Undergraduate Outreach- Round Two

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This past spring, the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee initiated a grant program for chapters of the society’s Undergraduate Affiliates Network, providing resources and funding up to $500 to help support science outreach activities. Due to overwhelming demand, we opened the program up for a second round of applications this fall.

Following an extensive application and review process, we are now pleased to report that two additional UAN chapters have been approved for funding from this program:

  • The University of Arizona chapter will use funds from ASBMB to help support BlastOff!, an annual science camp that provides a “free, hands-on opportunity to experience the thrill of being engaged in scientific exploration through field trips, experiments that they conduct themselves with the guidance of our Chapter members serving as mentors, and analyzing data.”
  • The University of Texas, San Marcos chapter will engage in both a STEM Outreach Field Trip to local elementary schools, and a Science Camp week on campus, both of which will introduce students to hands-on science activities.

It is especially heartening to see that the undergraduate members of the individual UAN chapters are the ones responsible for the organization and execution of the various outreach activities. Whatever they may lack in experience they more than make up for with their dedication, energy and passion that will guarantee the success of their local outreach efforts.

These awards bring the total number of UAN chapters funded through the POC-UAN Grant Program in 2014 to nine. You can learn about the activities from all of these chapters during our Science Outreach and UAN Activity Poster Session at EB2015 on March 28 at the Boston Convention and Events Center.

If your UAN chapter is interested in applying for this award, we will be accepting applications next spring. Stay tuned for the announcement!

Read more about the program here.

An Update on ASBMB Seed Grant Recipients

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In 2013, ASBMB instituted an Outreach Seed Grant Program, intended to “help fund novel, innovative science outreach programs that require modest financial support in order to get up and running.” Six different individuals received awards of up to $2000 annually, for a period of three years.

One year later, the recipients have reported back to us on the progress they made over the previous year, describing the events and activities that they sponsored and showing how their programs have encouraged greater participation with science within their local communities. Below are brief summaries of each of their programs:

Bob Ekman (Rockville Science Center):

The Rockville Science Center used ASBMB funding to build upon their existing science café program. Working with the city of Rockville (MD), the Center founded a monthly café event at the Rockville Senior Center specifically for senior citizens. In addition, the Center collaborated with students from the Universities at Shady Grove and Montgomery College to develop a young adult science café, targeted towards local high school students.

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

Dr. Evans used ASBMB funds to found Teen Meetings Outside the Box (Teen MOB), a young adult-focused spin-off of the high successful Trainee Meetings Outside the Box mentoring/outreach program at UTHSCSA. In collaboration with the San Antonio Voelcker Biosciences Teacher Academy, TeenMOB was able to sponsor Science Night, a graduate student-run interactive event that featured booths highlighting various health and science-related topics for local high school students and their families.

Kelly Hallstrom and Ana Maldonado (University of Massachusetts, Worcester):

Science Cafe Woo organizers at Touch TomorrowScience Café Woo, a science café program founded in 2013, used funding from ASBMB to greatly expand their programming. In addition to increasing the attendance at their monthly science café series held at EcoTarium, the local science museum, organizers Kelly Hallstrom and Ana Maldonado were able to develop a number of science exhibits that showcased science for the greater Worcester (MA) community. These included the Science + You exhibition at EcoTarium and Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s annual Touch Tomorrow event. Further events are planned for 2015, starting with “You’re the Expert,” a science-themed comedy podcast.

Edwin Li (St. Joseph’s University):

Science on the Hill flyerDr. Li used funding from ASBMB to institute “Science on the Hill,” a science café series in West Philadelphia. The program hosted four events in 2014, covering topics such as climate change and microbial infections. 2015 will see an expansion in the size and scope of the program.

 

Lisa Scheifele (Loyala University):

Funds from ASBMB sponsored ten memberships to the Baltimore Underground Science Space (BUGSS), a community laboratory open to members of the public. The new members were then able to participate in both a public lecture from Dr. John Glass of the J. Craig Venter institute, and the “Build-A-Gene” course, a “hands-on course to create your own synthetic DNA” taught by Dr. Scheifele.

