By Alisha John
Despite countless trips to zoos across the country, there is one elusive species I have never encountered: Scientia normalis. This species is more often referred to by their common name, scientists. Scientists are not normally seen in public, often preferring to remain in their native habitat of the laboratory. Because of this, stereotypes dominate the perception of the entire species and are often reinforced in popular culture and the media. These stereotypes depict a species of mostly older males with unruly hair, glasses, a white lab coat, and a vial of brightly colored liquid. (*cough* Albert Einstein *cough*) Recently, however, there has been an effort to remove some of the mystery surrounding this species and correct the outdated stereotypes.
Okay, maybe scientists aren’t their own species, but sometimes it feels that way! The unattractive and misleading stereotypes of scientists can discourage young people from engaging in science education and pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers. Redefining the scientist stereotype will require scientists to step out of the laboratory and interact with the general public. We’ve talked about why scientists don’t engage with the public, including a lack of confidence and/or training in science communication with general audiences, but an additional obstacle is a lack of opportunities for the two groups to come together. Recognizing these problems, the Pacific Science Center partnered with a few other organizations to develop a program for face-to-face interactions between scientists and the public at places such as zoos, aquariums, science centers, and museums.Out of this National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project, Portal to the Public was born. Portal to the Public aims to help scientists connect and communicate effectively with the public. The growing number of organizations and institutions in the Portal to the Public Network share resources, ideas, and strategies for scientist-public engagement with support from a NSF grant.
Over 1 million visitors each year and a wealth of universities in the area make the Detroit Zoological Society an ideal candidate for participation in the Portal to the Public program. Since the program’s inception in 2013, the Detroit Zoo has offered a science communication fellowship to interested scientists in the area. Participants attend group workshops to identify the barriers to scientist-public communication and discuss effective strategies for breaking down those barriers. During the fellowship, educational specialists at the Detroit Zoo also help each scientist develop an engaging, hands-on activity to help general audiences learn a complex scientific concept, most often related to the scientist’s research.
After the short (but effective!) Portal to the Public fellowship, the scientists and their activities are put on display for zoo patrons. The zoo posts signs encouraging visitors to “Come see real live scientists!”, allowing the public a rare interaction with the mysterious Scientia normalis. While inhabiting the same location, the hands-on activities facilitate interaction between scientists and people of all ages. For the scientists, this is like a final exam in science communication – can they successfully tailor a single activity to be approachable, engaging, and effective for an audience with varying degrees of prior knowledge? After completing the fellowship, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”.
Here is the set-up for my Portal to the Public coloring activity. Since adult coloring books are all the rage nowadays, this approach works well for visitors of all ages. The initial goal of my activity was to have people understand that changes in gene expression (when, where, and how much a gene is active) can change the way living things look. However, the biggest thing I learned from the fellowship was to be flexible with my goals and my activity depending on the visitor’s prior knowledge. If someone has never heard of DNA, my goal is for them to leave knowing a bit about DNA. If someone knows about DNA and genes, my goal is for them to leave with an understanding that gene expression is important too. The details of the activity change depending on the goal, but the general concept and materials are useful for a range of prior knowledge.
For the zoo patrons, interacting with the scientists is an opportunity to learn about science AND challenge their idea of what a scientist is. For many, this may be the first time they meet a scientist that isn’t the stereotypical old white man with crazy hair, a lab coat, and glasses.
If you’re reading this and are in the metro-Detroit area, head out to the Detroit Zoo the next time the scientists are there. Scientists (including me!) will be manning tables again on Saturday, February 6th during Wild Winter Weekend. Come meet a scientist and learn about DNA and genes, the nervous system located in your gut, how scientists study animal behavior, and more. But please remember: DO NOT FEED THE SCIENTISTS! (Just kidding, I’ll totally take your food.)
About the author
Alisha is a PhD student in Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology at the University of Michigan. A member of the Wittkopp Lab, Alisha studies how changes in gene expression contribute to different phenotypes seen in nature; more specifically, she is trying to figure out how two fruit fly species became very different in terms of coloration. Alisha is a Michigan native and earned her B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Wayne State University in Detroit before making the jump into Biology. When she isn’t busy staring lovingly at Drosophila, you can find Alisha baking delicious desserts, being an amateur foodie, and/or spending time with friends & family. Follow her on Twitter and on LinkedIn.
Read all posts by Alisha here.