Paying it Forward: Inspiring the Next Generation


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.

Outreach volunteers Keelan Guiley and Carley Corrado with 5th grade Earth Science  students at Sacred Heart School in Saratoga, CA

Outreach volunteers Keelan Guiley and Carley Corrado with 5th grade Earth Science students at Sacred Heart School in Saratoga, CA

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.

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