Science communication blogs and social media accounts are easy to find these days, now that scientists are realizing the importance of making their research available to more people than just their academic peers. We can blog and tweet as much as we want, but as with biology there’s only so much you can prove with lab work: at some point, you have to put on your waders and head out into the field. This week I realized that my interest in science education and communication wasn't enough; I had to go out there into the real world and see how things work. So last Saturday I left the safety and comfort of my blog posts to help with some science outreach firsthand.
The University of Liverpool recently launched a series of ‘Meet the Scientists’ events at the World Museum in Liverpool, which are aimed at engaging children and their parents with researchers at the University while learning about the science that they do. The latest one was held last weekend (November 21st) and I volunteered to help out. I hadn’t been to the World Museum Liverpool before and arrived a bit early to see the set-up for the event. Before my shift at the feedback booth, I had time to talk to the scientists running the displays. I was impressed by the time and care that everyone put into coming up with an engaging way to both interest and teach people of all ages. The focus was on conveying a message about science in a way that everyone could understand. There were impressive visual analogies, such as the pool noodle/balloon combinations to help show what cells look like and what gives them structure (the structure coming from the pool noodles, of course). The simple activity of coloring in cartoon mosquitoes was tied to a lesson on how malaria is transmitted. When I asked 6-year old child what he learned at the malaria booth, he replied that malaria comes from the germs carried by the mosquitoes, not the bite itself (crucial information on this widespread tropical disease, and probably something that many adult wouldn't know!).
One of my favorite displays was on cancer treatments, which on first glance would be a rather difficult topic to explain to kids. The way it was presented was really fantastic—cancer hits specific parts of the body (indicated by colored cups) but scientists can figure out and use specific, targeted ways to treat it (e.g. putting colored balls into its corresponding cup). It was creative, accurate, and positive, with the goal of talking about a nebulous, potentially scary topic in a way that kids could understand and see how cancer treatments can be helpful.
After doing a tour of the set-up, my task for the day was to collect feedback from the kids and talk to them about what they liked, where they were from, and to hand out a souvenir ‘Meet the Scientists’ petri dish for everyone. For a sunny and cold Saturday the museum was a busy place, and our stands seemed to be full for most of the day. All the kids were engaged with the University scientists at each display and we received positive marks from nearly everyone, apart from one three-year old who was adamant that he did not enjoy the day (I guess you really can’t please everyone). In addition to the petri dishes, kids took home quizzes, fun facts, and a piqued interest in science and medicine. I also enjoyed talking to parents and seeing what they thought, with most of them having a similarly good impression of the event as much as their kids did. I also enjoyed asking kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. Not everyone wants to be a scientist, but I love seeing kids interested in learning new things even if it’s not their most favorite thing. One 6-year old named Isaac gave us some great feedback and wants to come again. When I asked his dream job, he replied that he’d like to be a ship captain. His reply highlights the fact that science isn’t just for scientists: science accepts anyone who is willing and excited to learn. Just because a kid doesn’t dream of a job in biology, chemistry, or medicine doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be encouraged to approach science, or any subject, with curiosity and desire to learn.
In between talking to kids I also talked to my fellow scientists, including some older museum visitors who also had careers in science. As we mused about how lab machines always break at 6pm just before they finish analyzing some crucial samples, or how we sometimes spend 7 hours a day in the lab pipetting, we realized that the running joke was that the science we do now was nothing like the science we were shown as kids ourselves. Our childhood memories included fancy museum displays, television programs on wildlife ecology, astronomy, and chemistry, and repeatedly hearing the message that with science you really could do anything. Then upon starting postgraduate study we abruptly learn the reality of what life as a career scientist is like: long days in the lab, field sampling trips where it rains and you only get half the samples you set out for, tedious chores and meetings and writing papers and all the countless little things it takes to make the breakthroughs that lead to those museum displays and the television programs. How is it that the reality of science seems so different than what we were shown originally? More importantly, can we ever see science like a kid again?
I set out to answer this question by going back to the museum on Sunday after the event, this time to explore the museum firsthand, inspired by the kids I had seen the day before while trying to look at it from a kid’s perspective. I had been to a few other museums in Liverpool, but not yet the World Museum Liverpool, and to be honest I haven’t been a regular attendee of natural history museums for quite some time. Since starting grad school I was more attracted to art or human history museums, as if I was searching for a break from my day job, with art or history providing more things to learn and less overlap with my day-to-day work. I decided to end my natural history museum dry spell and headed back, ready to see science with fresh eyes and with the contagious excitement I had received from a museum full of kids who had spent their Saturday afternoon learning about biology.
My first stop at the World Museum Liverpool was an unexpected and very detailed exhibit dedicated to horology, although in hindsight not that unexpected, since Liverpool was a hub for clock and chronometer makers to be used on the many ships that came in and out of its port. I mused over the beautiful pieces and studied the displays of their inner workings, so complex yet tiny enough to fit inside your pocket, and for the chronometers with even more detailed inner workings so they would maintain regularity even after long periods of use out at sea. I realized how easy it is to forget the complexity it took to accurately tell time before cell phones and digital watches were everywhere, and the amount of time and work it took into making something that could just tell time (no other apps involved). These pieces weren't just the work of expert artists: the people that made watches clearly needed to be people who were extremely knowledgeable and trained in physics and precision machinery.
