Science Outreach Events at the 2015 ASBMB Annual Meeting

Standard

If you have ever struggled to explain your research to a family member, you know how difficult it can be to effectively explain science to the lay public. Communicating clearly about your work can be tricky even when you’re talking to another scientist. The ability to communicate effectively is also a critical skill when applying for grant funding. Figuring out how to make a meaningful connection between your outreach and your research can be particularly difficult when crafting a Broader Impacts statement as part of the application for NSF funding. Luckily for those planning to attend the 2015 ASBMB Annual Meeting, the Public Outreach Committee has organized several events to address all of these issues.

The first outreach event of this year’s meeting is the “How to Incorporate Science Outreach into Your Portfolio – Best Practices and Broader Impacts” session, running from 9:00 AM – 1:00 PM on Saturday, March 28th, in room 252B. This session will start with talks from previous HOPES, Outreach Seed Grant, and UAN Student Chapter Grant winners, showcasing ASBMB’s various funding mechanisms. An informal poster networking session will be held from 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM, followed by lunch and a group discussion until 1:00 PM. Please join us! Register here so we know how many people to expect and how much food to order.

Our next event is the Science Outreach Poster Session, held during the ASBMB opening reception on Saturday evening, March 28th from 7:30 – 9:00 PM in the third level foyer. Come see all the great outreach efforts our members (and others!) are leading across the country, and learn more about how you can get involved in your own community. More information on this session can be found here.

If you have been working on a Broader Impacts Statement, bring a draft to one of our Broader Impacts Workshops. These will be held Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday from 11:00 AM – 1:00 PM outside room 252. Mentors who have successfully won NSF funding have volunteered to help you improve your drafts and show you how to distinguish yourself from other applicants. More information on these workshops can be found here.

Our last two outreach events showcase the fun side of science. The first is the unique and highly interactive session “Improv for STEM Professionals: Creating Engaging Conversations.” Dr. Raquell Holmes, founder of improvscienceTM, will lead this session on Monday, March 30th from 12:30 – 2:00 PM in room 253B. Performed interviews, collaborative storytelling, and other exercises will help attendees learn how to create rapport with and to listen to an audience, making them more engaging speakers both in outreach activities and in professional talks.

Our final outreach event is, appropriately, open to the public. Dr. Raquell Holmes will lead “LIvE: the Living Improv Experiment” at Ned Devine’s Irish Pub, 1 Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Quincy Market Building, at 6:30 PM on Monday, March 30th. This living experiment is focused on defining how exactly improv can help science? Can it help everyone communicate more clearly? Can it be useful for starting public discussions? Come find out! Please invite your friends and colleagues, both in and outside the laboratory, to join us. This event is going to be a lot of fun, and to get the most of out it you should prepare to be very actively involved. We’ll start with group exercises and then move on to small groups, so that everyone gets a chance to practice and learn! Use this link to register.

For more information about all of our outreach events, please click here. We hope to see you in Boston!

ASBMB Responds to NIH Request for Comments on Science Education Strategic Planning

Standard

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has responded to a request for information from the National Institutes of Health regarding strategic planning for the Office of Science Education and the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program, both located within the Office of Research Infrastructure Programs.

ASBMB is supportive of the types of programs supported by SEPA that “promote and improve the scientific training of pre-kindergarten to grade 12 (P-12) teachers, students, and the general public.” However, given such a potentially broad scope, we urge NIH to come up with a more-clearly defined mission and distinct goals for the SEPA program, so that its efforts are maximally effective. In addition, given the relatively small budget with which SEPA operates, ASBMB recommends that the SEPA program work with other programs within NIH, as well as external stakeholders within other federal agencies, state and local governments, and private organizations, to coordinate and streamline overlapping efforts, in order to minimize redundancy.

ASBMB encourages its members to submit their own responses. The RFI is open until March 16, so use this link to submit your own feedback before then.

You can read the full response from ASBMB here.