Garner Soltes (Princeton University):

Working with the Princeton Graduate Molbio Outreach Program, Mr. Soltes was able to use ASBMB funding to institute a number of events, including a science pub quiz and tasting tours that focused on the science of brewing coffee and beer. ASBMB-sponsored activities at public events, such as the Princeton Harvest & Music Festival, had the added benefit of including participants not just from the greater Princeton area, but also from as far away as Philadelphia.

ASBMB is proud to be a sponsor of all of these programs, and looks forward to their continued development in future years.

The Public Outreach Committee is currently looking to build upon this success by further developing the ASBMB outreach network through additional events and funding opportunities. Take a look at our website to see how you can get involved!

NSF and You

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One of the biggest challenges facing scientists is how to make their work relevant to the public. How does work on chromosome methylation or fruit fly development affect my daily life?

Recognizing the importance of this issue, the National Science Foundation in 1997 instituted a requirement for all grant applications to include a section detailing how the proposed research would “benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.” Often reviled and always controversial, the Broader Impacts requirement has nonetheless forced scientists to consider the long-term societal implications of their work, oftentimes to surprisingly beneficial results.

Perspective on Broader Impacts

Last week, the NSF released a report titled “Perspectives on Broader Impacts” that lays out different ways in which researchers have brought their work to a wider audience. Stories included in the report include how leftover coconuts can be converted into building materials, ways to track and analyze the spread of Ebola, and unique training and outreach programs that get students engaged with the scientific process. The report also includes insight from the NSF and a review of community discussions on Broader Impacts, such as those raised at the 2014 Broader Impacts Summit.

This report comes out at a time when scientific research funding agencies, the NSF in particular, are under increased Congressional scrutiny to demonstrate the relevance of the work that they support. While other agencies have unfortunately yet follow the NSF’s lead in directing grantees to demonstrate the applicability of their research, the success of the Broader Impacts requirement in showcasing how research funded by the agency has practical, real-world implications will hopefully spur a legion of copycats.

As more and more scientists think about ways to share their research with the public, the scientific community will hopefully see a swell of support for its work. Now that would be something uncontroversial.

Find more about Broader Impacts here.

Biophilia: A Science Love Song

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Ask someone to pick a song that has to do with science, and they will almost invariably point to the 1982 song “She Blinded Me With Science” by Thomas Dolby. Ask them to pick another, and they will likely be stumped.

It’s fair to say that science has not proved as popular a subject in music as love or drugs or politics. Yet artists are beginning to use the creative canvas that science provides as a source of musical inspiration. Taking this idea to the extreme is the Icelandic singer Björk, whose stunning new concert film, Biophilia Live, presents a live, multimedia display of science-themed music in one of the more unique examples of science outreach that has been undertaken.Biophilia Live Poster

In 2011, Björk released Biophilia, a concept album that attempts to unite music, nature and technology into a single experience. With song titles like “Virus” and “Crystalline,” the album sees Björk using science to express a range of emotions, from helplessness (“as fast as your fingernail grows the Atlantic ridge drifts”) to attraction (“my romantic gene is dominant”). Musically, the album relies on a number of unique instruments and musical arrangements that help synthesize Björk’s vision into an unsettling sonic outburst. In a podcast, she describes the project as “both zooming out like the planets but also zooming into the atoms, and in that way aesthetically sympathising with sound.”

A show from the ensuring promotional concert tour was filmed and released as Biophilia Live, which premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival in April 2014. Perhaps the first concert film to feature a chromosome smear in its opening sequence, Biophilia Live begins with a spoken introduction from naturalist David Attenborough set against a backdrop of images and video clips that could easily have come from a National Geographic nature film. Viewers are then transported to the Alexandra Palace in London, where Björk and her band run through the album in its entirety (along with several other songs).

