the collaborative Discover, Explore and Enjoy Physics and Engineering (DEEP) program at Texas A&M University to the hipster gathering that is Nerd Nite.
Once the AAAS meeting began in full, an entire session track dedicated to communication fit alongside scientific themes like Physics and Astronomy. One of the more notable sessions, sponsored by COMPASS, featured a wide range of stakeholders discussing different approaches to incorporate science communication into student training programs, continuing the discussion that was begun at the initial #GradSciComm meeting held last December. Officials from both the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and National Science Foundation outlined actions being taken by the federal government, such as novel funding opportunities and prescriptive programmatic recommendations, while university-based speakers Karen Klomparens (Michigan State University Graduate School) and Rachel Mitchell (University of Washington- ENGAGE) talked about their experiences with science communication training programs at their individual institutions.
A crowd favorite was a session, hosted by the Center for Communicating Science at SUNY-Stonybrook, focusing on the use of improvisation tools to facilitate communication. An overflow crowd of more than 100 attendees swarmed into the session room to take part in various exercises, such as silently working with a partner to carry an invisible sheet of glass around the room (without breaking it!), that demonstrated the critical non-verbal aspects of communication.
For science communicators (at least of a certain age), the unquestioned highlight of the meeting was Alan Alda giving his plenary lecture “Getting Beyond a Blind Date with Science” to a packed room of meeting attendees. Alda spoke of the need for scientists to engage with the general public, describing his (often-times frustrating) interactions with scientists while hosting Scientific American Frontiers, as well as his personal classroom experiences that served as inspiration for the creation of the Flame Challenge.
The theme of public interaction extended beyond the session rooms, with several different public science events taking place that gave meeting attendees a chance to put their communication skills to use through science-based interactions with people from the local community.
Children and parents crowded into Family Science Day to learn about meiosis using poker chips, use a 3D printer to make miniature self-models, and help generate indoor tornadoes. Other public facing communication events included a science café on dark matter, hosted at the Adler Planetarium, and a live filming of StoryCollider, a science podcast/storytelling platform.
As science communication becomes ever more integrated as part of the scientific process, these types of activities and sessions will feature regularly at scientific meetings and conferences. ASBMB will feature its own platter of events at the 2014 Experimental Biology meeting next month, including a science communication workshop and a public science cafe (check out our full lineup under the “Public Policy and Science Outreach” header: http://www.asbmb.org/Meetings_01/2014mtg/2014AnnlMtgProgInfo.aspx). So the next time you go to a meeting, try to see what you can do to communicate your science without using a poster board or PowerPoint presentation. You might be amazed at what is out there.
By Shaila Kotadia (@shpostrapheaila)
Scientists presenting in a classroom can result in lifelong inspiration. During an outreach visit, my colleague, Carley Corrado, demonstrated the awe one could invoke in students. She visited a classroom of 2nd graders and organized an activity to blow up a balloon, stick it in liquid nitrogen, and then pulled it out. Simple enough, but what would happen to the balloon? More importantly, what did the elementary students think would happen? The students all predicted the balloon would pop in the liquid nitrogen and covered their ears in anticipation. Instead, it shrank. When the balloon was pulled out of the cold temperature, it began to grow again and the students stared screaming and could not believe their eyes. They had to touch the balloon to make sure it was real. Afterwards, Carley asked what the students wanted to be when they grew up. In unison, they answered “A scientist!”
A few years before this inspirational moment, Carley and I met one day under the warm California sun. We were both selected as outreach officers of the Women in Science and Engineering organization at the University of California, Santa Cruz. There were opportunities to conduct educational outreach at our current institution but none deeply connected to our respective departments and none aligned with our vision to inspire students in the classroom. Thus, we set out to lead our own outreach project. There were no constraints; just two people who wanted to change the lives of students by showing them the wonderments of science.