On the same floor as the horology display was a small exhibit on outer space, highlighting some pieces from the University of Liverpool’s collection of old telescopes and sun dials. These were coupled with examples of more modern tools, with displays explaining how astronomers used slow-capture imagery to understand the contents of galaxies, accompanied by gorgeously detailed modern images, as if to show how far technology has come and how our eye on the universe has expanded tremendously just in the last century.
Downstairs in the dinosaur and geology displays, I had a flashback to a trip I took last month to the Utah Natural History Museum and their impressive dinosaur displays there. Not to speak poorly of the World Museum Liverpool, but Utah does have the advantage of having quite a large number of paleontological sites within its borders. In the Utah museum there was a ‘real-live’ paleontology lab, where you could watch scientists wearing dust masks carefully and meticulously clean bone fragments. I thought about those paleontologists this weekend as I roamed through numerous displays of fossils, bone fragments, and fossilized dinosaur poop. What we get to see on display are the shiny, organised, categorised, cleaned-up pieces of history, but when looking at a skeleton that’s 150 million years old it’s easy to forget the back-breaking and tedious work that went into finding the fossil, getting it out of the ground and cleaning the dirt off. As much as my work has tedious parts to it, seeing a picture of a huge fossil ground in Utah, with what appeared to be endless piles of bones from who knows how many animals, confirmed that paleontologists must be a patient and persistent lot, who go through it all with the hope that they can piece together what life looked like so many millions of years ago.
Holding true to my biologist nature and environmental scientist training, my favorite part of last Sunday spent at the Liverpool World Museum was about animals. I was enthralled with the beautifully arranged display drawers full of butterflies and plants. I thought about the scientists who put these all together, their pride of having a complete set of species from a region or to have a rare specimen, and with what patience and care it took to pin each one so as not to damage or tear the delicate wings or petals. It was also a unique experience to see a large collection of skulls, from great white shark to sperm whale to hippopotamus, up close enough so that you could get a close look and really marvel at the power these animals have. While I’m not a huge fan of insects, I enjoyed the museum’s displays that showed how ants work together, what they eat in the wild, and how they live and reproduce. I enjoyed seeing kids in this exhibit not afraid or grossed out by the bugs but instead curious and interested to learn more about this small but numerous group of animals.
The last stop of the Sunday at the World Museum was the aquarium, which will always be a personal favorite of mine. I didn’t know that the museum had a small aquarium, so I was excited to see some displays not only of tropical species but examples of fish from the North Sea and ecosystems close to Liverpool. There was also a nice taxidermy display on ecological communities, highlighting animals at risk for extinction and explaining the need for biodiversity and good community structure for a healthy world. I couldn’t help but think back to happy childhood summer days spent with my grandparents at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo while watching rays swim and holding my fingers up to an octopus’ tentacle from across the glass. I thought back on my first visit to the zoo aquarium when I was 8, the excitement of that day and of seeing penguins and octopus and sharks so close at hand, of hearing of the plight of oceans and the rest of our beautiful world as a kid and being inspired to do something about it. Even now at 28 and with a PhD to my name, I still feel those natural childlike fascinations and the pull towards doing something good for the planet through science.
After the weekend at the museum, Monday morning came with some retrospections on my own career. The day-to-day life of a scientist doesn’t always make you feel like you're in a position to save the world, but instead can leave you with a feeling that you’re mired in the mundane tasks of science, not its glorious breakthroughs. Whilst that feeling can be hard to get rid of, going to the museum helped me realise something: the mundane tasks, whether they are dusting bones, pipetting yeast, or counting ants, are what need to be done to help create the scientific body of knowledge that the textbooks and museum exhibits rely on. What feels mundane on many days is just the work we need to do to progress, albeit sometimes more slowly than we had hoped. It’s not that we were lied to about what life as a scientist was like, we were just shown the end of the story but not the journey it took to get there.
In terms of how move forward and not to dwell on the occasional misrepresentation of science, take time to reflect back on our own childhood ambitions and remember what got us started on a trail towards science. Ask yourself: what experiences led us to a career in science? What were the questions that got us wondering what else there was to the world and how it works? Who inspired us to dream big and to strive to make an impact beyond money and fame? Remembering what drives our curiosities and inspires us on a natural, child-like level can help re-invigorate our motivation and to get us through the doldrums that we need to progress science as a whole.
With the next ‘Meet the scientists’ event coming up in January, I’m already musing on ways to show kids what science looks and why we do it, to show the story from start to finish. I think it is important to tell kids that science is not just about the neat and tidy textbook knowledge, but also about the experiments it takes to get there, and that good questions are the key to good science. Ultimately, although we have museums and books full of facts, there is still so much we don’t know and still so many things left to discover about how the world works - and that’s why we’re scientists!