To help support and amplify the science-themed music, the 360o stage setup features technical and sonic wizardry in the form of Tesla coils and pendulum harps. Cameras are set up around the entire arena, providing shots from a wide variety of angles and depths that cut from darkly-lit audience shots to disorienting close-ups. Video screens above the stage project a menagerie of scientific images, including dividing cells, plate tectonics and colorful crystalline rock formations, which occasionally morph to fill up the entire movie screen, before giving way to shots of the performers. All of this takes place as Björk cavorts around the stage, sporting an enormous, multi-colored afro wig, wearing a lacquered bubble dress and exercising her stellar vocal chords (backed by a 24-person Icelandic choir), all in the name of science.

Though the immersive experience offered concert attendees was undoubtedly amazing, the concert seems somehow better fitted for the cinema. Given that the entire Biophilia project originally began as a 3D film, it is no surprise that Biophilia Live comes off as an IMAX film set to music. Between the audio and visual production, it is impossible to sit through the movie and not feel completely immersed in science: the only thing missing are 3D glasses.

So go check out Biophilia Live if you want to be a part of Björk’s unorthodox approach to musical expression. Or if you want to see how the artistic components of the natural world can be used to expand the universal creative repertoire. Or if you just want to be able to name another science-themed song.

Check out where you can watch Biophilia in your hometown: http://www.biophiliathefilm.com/

Revenge of the Nerds

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Dominant Lethals

The author shows off his hitting skills

I have been a sports fan since my dad first took me to a baseball game, way back in 1987 (I still remember Wally Joyner hitting two home runs for the California Angels that day). As anyone who knows me can attest, I devour anything related to sports. If there is a competition that involves a ball of any sort, I will be interested in watching, playing, reading or talking about it.

But I also got good grades and genuinely liked learning. My involvement with sports was therefore always in conflict with my persona as the smart kid. I was intimidated by the regular “jocks,” and had a hard time relating to them as teammates, yet as an athlete, I had enough street cred to hang out in the presence of the cool kids that my more studious brethren could never approach. I lived in a grey area between these two worlds, a stranger in both, at home in neither.

Thus it was with great pride and satisfaction that I got to write about Boston Red Sox pitcher (and fellow smart guy) Craig Breslow in this month’s ASBMB Today. Like me, he studied biophysics at an Ivy League institution. Like me, Craig was an athlete (ok, maybe a slightly better one). And like me, he had battled against perceptions that athletes can’t be smart, and that smart people can’t play sports. Telling his story was an exercise in nostalgia and catharsis for me.

Craig Breslow

Craig Breslow during his college days. Image credit: Yale Athletics

Craig’s story is part of a recent trend that has seen science (ever so slowly) creep into the realm of athletics. Data-based sabermatic analyses now dominate sports. Science is a regular on the front of the sports page, providing critical evidence for stories about performance-enhancing drugs, or the potential links between neurodegenerative diseases and head trauma suffered by athletes, most notably those in the National Football League. ESPN’s “Sport Science” is a regular feature on Sportscenter, and draws hundreds of thousands of views online.

While my athletic dreams may not have worked out the way I imagined (I probably won’t end up hitting that home run to win the World Series), my academic ones are continuing to grow. When Craig’s baseball career eventually winds down, I hope that he will be able to pick up where he left off with his academic ones. Even if he doesn’t, he has already provided inspiration for those who thought that intelligence and athletics couldn’t mix. That’s the best kind of revenge.

Story Of My Life

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Slogging my way through a career as a scientist, somehow I always felt drawn to the world of punk rock. As an undergraduate at Cornell University, I hoped to surreptitiously bump into Bad Religion lead singer Greg Graffin, then working on his Ph.D. in zoology in the building across from my lab. In grad school, I spent my late nights and weekends in the lab doing experiments to the blaring sounds of Social Distortion and X-Ray Spex. I even included an ode to some of my favorite punk bands in my Ph.D. thesis, thanking them for the solace and wisdom that they provided me as I struggled to complete my research project. Yet I never could quite figure out how the two worlds of science and punk rock went together beyond merely being passions of mine. A few years ago, I stumbled across an article from The Scientist that talked about how punk rock and science actually share a number of common characteristics. The story also mentioned a number of punk rockers who had science backgrounds, including Graffin, along with Milo Aukerman from Descendents and Dexter Holland from The Offspring. Finally, it appeared that my worlds had collided.