I was motivated by my first outreach experience in graduate school. After another friend and I spoke about our projects and how basic research helps to lead to cures to diseases, one student, wide-eyed and about 12 years old, asked if his whole family was going to get cancer because they were overweight. In that moment, I realized the difference I could make by entering a classroom and just talking about what I do for a living. Carley had been motivated to pursue a scientific career because of the mentors she met along her path to becoming a scientist. She had tremendous gratitude for the advice she had been given. Thus, she wanted to give back and lend her knowledge to inspire a student to find their path like she had.
We set off on our journey, brainstorming ideas for school visits, gathering volunteers, connecting with teachers. Eventually we made it into a few classrooms and tested our set-up. After many visits over several years, our outreach program evolved into a short presentation by each scientist volunteer followed by questions about anything, both professional and personal, from the students and then hands-on activities that promoted inquiry. Through our visits, like the example above, we noticed how we could inspire students to love science as much as we did.
I was also pleasantly surprise by an unintended consequence from our program in that not only did we inspire the young students but also our peers. I was fortunate to have an undergraduate student that I mentored in the lab go on a visit with me. Later, she took on the role as an outreach leader. It was amazing to see her flourish and listen to her stories about her own excitement of running a visit and the excitement the students expressed. It was even better when she moved on to her next position and said she hoped to continue the outreach efforts at her new institution. It was like re-experiencing my first visit to students in graduate school and remembering how it feels to inspire others.
It was fifty years ago this week that Beatlemania broke here in America. The confluence of factors that combined to propel the Beatles from unknowns to pop culture icons may seem light years away from having anything to do with science; yet developments within the scientific community show some surprisingly odd parallels.
The Beatles were great communicators, using their intrinsic musical talent and skill to make an intense connection with the public. However, even they required some refining in order to go from the repetitive (though undoubtedly catchy) “Love Me Do” to the intricate wonders of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Similarly, most scientists could benefit from refinement of their communication abilities, in order to become maximally effective at communicating with the public. In her column in the February issue of ASBMB Today, Meena Selvakumar talks about how Portal to the Public, a training program founded by the Pacific Science Center, works to prepare scientists to engage with audiences at informal science education institutions. Project staff lead traveling workshops that bring their communications expertise directly to local communities, working to make scientists into well-rounded communication experts.
As The Beatles expanded their songwriting craft, they came up with increasingly creative outlets for broadcasting their music, such as films, concept albums, even playing a concert on a London rooftop. Science outreach activities are becoming just as ingenious. As an example, the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington D.C. is currently showcasing two exhibits that highlight laboratory science in unique ways. The first, described by Sapeck Agrawal in her recent article (also in the February issue of ASBMB Today), is the Q?rius exhibit, which showcases microscopes and their power to illuminate science at the sub-micron level. The exhibit excels in particular at bringing the museum’s specimen collection to life, allowing visitors to pluck up samples and take a deeper look under a microscope.
Upstairs from the Q?rius exhibit is “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code”, which opened in 2013 to highlight the anniversary of the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. In the exhibit, visitors can learn about the pros and cons of genetic testing and investigate details about the human genome. There are even live scientists, draped in standard-issue lab coats, fielding questions from visitors, and theater pieces that dramatize the scientific events that lead to the decoding of the genomre.
So while scientists are likely not vying to be bigger than Jesus, could embracing this musically-inspired approach to science communication possibly help inspire a similar bout of hysteria about science (Sciencemania anyone)? As The Fab Four might have put it had they been scientists: “The knowledge you take is equal to the knowledge you make.”
By Shaila Kotadia (@shpostrapheaila)
Imagine stepping onto the turf at CenturyLink Field, home of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, engulfed by the loudest crowd in the history of sports, and trying to get them to cheer for their arch-rival, the San Francisco 49ers. That was essentially the situation in which science personality Bill Nye found himself earlier this week, when he ventured into the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY for a debate on evolution with Museum president Ken Ham. Beyond the ramifications for evolutionary biology, the debate presented a fascinating example of an effort to communicate science to a non-expert audience.