Strengthening Teacher-Scientist Partnerships

Standard

Ask a scientist what “outreach” means to them, and the majority will mention something about working with K-12 students. Unfortunately, these types of interactions tend to be sporadic, poorly executed, and bereft of quantitative assessment and evaluation, depriving those involved of any true, long-lasting benefit. To rectify this situation, a disparate group of programs has sprung up across the country, each aiming to create substantial, sustainable partnerships between the scientific research and K-12 education communities.

ITSP Program CoverSeveral of these programs were on display at the second International Teacher-Scientist Partnership Conference, held February 11 and 12 in San Francisco, CA. Hosted by the UCSF Science and Health Education Partnership, the meeting brought together various stakeholders, including teachers, students, researchers and administrators, to share best practices and identify areas for improvement.

Highlighting the conference were the two keynote addresses, the first a discussion between former National Academies of Science President Bruce Alberts and Shirley Malcom, Director for Education and Human Resources Programs at AAAS. Both speakers applauded the formation of such partnerships, and emphasized the need for teachers and scientists to learn from each other. Malcom even went so far as to point out that implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) necessarily required such collaborations.

On the second day, Helen Quinn, former Chair of the National Research Council’s Board on Science Education, talked about the need for three-dimensional science learning that incorporated facts, practices and concepts, an approach that informed the development of the NGSS. Echoing Malcom, Quinn pointed to teacher-scientist partnerships as a necessary tool for implementing the NGSS, pointing out that the standards imposed new demands on science teachers that would be impossible to meet without the provision of additional, novel support and professional development.

The bulk of the conference was filled with overlapping sessions and workshops that showcased different approaches to forming and sustaining partnerships. Despite the differences between programs, several consistent themes did emerge:

  1. Defined roles and outcomes

Oftentimes, the biggest failing in these partnerships comes from the fact that the goals, objectives and intended outcomes have not been agreed upon by both sides beforehand, leading to confusion and ineffectiveness. All presenters pointed out that their success stemmed from jointly working with both scientists and teachers (and their students) to resolve these issues in advance of any activities, so that everyone was able to be on the same page. A second point of emphasis was that for a particular partnership to be successful, scientists need to act as resources and role models, rather than as instructors. In this way, scientists can greatly increase the accessibility students (and teachers) have to the research enterprise, helping to remove the barriers between these groups.

  1. Local, bottom-up approach

While expressing support for a concerted, national support network (such as the soon-to-be extinct NSF Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) Program), almost all presenters and attendees spoke about the need to develop programs and collaborations locally. Though all in attendance were in support of a concerted effort to effect broad change in the education system, there was a general agreement that focusing effort on working with individual classrooms, schools and even school districts allows for more fluid partnerships that are more easily able to steer clear of the messy politics so often responsible for impediments to reform in education.

  1. Sustainability (resources, participation)

Funding was a major issue for all involved, as financial support for non-traditional education activities is sporadic. Presentations from the West Virginia Health Sciences & Technology Academy and the Integrated Science Education Outreach (InSciEd Out) program at the University of Minnesota highlighted their ability to successfully raise funding from a wide variety of local sources, both big and small, again pointing to the need for local connections. Attendees added that another difficulty was in maintaining participation by both scientists and teachers, and suggested establishing pipelines that would funnel both towards each other.

  1. Evaluation and Assessment

Recognizing that assessing the impact of a particular activity or program is inherently difficult, most presenters were nonetheless able to point to a proven track record of improved STEM learning and performance for students, thanks to the ability to follow students throughout their primary education. More qualitative feedback from scientists and teachers demonstrates a nearly universal benefit in terms of professional development and willingness to engage and participate.

 

The conference will be held again in 2017, by which point even more programs will have undoubtedly arisen. In the interim, ASBMB will be using our connections and resources to increase awareness of, and participation by, our members in such partnerships. If you are interested in finding out more about these partnerships, contact the ASBMB Public Outreach Office at outreach@asbmb.org.

 

More information about the conference, including a list of participating programs, can be found here.

A summary of tweets from the meeting is available here.

Undergraduate Outreach- Round Two

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard
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

Standard

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.