More importantly, by this point I had become the public outreach coordinator for ASBMB, which essentially meant that I got paid to bring science to punk rock fans and punk rock to scientists. I conjured crazy, fantastic dreams about how I could exploit this synergy. Could I organize a concert that featured these bands at our annual meeting? How about a panel discussion about science during the Warped Tour?

The only thing tempering my imagination was my inability to put a plan into action. For years, the idea lay dormant as I tried to devise the perfect outlet for my vision. Finally, pushed by my dedicated colleague Raj Mukhopadhyay, I consented to co-author a series of articles about Aukerman, Graffin and Holland for ASBMB Today. At first, I was slightly discouraged by how the situation had resolved itself, worried that writing a few profile pieces for a bunch of scientists would have limited impact. No, I wanted the whole world to know this story and to gain a true appreciation of science and scientists.

What helped me overcome my reservations was realizing that I was going to get to play out one of my lifelong dreams: I actually was going to interview some of my musical idols! The thought of talking Bad Religion lyrics with their author or sharing stories about growing up in Southern California with Dexter motivated me to go full throttle into this project. I was not disappointed. As a music fan, the thrill of conducting these interviews was exceeded only by the incredibly thoughtful, insightful discussions we had with Milo, Greg and Dexter about their scientific passions, musical interests and career outlooks, discussions that I never wanted to end.


During the writing process, my inner punk rocker finally got to come out and meet the world. I threw in every punk reference my editor, Angela Hopp, would allow, along with some that she didn’t. (Seriously punk fans, tell me how perfect a title “What We Do Is Secret” would have been for the series?) But hey, I did manage to work a reference to The Ramones into a science story. How cool is that?

One small moment stands out from this whole process: While interviewing Milo, we got to talking about his musical interests, which surprisingly included the prog rock band Yes. Trying to demonstrate my legitimacy as a punk rock expert, I pointed to a song by the punk band Dead Kennedys titled “Short Songs” that makes a sarcastic reference to the contrast between the brevity of punk and long-windedness of progressive rock. Not only did Milo respond that he knew the song, he even sang the chorus. (We have it on tape!)

 

But back to my original quandary: how to bring science to the masses through an article series? Well, the articles have been shared more than 1000 times on Facebook and re-tweeted more than 200 times on Twitter. We got a boatload of comments and plaudits, from fans and scientists alike. We even set the record for most ever pageviews on ASBMB Today. I’d say that’s some pretty successful science outreach. What’s more, having now talked shop with these punk legends, my craving for acceptance as a certified punk finally has been satisfied. Gabba gabba hey.

 

To get insights from my co-author Raj Mukhopadhyay, check out her reflections on this whole process on her Wild Types blog.

Outreach Posters at Experimental Biology 2015

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One of the biggest challenges in the field of science outreach is to facilitate opportunities that bring scientists and informal science education experts together. Often, each group has several members in the same local community who are interested, even willing to engage with the other, but have no way to do so. On occasion, there are individuals able to bridge this divide. Yet if the broader push to enhance science outreach as an endeavor is to succeed, it will be necessary for even more willing participants to come together and join forces.

For the past two years, ASBMB has featured a poster session at our annual meeting dedicated exclusively to showcasing outreach activities and programs, thereby providing an opportunity for our 2015-AnnualMeeting-signaturemember scientists to get a sense of all that informal science education entails. This year, we are happy to again offer this poster session on the first night of our meeting, directly following the Herbert Tabor Research Award Plenary Lecture on the evening of March 28. However, as an added bonus, this year we have made registration for the outreach poster session completely FREE OF CHARGE. That means if you have a program or activity that you want to show off to the entire ASBMB membership, all you have to do is submit an abstract. No registration fee, no abstract fee, nothing. Just fill out our online form and show up.

