I have a super huge, somewhat tattered, and quite ugly suitcase that sits in my office. This suitcase is not packed with clothes or extra large toiletries, but contains a pretty cool microscope, computer, and some shipping foam. Every few weeks I wheel it into the hallway, then into the elevator, and eventually into my car. The suitcase and I end up in Kindergarten-12th grade classrooms where I try to teach children something about science that they would not normally see. I try to give them something different, something real, something scientific. I have seen over 3,000 children in about 200 classrooms in rural and urban schools, from pre-K to 12th grade.
I was hooked the first time I peered into a microscope. I remember seeing cells, the most basic form of life (see image below from our lab). With microscopes in my lab we can see the cell’s DNA, nucleus, proteins, and most of their parts (better known as organelles) that keep them alive. We can also see these organelles actually working over seconds (even milliseconds) or watch them for days to see how they all work together (see our video for an example). Most of these organelles are really small, something on the order of a 1/100th of a millimeter and we can simply press our eyes up to the microscope and see this. I think it is amazing.
About 10 years ago I took this cell obsession and turned it into a career. I am a scientist at a major medical school and my laboratory’s research is to study how cancer cells work, with the goal of creating new cancer treatments. My team and I have killed cancer cells with new medicines, burst them open, blast them with radiation, and blocked them from spreading using tiny molecules. We do this with the hope that our research will lead to new cancer treatments, make older treatments better, or help diagnose cancer.
I use microscopes for my laboratory’s research but also as my primary teaching tool to the students. The amazing thing about microscopes is that they make this completely invisible world, visible for the first time. I use this as a hands-on approach to stimulate critical thinking in the children, teach them something about biology, and also show that science is more than just some pretty pictures and definitions found in a textbook. I also take this opportunity to show them who a scientist is. When I visit, I almost always take other scientists or scientists in training with me. I want to make it real for the children and show them that we are real people and not some sort of fictional exaggeration or mad scientist on TV. If you think about it, who are some great scientists on kids TV- Bruce Banner (Incredible Hulk), Professor Farnsworth (Futurama), Dr. Doofenshmirtz (Phineas and Ferb- hilarious by the way), Dr. Bunsen Honeydew (Muppets), or if you are an avid reader Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll. At the very least, this is not a bunch of cool characters that kids are saying, hey I want to be like Dr. Doofenshmirtz (maybe except for the Hulk, he is pretty cool).
Even if you google “scientist” the first image I get is shown to the right. This is not such a flattering depiction of a future career in science. There is no doubt that there are some strange, eccentric scientists, perhaps there are even mad scientists, but I think you are willing to agree that there are many strange and eccentric people out there. I believe removing this stigma is important if we want to create the next generation of scientists.
After meeting thousands of kids, and hundreds of non-scientist adults, there was also one common denominator I came across. No one really has any idea what a scientist does. In fact, I don’t think I knew until I went into graduate school. This has to change if we want to create our next-generation of scientists. STEM schools and STEM curricula are great but we need a path, a yellow brick road for children to stay on to be a scientist. Let’s show our children where STEM leads to and where you can take a STEM career. People like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are taking this head-on and I think will make a huge difference in changing how we think and teach science.
My goal is to explain how fascinating science can be and use these opportunities to explain what a scientist is. I am not a mad scientist, just someone who has turned curiosity into a career. New discoveries are being made with potentially huge impacts on human health. It is an exciting time and I am looking forward to writing about it in this blog.