Many within the scientific community criticized Nye for even participating in the first place, pointing out that he is not an expert on evolution, and that by agreeing to debate Ham he was justifying the position of creationists. Nye, however, relished the debate as an opportunity to communicate about science, pointing out that he hoped to “draw attention to the importance of science education here in the United States.” His performance serves as an insightful guide for how those interested in science communication can perform under the most difficult of circumstances.
Given that the event featured back-and-forth statements without interjections, it was difficult for each participant to react to opposing viewpoints. However, Nye gave a master class in how to keep cool in the face of hostility: rather than reacting negatively, he listened to what the other side had to say and responded in a level-headed manner with confidence and facts that reinforced his position. Nye also made good use of his delivery, throwing in colloquialisms and jokes, and using intonations that engaged the audience. This kept the tone of the debate relaxed and friendly, removing the aggression that sometimes overshadows intellectual components.
Furthermore, Nye was able to use examples from his own life to make his presentation more relatable. Both scientists and non-scientists have loved ones who have been diagnosed with cancer or heart disease or diabetes; making a personal connection is an effective approach to softening the nature of the audience, helping to persuade them to be more objective and eliminating unrecognized biases.
In the end, Nye both won and lost the debate. While his points were made with fervor, he tried to fit a lot of science into minimal time, likely making it difficult for the average viewer to really digest all of the facts. When explaining complex scientific concepts, it is best to keep it simple and to the point, and then fill in details as questions arise. Nye also faced a difficult opponent who refuted his arguments with a “if you can’t see it, then you can’t believe it” attitude and constantly referred back to the Bible when asked questions about unsolved scientific problems. Given such stubbornness, scientists need to recognize when there is difficulty reasoning with the other side, and do their best to lay out their story clearly and concisely.
But from an outreach perspective, Bill Nye was a clear winner. Whether or not creationists were converted to evolutionists or vice-versa is immaterial. Scientists are often told that they must communicate their science to the public. Refusing to engage with different audiences leads to confusion, mis-information and distrust, all of which make our jobs as scientists even more difficult. Take the opportunity to learn from Bill Nye about how you can use your words to help others understand the beauty of science. If more scientists stood up to promote and defend science, then this debate might not have even been necessary in the first place.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Unfortunately, the beauty of science is often confined to the eyes of those who do it, hidden behind mounds of technical data and impermeable prose. Yet visual scientific imagery represents the most direct form of science communication, one that can have a powerful impact on both scientists and non-scientists: consider the famous picture of Earth taken from the surface of the moon, or the intricate complexity of the DNA double helix.
The BioArt competition, launched by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in conjunction with their centennial in 2012, aims to bring the artistic side of science out into the open. Scientists submit images or videos generated in the laboratory that are both visually magnificent and scientifically significant. To emphasize the theme of science communication, each entry must include a caption that describes the image or video in language relatable to a general audience. An important caveat is that each entry demonstrates research supported by federal funding.
The 2013 winners consisted of ten images and two videos, developed using both classical and state-of-the-art imaging technologies. Included are two entries from ASBMB members.
William Lewis from Emory University School of Medicine won for his image of an amyloid plaque viewed via polarized spectroscopy.
Meanwhile, Douglas Cowan and James McCully from Harvard Medical School, were recognized for their fluorescence image depicting the cellular architecture of rat cardiomyocyte cells.
The winning works of art have been displayed at several public locations, including the Visitor Center on the National Institutes of Health campus.
They were also highlighted during the Medical Museum Science Café this week in Silver Spring, Maryland, an event sponsored by the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Other opportunities for public display are currently being developed.
So are these images beautiful? See them with your own eyes.
For a full list of winning entries, please visit: http://www.faseb.org/About-FASEB/Scientific-Contests/BioArt/Winners.aspxThanks to Shaila Kotadia (@shpostrapheaila) for help writing this post!