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Return of the Geneticist(s)

  • by Barry Starr on November 1, 2013

    Dr. Roberta Hannibal helps visitors see their cells under a microscope.  

    Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, each November Stanford graduate students and postdoctoral fellows (postdocs) return to the second floor of The Tech.  They set up a big table and explore the world of genetics with museum visitors for a couple of hours each Tuesday-Friday morning starting around 9:30 or 10 AM.  They hang around until August when they take flight yet again.

    While at the museum these young scientists guide visitors through one of six different hands-on genetics activities, each of which has something a little different to offer.  Sometimes you’ll use DNA evidence to solve a murder and sometimes you’ll learn how scientists make insulin by purifying your very own glowing green protein that you can take home with you.  Other times you’ll get a close look at and get to take a picture home of one of your cheek cells, play a game with sticks and spoons to learn how being able to drink milk as an adult spread through Europe because of natural selection, pull DNA out of beef and take it home with you and even use a taste test to learn what one of your genes looks like. 

    And who said science wasn't fun?

    As you squish, squirt and/or squint you’ll also learn a bit about genetics.  We can fool bacteria into making insulin for us because we both use the same language to read our genes.  If you take all of the DNA out of a person and lay it end to end, it would reach to the sun and back.  Thirty times.  All your cells have the same set of instructions but they end up looking different and doing different things because they each only use a subset of their genes.  And lots more.

    Now it isn’t all about learning genetics…there is more going on here.  As with the rest of the museum, visitors doing these activities realize science in real life isn’t the chore it can be in school.  In fact, they quickly find it is fun and sometimes even a little exciting.

    Scientists aren't much like they appear in popular media.  

    Many visitors are also meeting scientists in the flesh for the very first time.  They soon discover that most scientists aren’t anything like they are portrayed in movies or on TV.  Few scientists are as socially inept as Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory nor as evil as the madman of the week creating some awful plague that turns us all into zombies.  No, when visitors see that scientists are pretty much like everyone else, maybe a few will want to become scientists themselves.

    And speaking of scientists, these activities aren’t just about the visitors.  The Stanford graduate students and postdocs get a lot out of it too.  They get to explore careers away from the research bench, learn how to explain science to nonscientists and even better understand some of their own work.  They also get to learn how to write science so everyone from ages 10-100 can understand and enjoy genetics.

    The floor activities are actually just part of what these graduate students and postdocs do at The Tech Museum.  They answer people’s genetics questions and post them on The Tech’s Understanding Genetics website, supply the DNA and bacteria needed to run the very popular wetlab, and help to create and prototype new activities and exhibits. Talk about a fruitful collaboration!

    Come join the fun!

    So if you are at the museum some weekday morning, come on upstairs and meet one of these young scientists who are eager to get you as excited about science as they are.  They are passionate about science and have learned how to effectively pass that passion on to kids and adults.  This is a good kind of contagious.