Back to the Future


Here, (nearly) inside the Beltway, a common theme is talking about how a certain decision or policy will affect “future generations.” We hear it from the President during the State of the Union, members of Congress on talk shows, journalists online and in print, even scientists. But what if, instead of simply throwing an empty phrase around, there was a straightforward way for scientists to actually reach out to this “future generation,” to do something meaningful to inspire and help them?

Well, there is (obviously, or else there wouldn’t be much to read about in this post). Over the next few months, numerous STEM competitions will be taking place all over the country, featuring K-12 students participating in a wide variety of events that highlight their creativity, passion and engagement with science. ASBMB is calling on our members to take a few hours to volunteer (in any capacity) at these competitions, to help connect with, inspire and motivate this generation of future scientists.

For the majority of K-12 students, science competitions represent their most direct extracurricular scientific experience. Perhaps the most well-known competition is the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Started in 1950, the fair has grown to include more than 7,000,000 annual participants from over 70 countries. Students design projects in seventeen separate STEM categories, and take part in a tiered competition, starting with regional fairs before moving on to the state, and finally national, tournaments.

ASBMB member Laura Bohn from Scripps Research Institute presents Lillian Richards with an official certificate from ASBMB for her winning biochemistry project "Enzyme Time" at the 2014 Palm Beach Regional Science and Engineering Fair.

ASBMB member Laura Bohn from Scripps Research Institute presents Lillian Richards with an official certificate from ASBMB for her winning biochemistry project “Enzyme Time” at the 2013 Palm Beach Regional Science and Engineering Fair.

ASBMB member Laura Bohn from Scripps University recently served as a judge for biochemistry projects at the Palm Beach Regional Science and Engineering Fair.

“I was interested in experiencing how important science is to my school district,” said Bohn, “and I wanted to get a sense of what the students were learning in these schools.” She added, “[it] was worth the effort.”

Another major competition is Science Olympiad, which involves students working in teams to solve a series of STEM-themed challenges that are based on state science standards. ASBMB has worked directly in past years with state directors in Oklahoma and Hawaii to facilitate participation by ASBMB members as competition mentors, coaches and judges.

Numerous other examples of STEM competitions abound, including the Siemens Competition, the DuPont Challenge Science Essay Competition, and the Robotics Fest.

Beyond the thrill of victory (not to mention the potential for prizes and prestige), these competitions present an opportunity for participating students to interact directly with scientists, which has been shown to be a positive predictor of attitudes towards science and interest in choosing science as a career. Think back to when you were in primary school, first getting interested in science. What would it have meant to meet an ACTUAL SCIENTIST? The impact you can have will last a lifetime. The best way to ensure the success and vitality of future generations is to make sure that they are encouraged and excited by science right from the start. Not just the winners, but every single student who competes. They are demonstrating an interest in, and large commitment to, science, and your participation will positively reinforce that dedication. So get out there and use this opportunity to actually inspire that future generation. Instead of just talking about it.

Interested in participating? There is assuredly a competition taking place in your area. Check out a state-by-state listing of different events on our website:

The Guerilla in the Room


This month’s issue of ASBMB Today features a column about Guerilla Science, a unique organization that brings science to diverse audiences by mixing STEM topics with art and culture. Back in October, ASBMB helped co-sponsor the collective’s most recent event, the “Enlightenment Party,” a scientifically-themed costume party that brought the 17th century to life for San Francisco residents. Students from the ASBMB Undergraduate Affiliates Network chapter at San Francisco State University, along with faculty advisor Teaster Baird Jr., were front and center as cast members running the Plague game, during which party attendees were surreptitiously infected with “plague” (actually UV ink), before being diagnosed and “cured” by the scientists. Check out pictures from the event here.

SFSU UAN chapter- Enlightenment party

Dr. Baird reflects on his chapter’s participation in the winter edition of the ASBMB UAN newsletter Enzymatic. Click here to read: Enlightenment Party review by Teaster Baird Jr.

Can’t get enough? Here’s a link to even MORE pictures from the event (you can see the ASBMB crew in photos 330-346):

Read the column in ASBMB Today:

Science + Dance = Educational Art

Today we have a guest post from ASBMB Science Policy Fellow Shaila Kotadia, who writes about her experience combining science and dance.

Throughout history, science has influenced the arts. In fact, many famous artists were also famous scientists. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci is known for the Mona Lisa and The Vitruvian Man. In this vein, science and dance are a seamless collaboration. One of the most famous early examples is a dance from 1971 that depicts protein synthesis. After a lull for a few decades, there has been a recent strong resurgence of using science as inspiration for dance.

Science and dance have resulted in many creative ventures. My first introduction to the field was the collaboration between David Odde and Carl Flink, both at the University of Minnesota, to model molecular movements. David Odde’s work captured my interest for two reasons: 1) one of his lab’s concentrations was on microtubule dynamics during mitosis, or cell division, which overlapped with my scientific interests and 2) his use of dancers to model microtubule assembly and disassembly in the cell, which overlapped with my hobby of dancing. The idea of combining the two seemed so clever, and it was fascinating how accurate it could be for predicting actual cellular processes. Thus, this was a great source of inspiration for me to initiate my own science and dance mission.

