Making the Windy City a Little More Windy

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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.

AAAS 2014

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.

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Chicago families crowd the American Society for Plant Biology booth during Family Science Days at AAAS 2014

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.

Tomorrow Never Knows

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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.

Alberts MBOC

Image credit: Garland Science

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.

Image courtesy: National Human Genome Research Institute and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Image courtesy: National Human Genome Research Institute and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

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.”

The Guerilla in the Room

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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): http://www.flickr.com/photos/rocketqueen/sets/72157636774349534/

Read the column in ASBMB Today: http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/201401/EnlightenmentParty/

Announcing the 2014 Outreach Seed Grant Winners!

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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 www.asbmb.org/publicoutreach.