For those involved with outreach and informal science education, this poster session is a great opportunity to showcase your pet project and start recruiting scientists for your effort. ASBMB Annual Meeting 2014- Outreach Poster SessionMeanwhile, for scientists, this event is the perfect chance to see what outreach actually is, to meet some of the people who are doing it, and find out how you can get involved.

So if you have an outreach project, informal science education activity or community program, come join us in Boston area next spring and show off what you do to a captive scientific audience. There’s no cost, but the benefit could be priceless.

To submit your poster abstract for the outreach poster session, visit: http://www.asbmb.org/PublicOutreach/EB2015PosterSession/

A Community of Practice

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Last week, dozens of informal science education stakeholders met in Washington D.C. for the biennial Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) Primary Investigator meeting, organized by the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE). The meeting provided a platform for outreach professionals to show off their National Science Foundation-supported programs, share insights and best practices, and confer with researchers and evaluators about future directions in the field.

The 2014 AISL PI Meeting ProgramThe first day featured technical assistance sessions for PIs, provided by NSF program officers and CAISE leadership. One session focused on evaluation in informal learning, one of the major themes for the conference. Attendees noted confusion about whether the intent of evaluation was to determine the effectiveness of projects for enhancing learning, or to simply determine whether the projects had met their goals. There was also a call for clarifying the distinction between evaluation of, and research on, informal learning.

On the second day, conference attendees were addressed by Joan Ferrini-Mundy, Assistant Director of the Education and Human Resources Directorate at the National Science Foundation. At the last PI meeting in 2012, Ferrini-Mundy stunned attendees with her decision to rebrand the NSF Informal Science Education (ISE) program as AISL, redirecting the program’s focus towards supporting research about learning in informal environments. This year, her remarks were much less controversial, instead touching upon on strategies for improving the visibility of informal education programs.

Attendees then split up into multiple breakout sessions:

  • Broadening Participation in Informal STEM Education
  • Connecting with Scientists: What are the Needs & Unexplored Opportunities?
  • How is Technology Building New Audiences for ISE?
  • ISE Contributions to the STEM Workforce
  • ISE Networks, Infrastructure & Resource Centers
  • Learning & Learning Environments: Research, Design & Implementation
  • Measuring Learning Across ISE Projects
  • Mining the Field: What Are We Learning?

Discussions ranged widely, though a common motif was how the lessons learned from current effective approaches can be applied more broadly to grow the field. Attendees also felt it important that the field include stakeholders beyond those supported by NSF, a point that was emphasized during a lunch panel that featured staff from several different federal agencies (including NASA, NOAA and the National Endowment for the Arts) talking about how their organizations supported informal STEM education programs.

PIs showed off their individual programs during an afternoon poster session. The diversity of programs ranged from small-scale programs at individual institutions to larger efforts like media projects and national outreach networks, covering the entire breadth of STEM fields.

For the conference’s final day, attendees got to choose from a series of open sessions nominated by their fellow PIs:

  • Cultural Competency And Cultural Relevancy Strategies For Broader Engagement And Impact
  • The Intersection Of Art As Science: Arts/Science Connection
  • STEM And Public Libraries
  • How Do You Measure Success?
  • ISE and Scientists: Helping Each Other Cross the Divide
  • What Are The “Big” Research Questions We Should Focus On Regarding Broader Participation In The Field?
  • Broadening Participation Through Media
  • Informal STEM Media/Tech/Social Media
  • Place-Based Education And Community Involvement
  • Learning In Public Places

One of the collective take-aways from these sessions was that the community needs to come up with strategies to ensure that the informal science infrastructure be set up so that existing programs and individuals can support each other. Such infrastructure should include clearly defined terms and goals, identification both of successful and unsuccessful approaches to doing informal education, making resources widely available and establishment of platforms for collaboration and interaction amongst stakeholders.

