Friday, 16 May 2014 08:33

Microbes, bubbles, and poop: the wonders of microscopic life in the eyes of children

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Jordan-smallASCB member Jordan Beach captures the attention
of a budding scientist and her family 
Photo by Laura Diaz-Martinez
The USA Science and Engineering Festival is more than a science fair on steroids, it is a whole different level of science festival. Think of Comic-Con, with all the costumes, celebrities only nerds know about, and the random off-the-charts-weirdos, then increase the level of geekiness tenfold and the number of people by three. Yep, that's about right: a gigantic gathering of people experiencing science and loving it!

I have to admit, I didn't know what to expect when I volunteered to represent the ASCB at the festival. I knew it was supposed to be the biggest science festival in the world, but I never imagined it was going to be 325,000 people big. Honestly, I can't even guess how many people stopped at our booth. All I can say is that we spent two days, 9 hours each day, talking non-stop and playing with wonderful portable microscopes (CellScopes).

With the goal of bringing cell biology to the public, we set up four CellScopes and brought a bunch of unicellular and simple multicellular organisms for people to look at. We chose fresh-water microorganisms because they were easy to keep for two days in a 'lab' that consisted of three tables, two chairs, and no lab equipment besides the microscopes and plastic slides. Distilled water was brought in a sports bottle (thanks Christina!) and used coffee cups were recycled into improvised waste flasks.

CellScope-smallCellScope showing a water sample with
Stentor (ciliate protist). Photo by Laura Diaz-Martinez
In contrast to the simplicity of our setup, the response we got from fairgoers was deliciously complex. From the three year old who was fascinated by the bubbles trapped in the microscope slide rather than by the microorganisms swimming in it, to the high school biology teacher that taught me that Volvox colonies have specialized germ cells, I found each interaction interesting and rewarding. There were funny moments: a boy looking at a brown planaria with my colleague Pinar Gurel excitedly yelling that it was a piece of poop. Adrenaline rushes: a kid just grabbed the plastic slide and put it in his mouth, what do I do? Moments of awe: many high school students and adults correctly remembering the names and characteristics of the microorganisms from their science classes (kudos to all science teachers, you are doing a great job!) And true eureka moments: the priceless expressions of hundreds of kids and adults discovering for the first time that a drop of water can hold so much life that is invisible to the naked human eye.

Bruno-smallCOMPASS Outreach subcommittee chair Bruno
da Rocha Azevedo sharing his knowledge
of protists with a fairgoer. Photo by Laura Diaz-Martinez
Of course there were also a few annoying moments: adults spoiling the experience for their children by quizzing them like it was a test, or the random philosophical person wanting to discuss the purpose of microorganisms in the grand scheme of intelligent design. But these were very few and far between. For the most part everyone was pleasant, genuinely curious and excited about the opportunity to experience microscopy in a new way. And by the way, to the awesome people in Dan Fletcher's Lab: thank you so much for making the CellScopes, they are truly amazing! Now, can you make some more? Every single person that used them wants one and I am first in your list.

For my part, I'm glad I volunteered. There's nothing like seeing the wide eyes of wonder and the gasps of realization to remind me why I do science and why I have a passion for sharing it with others. After this weekend, I feel enthusiastic, focused and re-energized, even if my feet still hurt from standing so long!

Laura Diaz-Martinez

Laura fell in love with chromosomes during her PhD studying chromosome segregation with Duncan Clarke at the University of Minnesota. She is currently trying to understand how cells make life or death decisions during mitosis under the advisory of Hongtao Yu at UT-Southwestern Medical Center.

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