Science outreach- April event recap


There is no one way to do science outreach. Depending on the intended audience, the location, and the personality and interests of the organizers, outreach can come in a staggering number of varieties. The ASBMB has been involved with several different outreach events this past month that cover a wide range of formats. All this week, check out the Cellular Culture blog for recaps from these different activities:

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Fresh Brewed Science – Science by the Cup

Mr. Waldman leading a tour through his coffee roastery.

Mr. Waldman leading a tour through his coffee roastery.

When you say “science outreach,” most people think of working with K-12 students. Reaching adults is just as important, since adults decide how much our society values science, but this can be much more difficult. Even adults who bring their children to science fairs and care about STEM engagement can find it hard to relate to demonstrations and lessons designed for kids. Science by the Cup, an outreach initiative run by the Princeton Graduate Molecular Biology Outreach Program and supported by an ASBMB Outreach Seed Grant, is targeted specifically for adults to address this outreach gap.

One way that Science by the Cup differs from a science cafe, another event class typically aimed at adults, is that Science by the Cup events are not led by scientists. Rather, they are led by an expert with a specialized skill that requires knowledge of the underlying science. The first Science by the Cup event was a tour of Rojo’s Roastery, a small batch coffee maker in Princeton, NJ, that was led by its founder J. David Waldman. Mr. Waldman discussed the chemicals behind coffee’s flavor and aroma, as well as how coffee beans are harvested and processed. Graduate student volunteers complemented the tour by discussing how taste receptors function, the genetic basis of flavor, and subjectivity and bias.

A 1956 gas-fired Probat roaster producing fresh roasted coffee beans.

A 1956 gas-fired Probat roaster producing fresh roasted coffee beans.

The second Science by the Cup event was a tour of a brewery and a discussion of the biology of fermentation, leading to a discussion of the technology behind genetically modified yeast and other organisms and the ethics behind this work. Science by the Cup has been very successful and plans to continue holding events to showcase local experts and the science behind their skills.

Mr. Garner Soltes, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton and organizer of Science by the Cup, wrote about this program for ASBMB Today. To read his article and learn more about this program, click here.

Freedom to fail: Mastering Scientific Experimentation at the Academy of Science


Imagine yourself as a high school student. Would you trust yourself with a delicate piece of laboratory equipment worth thousands of dollars? Or with coming up with your own independent research project? As scary as these ideas may sound, they are part of the innovative model for high school education that is the basis of the Academy of Science (AOS), a public school in Loudoun County, Virginia.

These two students are in the first year of a study that is investigating the creation and use of zinc-coated quantum dots as biomarkers, in a project titled "Shining a Light on Cancer."

These two students are in the first year of a study that is investigating the creation and use of zinc-coated quantum dots as biomarkers, in a project titled “Shining a Light on Cancer.”

“As anyone with or working towards a Ph.D. knows, the only way to really master something is by attempting experimentation and failing,” says Mr. George Wolfe, director of the AOS. “We call inquiry the freedom to fail, and that’s what we give our kids. We give them the freedom to fail through the research process, and you’ll be astounded when you talk to these kids and see the level of their work. They are smart, but it’s because of what we do and the way we do it that they are a cut above.”

At the AOS, every student conducts a two-year research project of their own design. All experiments are performed at the AOS under the mentorship of a teacher, and the array of instruments available to AOS students could make many college departments jealous. The AOS is supported as part of a partnership between Loudoun County Public Schools and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and has used this support to acquire laboratory equipment “not typically available to high school students,” says Wolfe.

These two students have spent two years investigating the development of a blood test for Parkinsons using exosome contents of affected neurons, with aims to produce a diagnostic blood test.

These two students have spent two years investigating the development of a blood test for Parkinsons using exosome contents of affected neurons, with aims to produce a diagnostic blood test.

Students prepare for their projects by taking inquiry-driven integrated physical science and math courses that are unlike any other high school curriculum. They then begin to develop their research focus and submit their final project proposals, complete with reports demonstrating that their project is feasible, at the end of sophomore year. The students then conduct experiments junior and senior year, and some even collaborate internationally.

ASBMB members can benefit from taking on AOS students as interns, and can help budding scientists when they are inevitably stuck during the research process. Dr. Nanette Chadwick, a professor at Auburn University, helped one AOS student who ended up coming to Auburn to work in her lab. She says that “it has been a wonderful collaboration, and stemmed from her outreach to me, due to her project at AOS. It was her excellent research project at AOS that led her to my lab. I would be happy to have AOS or other high school students intern with me.” Wolfe says this is not uncommon for scientists who help AOS students, saying they “are usually overwhelmed by the quickness with which these kids learn and the techniques they’ve mastered at sixteen-years old, and they require only a minimum of training.” Sounds like a win-win.

To learn more about this program, read our profile on the ASBMB Public Outreach website, or contact Mr. Wolfe [] to start working with the AOS.

NSF and You


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.

Story Of My Life


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.

ASBMB UAN Chapters Awarded Funds to do Outreach


To paraphrase, former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, all outreach is local. In that vein, the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee has undertaken a number of initiatives to promote and organize science outreach activities in local communities across the country.

The most recent venture was a novel partnership with the ASBMB Undergraduate Affiliates Network, a chapter-based consortium of over 90 institutions. Participation in science outreach is a requirement for individual UAN chapters, so the partnership was a natural fit. But to really spice the pot, the Public Outreach Committee worked with the UAN to develop a grant program that would allow individual chapters to apply for up to $500 to facilitate student participation in outreach activities.

Ultimately, chapters at seven schools were approved for funding this year. Some are continuing programming that they have been part of previously, while some are starting programs anew:

  • HENDRIX COLLEGE: Will bring student presentations and biology tutoring sessions to underserved students at Wonderview High School.
  • THE UNIVERSITY OF TAMPA: Will conduct molecular biology experiments alongside students from Tampa Preparatory High School. (Chapter link)
  • THE UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO: Will use amino acid builder kits to teach fundamental concepts in biochemistry to local middle school students from underserved communities.

While this program is only one part of a broader effort to involve ASBMB members in science outreach, the dedication and passion of our undergraduate members are encouraging indicators for success. Even better, participation in these activities will instill an interest in outreach that will (hopefully) endure throughout their careers, wherever they end up.

Read more about the program here.