Given this infrastructure, the conference attendees determined that a logical next step is to demonstrate the importance and value of informal STEM education to those who are not currently engaged or involved. Attendees felt that both top-down and ground-up approaches could be used to build support for the informal education field and expand its reach and effectiveness. Potential ideas that were mentioned included a landscape study of existing informal education programs, a separate conference to discuss these themes, and drafting of a white paper to be shared with top administrators. Certainly laudable goals to aim for by the time the meeting returns in 2016.

A Storify of tweets from the conference can be found here.

Information about the conference can be found on the CAISE website.

A Special CAISE

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When ASBMB made its formal foray into science outreach a few years ago, the first step was to undertake an assessment of the organizations and programs already out there doing outreach. Our goal was to identify who was doing what and how they were doing it, in order to figure out how our efforts could be most effective. One of the most thorough, useful programs that we identified was the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE), an National Science Foundation-funded initiative that aims to “strengthen and advance the field of professional informal science education and its infrastructure by providing resources for practitioners, researchers, evaluators and STEM-based professionals.”

CAISE banner

In the August issue of ASBMB Today, we get an in-depth look at CAISE and how it can be used by ASBMB members, thanks to a comprehensive interview with CAISE staff Jamie Bell and Kalie Sacco. In the article, they recount the history of CAISE, describing the motivation for its founding in 2007 and talking about how the project has grown since then. The main focus of the article is on the centerpiece of CAISE’s efforts, the informalscience.org website. This site, which contains thousands of case studies and professional resources, is a great starting point for all ASBMB members who are involved with outreach, regardless of whether they are at the planning or evaluating stage.

InformalScience.org Homepage

 

But CAISE is more than just a website. This week, CAISE is set to host the semi-annual Advancing Informal STEM Learning PI meeting in Washington D.C. NSF-funded participants will convene to share their outreach and informal STEM education experiences, and to hear from NSF leadership about future directions. The conference also serves as a wonderful networking opportunity, as informal educators from across the country build connections with other dedicated individuals in the field. Check back with the Cellular Culture blog for a full recap!

 

Sci-Com in the Classroom

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Raise your hand if you took a communications class in school. Probably not too many palms in the air. Formal training on how to be a good communicator, especially for those studying a scientific discipline, is rare. However, as the science communication movement continues to gain momentum, examples of such ventures are becoming increasingly common.

The July issue of ASBMB Today highlights one particular science communication course taught at the University of California, Riverside by Dr. Tom Baldwin (who also happens to chair the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee). The article lays out Dr. Baldwin’s blueprint for training his students in the art of science communication, distinguishing ways to connect with both professional and non-expert audiences. In addition, Dr. Baldwin describes how he breaks down communication into some of its most basic components, such as storytelling and presentation style.

Students from the course also present their perspectives, describing their motivations for taking the class and highlighting what they learned. While the students came into the course with different interests and expectations, they all left with an understanding of the importance of being an effective communicator. Several mention a meeting with Congressman Mark Takano (D-CA) as being particularly insightful as to how good communication can impact real-world outcomes.

Thankfully, Dr. Baldwin’s course is not unique. Institutions around the country are increasingly offering formalized communication training for scientists, either incorporated into regular science courses (such as that taught by Professor Ricky Cox in his biochemistry course at Murray State University) or as stand-alone courses (for example, the “Science and Me” course at the University of Missouri organized by Hannah Alexander).

While such courses are great for current and future students, what kind of training is available for scientists who are at more advanced stages of their careers? To serve as broad an audience as possible, the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee is developing an online science communication training course for ASBMB members of all ages that will be available come 2015. Even better, Dr. Baldwin has lent his expertise to help develop the course. So if you like what you read about his course, you’ll soon be able to experience it for yourself. That’s something that will make you throw your hands in the air.

Read the article here.

Click here to learn more about the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee