Volunteering at the Pacific Science Center

This weekend was the Paws on Science Expo at the Pacific Science Center. This is a yearly event where departments from all around the UW set up booths to explain their research to curious visitors. I think it is great that UW works with the pacific science center to give researchers an opportunity to interact with the public. There is a disturbing anti-science bias percolating through politics; it was extremely disheartening to hear that the most recent Senate hearing on climate change in the house of representatives devolved into mockery and sarcasm (you can find a few of my thoughts on climate change here).  The chairman of the House Science Committee, Lamar Smith, is a devout Christian Scientist, vehemently against abortion rights, and opposes evidence-based regulation at every turn citing “inconclusive studies.” It is our responsibility as scientists to educate the public about what we do. I believe that anti-scientific sentiment stems from confusion rather than fear. It is our responsibility as academics to reach out to the public and explain why we do what we do (and why their tax dollars should keep funding our research). 
Most scientists that I know could use a little bit of practice explaining their research without resorting to jargon, that’s why I think that interacting with children is excellent practice for communicating research to grown ups. Additionally, I am passionate about science education, so the opportunity to teach people of all ages something new about something I m passionate about is truly a delight. I love interacting with and educating children (and their parents) so I had a blast at this event. I love having the opportunity to educate people about our microbial friends, whether I am blogging bout my buddy Bacillus, or volunteering at a booth. Here were some of the highlights from the day. 
The theme of our booth was “Meet the Microbes.” We had several demos set up with three overarching messages: bacteria are EVERYWHERE, bacteria are NOT all harmful (and in fact some of them are helpful), and bacteria can do some AMAZING things.
I sewed microbe-mascot costumes when I volunteered for this event last year. For the morning I wore the Rhodopseudomonas palustris outfit. R. palustris is neat because it s photosynthetic and can fix nitrogen. Carrie Harwood, a faculty member in our department, studies R. palustris; her lab is working on engineering these bugs for hydrogen production using sunlight. 

Rhodopseudomonas palustris actually is purple, too!
We had a microscope set up with fungal mounts of Aspergillus (bread-mold) on them. I think they are absolutely amazing to look at up close. The visitors to our booth did too!

This is what mold looks like up close! (Image source: wikimedia commons)

In the afternoon I put on a Salmonella costume, and educated people about how ubiquitous our friends the bacteria are.

The pink tails are the flagellum

We struck out plates from swabs of hands, foreheads, the floor and a toilet seat. Most of what grew was plain old garden variety Micrococcus. The message I tried to teach people was that it is a GOOD thing that we are covered in these bacteria because they prevent pathogenic bacteria from getting a foothold. You might be surprised to find out that a lot less grew from the toilet seat swab than from the floor. Additionally, pretty much everything that grew from the toilet seat was some kind of skin-associated bacteria…think about that one for a minute. 

Bacteria isolated from hands, the floor and toilet seats. It was mostly Micrococcus

We had a table where the visitors could build their own bacteria or virus out of play-dough, pipe-cleaners, yarn, and cotton balls. We asked everyone to name their bacteria, and imaging where it liked to grow, and what traits it had that made it good at growing in that place. Some kids gave their bacteria a ton of flagella…..er….tails of yarn, so that they could be really fast swimmers. Maybe if I grow some flagella I can increase my swim speed in triathlons?

Kids LOVED building their own bacteria

We also had plates streaked out with the bioluminescent bacteria Photobacter. Photobacter grow associated with fish. I couldn’t capture a great photo of our plates, so I’ll leave you with this AMAZING video of a surfer catching a wave in the midst of a Photobacter bloom. The reason you only see the glow when the waves break is because the enzyme that the bacteria use to produce light requires oxygen–the reaction only proceeds when the water gets aerated.

All in all, it was a great day. I think that the people we interacted with really enjoyed the displays we had set up. It is so important to give children a positive experience interacting with scientists. I  think it’s important to educate parents as well! I was surprised by how often I would ask a child: “do you want to see some bacteria” and the PARENTS would strongly react saying “ick, gross, dirty!” I loved explaining that microbes are our friends! Hopefully I was able to open up some minds to the amazing single celled creatures that we share this planet with. Even if not everyone goes on to be interested in microbiology, I KNOW that we got the visitors to the exhibition excited about science in general. 
On my way out of the Pacific Science Center, I couldn’t resist checking in with some of my favorite multi-cellular creatures:
Hey buddy!

This guy isn’t QUITE as handsome as my bicycle’s namesake, but he’s still a fine specimen. 
I hope everyone’s week is off to a wonderful start!

4 thoughts on “Volunteering at the Pacific Science Center

Add yours

  1. hahahaha-
    -Whoops….I try to keep clam and proofread, but that one slipped by me. Now I want to study the ski-microbiome. They've isolated microbes from the vault at chernobyl, I'm SURE there is stuff growing on the bases of my K2s….if there's a niche bacteria WILL exploit it.

    -You caught our dirty secret…mold is a fungus, not a bacteria.It's just such a PRETTY fungus. Fungi are still technically classified as “microbes” (as are viruses, even though THEY aren't even alive). As far as I know nobody uses fungi as models to study DNA replication, but lately I've been reading some CRAZY papers about how malarial parasites (also considered microbes, though definitely NOT bacteria) copy their genomes…


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