As children we have all been to the doctor, visited the dentist, perhaps even sat in the cockpit of a plane. Anyone ever sit in front of a cryo-electron microscope, play with the dials on a mass spectrometer, or manipulate the genetic code? Most of us probably did not have that opportunity. I surely did not. So how will children, that is, our next generation of scientists, even consider being a scientist without ever knowing what a scientist does?
I am a cancer biologist with a lab focused on cancer metastasis (spread of the cancer). We study how cancer metastasis occurs in subtypes of patients to develop new treatments designed for these particular patients. On the side, I have also traveled throughout Georgia visiting over 3,000 students in K-12th grade to teach them about science and scientists. I have had the fortunate experience of visiting over 40 schools ranging from urban to rural, and public to private. I can state with 100% certainty that children are extremely interested in real science. Whether it has been high school assemblies or elementary school STEM fairs, students (adults too) are excited, enthusiastic, and most of all curious. They are curious not just about science itself, but what a scientist is and what a scientist does.
This signals to me that we need to make science more accessible. City wide science fairs, STEM fairs in school, career days, Twitter chats (#scistuchat), and experiential science in the classroom are excellent approaches. But scientists too need to open up their labs to reach out as well. We, as a professional group, need to show that we are not a bunch of mad scientists in the lab running through billows of smoking Erlenmeyer flasks trying to cure cancer. Instead we are well-coordinated teams of researchers and clinicians, working in fields that include math, engineering, informatics, surgery, and genetics that share a common goal of helping humans.
So, to all scientists out there, I propose to just take out your phone and record a 1-minute, impromptu lab tour, and send it to social media (#labtour). This gives anyone access through the locked lab doors to see what we do and who we are. My lab’s really quick video is posted here and embedded below.
The next generation of scientists are sitting out there right now learning in our classrooms. Within their minds are new treatments for cancer, novel screening approaches for neurodegenerative diseases, ideas for space exploration, and new robotic technologies. It is up to teachers, scientists, families, and communities to engage these students, make science more accessible, and let them know what is out there. I believe that if they can know the names and abilities of every single super-hero, princess, and cartoon character by age 7, they can surely know the parts of a cell. Let’s challenge them and see what we get!