I wondered how dancers would solve the biological problem I was studying. My work involved extremely long, stretched chromosomes and how the cell had to adapt to this abnormal phenomena in order to preserve the integrity of the genomic information. In other words, how did the cell coordinate division with chromosome segregation? I wanted to see how the dancers would have solved this problem as compared to the biological solutions that had been discovered. For example, in the Sullivan lab at UC Santa Cruz where I held a postdoctoral fellowship, it was discovered that Drosophila, or the fruit fly, neural stem cells change their shape and elongate to accommodate the long chromosome that lags at the division plane. Perhaps the dancers would have solved this phenomenon in a different way and thereby, open my eyes to a new discovery.

To my advantage, I was taking ballet classes at a studio with junior high and high school students and my ballet teacher approached me about choreographing a piece. As I began preparing to work with the young dancers, I realized I first had to teach (or at least refresh their memory) about mitosis. This led me to wonder how creating a dance based on a scientific concept could be used as an effective teaching tool for students. I wanted to involve the dancers in generating the choreography, so I decided that an iterative process would work best. During our first session, I explained mitosis and how I captured cells dividing live in my own work in the lab. I broke the girls up into three groups, representing the three cellular structures important in mitosis, the chromosomes, the microtubules, and the cell membrane. From there, we worked together on each mitotic stage. I would give some details about the science and my ballet teacher and I would suggest some dance moves that might capture the movement while maintaining the art of dance. Once the dancers had completed the stage by working together in their groups, they would perform the part for me and I would pare it down or give comments. Quite quickly, we had a completed dance that allowed the girls to better understand the nuances between the mitotic stages and have fun dancing and choreographing.

The most amazing part of the back-and-forth method was watching the students understand the scientific concepts, help each other, and then translate the science into dance moves. This even led to them asking more in-depth questions beyond the basics of mitosis. Perhaps my favorite quote was from Ashlyn Fletcher who said, “I wish I had paid more attention in class!” All the while, I decided to (amateurishly) video the whole process to give other scientists an idea of how the method worked and to showcase the final product for anyone who could use it as an aid to better understand mitosis. An added bonus is that it turned out to be a visually appealing dance!

As the arts are becoming more and more integrated into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education and the combination of science and dance are becoming more well-renowned and popular, I plan to continue on this great avenue with local choreographers to inspire young students to love science while creating beautiful dance. My positive experience teaching simple yet sophisticated scientific concepts has also encouraged me to revisit my original intention of using dancers to predict outcomes of biological problems. I also discovered that these projects make wonderful gifts, as evidenced by my goodbye dance to my postdoctoral adviser based on his postdoctoral work. Motivated by his reaction to include the video in his scientific presentations to explain his studies, I would love to consult with scientists to help them choreograph a dance based on their individual projects. Feel free to reach out and we can pursue any one of these avenues or pave an unexplored path in science and dance!

I would like to acknowledge Dancenter owner Ruth Fisher for allowing me to pursue this project in her studio. In addition, I want to thank Christina Martin, the faculty member at Dancenter (and a wonderful ballet teacher!) who gave me the opportunity to choreograph and for assisting me with the dancers. Of course, the dancers were the most integral part of the process and they were an amazing group of girls to teach and dance with: Maria Abrego, Kari Adams, Samantha Brocamontes, Ashlyn Fletcher, Arden Gautieri, Taylor Gautieri, Fiona Grishaw-Jones, Olivia Locatelli, Nicole Martinez, and Kira Mathiessen.

Follow Shaila on Twitter: @shpostrapheaila

National Academies host sci-com workshops


Science outreach relies on effective communication. On that point, there is widespread agreement. Unfortunately, there is otherwise little consensus on how to best make scientists effective communicators: What is the best model for science communication training? How is “effective” defined? Are scientists even that bad at communicating?

To try and bring some focus this debate, the National Academies of Science in Washington D.C. recently brought science communication experts and thought leaders together for two separate workshops focused on science communication training.

As part of their Public Interfaces of Life Sciences roundtable, the National Academies of Science hosted a workshop titled “Sustainable Infrastructures for Life Science Communication.” Speakers, panelists and audience members discussed existing platforms and programs for science communication that serve as part of the broader scientific infrastructure. Some of the highlighted speakers included Nalini Nadkarni and May R. Berenbaum, both previous winners of the AAAS Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology, as well as Sonny Ramaswamy from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture program. The discussion also featured insight from social scientist researchers, who presented research showing the professional impacts of science communication efforts. Sadly, a snowstorm caused the second day of the workshop to be cancelled, denying participants the chance to gain insight from funding organizations.

IMG_0238Taking a different approach, a second workshop, titled #GradSciComm, focused on identifying and (hopefully) rectifying deficiencies in existing training efforts. Hosted by COMPASS, the workshop grew out of a desire to address the unmet need for science communication training for graduate students, recognizing how this deficiency impacted professional development and career options for STEM trainees. Participants worked to map out potential pathways to help identify science communication core competencies and integrate them into STEM graduate student training, coming up with approaches to overcome significant obstacles like lack of institutional support and poorly defined evaluation metrics.

So after three full days of discussion and deliberation (with one more to come), what were the take-aways? One major outcome from the workshops was the chance for key stakeholders to finally put their heads together and collaborate on collective efforts, rather than continuing to toil in isolation. The discussions and debates that took place will springboard efforts to bring awareness to individual programs, helping to establish a national network that will help to legitimize and standardize science communication training through both bottom-up, grass-roots and institutionalized, top-down approaches.

Participants were also able to tease out several common themes related to the specifics of communicating that came up repeatedly during the workshops. These included: messaging, framing, delivery and context/understanding of the audience. More work is needed to distill these themes into specific criteria that can be used when designing, operating and evaluating current and future training programs.

Finally, the mere existence of these types of workshops demonstrates the growing attention that is being paid to the issue of science communication. The more opportunities that scientists have for practicing and training, the more willing they will be to participate in outreach activities in their local communities. ASBMB is part of that effort: in 2014, we will be launching a comprehensive science communication training program that will help imbue our members with the skills necessary to become expert communicators. We will also be hosting a science communication-themed workshop at EB2014. Stay tuned!



Sustainable Infrastructures for Life Science Communication workshop:

COMPASS #GradSciComm:

Announcing the 2014 Outreach Seed Grant Winners!


Our main goal on the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee is to get ASBMB members involved with public outreach activities. As a first (admittedly big) step in that direction, this month, the first round of awards from our Outreach Seed Grant Program were handed out. Individuals were able to apply for up to $2000 annually for three years to help fund novel or nascent science outreach programs needing modest financial support in order to get up and running.

From a highly competitive pool, 6 winners were selected:

Robert Ekman (Rockville Science Center)

Community Partnerships for Science Outreach through an Expanded Undergraduate Affiliate Network of the ASBMB

Bob EkmanThe Rockville (MD) Science Center, where Ekman serves as President, will partner with student members of the ASBMB Undergraduate Affiliates Network chapter at the Universities at Shady Grove to expand upon an ongoing science café series that targets local high school students. The group will also found a new café series at the local Senior Center to bring science to elderly local residents.

Teresa Evans (University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio)

Teen Meetings Outside the Box (TeenMOB)

Teresa EvansBuilding off an existing mentorship/outreach program developed by Evans, Trainee Meetings Outside the Box (TMOB), TeenMOB will work to develop a young adult science café in the San Antonio community. High school student members of TeenMOB will help organize local events for their classmates, relying on mentorship and advice from graduate student members of TMOB.

Edwin Li (St. Joseph’s University)

Science on the Hill

Edwin Li (new)Li will partner with Wynnefield Overbrook Revitalization Corporation, a community-centered non-profit based in West Philadelphia, to start “Science on the Hill,” a science café series that will expand local outreach efforts beyond those currently focused on downtown Philadelphia.

Ana Maldonado and Kelly Hallstrom (University of Massachusetts Medical School)

Science Café Woo

Kelly Hallstrom and Ana MaldonadoScience Café Woo, a science café program recently started by Maldonado and Hallstrom in Worcester, MA, will expand its outreach programming by hosting a number of public science events in conjunction with local science institutions, along with a science communication contest for local college students.

Lisa Scheifele (Loyola University Maryland)

Development of a Sustainable Synthetic Biology Workshop and Public Lecture at a Community Laboratory

Lisa ScheifeleScheifele will work with Baltimore UnderGround Science Space (BUGSS), a public synthetic biology laboratory, to increase participation by members of the local community in the “Build-a-Gene” workshop that she teaches. BUGSS will also host a public lecture series on both the applications and ethics of synthetic biology to help engage an even wider audience.

Garner Soltes (Princeton University)

Science by the Cup & A Tall Drink of Science: A Science Café Outreach Series in Central NJ and the Regional Northeast

Garner SoltesSoltes will work with the Princeton University Graduate Molecular Biology Outreach Program to start a science café in central New Jersey, gradually expanding throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Students will serve as organizers, speakers and participants to bring science directly to local community members.

Besides all being strong, creative proposals, these programs also shared a common theme of aiming to deliver science to a particular community audience through a targeted approach. As much as we would like to bring science to everyone everywhere all at once, experience has shown that outreach is best done in a direct, focused manner.

Even more encouraging, proposals were submitted by ASBMB members from all different career stages, ranging from undergraduates to senior faculty. We hope that our awardees serve as inspiration for the greater ASBMB community to similarly get involved with outreach. No matter your level of experience, you too can help spread science in your community!

We are excited to help these programs flourish and watch them grow. Congratulations to all the winners!

For more information about the Outreach Seed Grant program, visit our website