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Stem Cells, GMOs, and Quanta: Bringing Science to the Community

April 3, 2014

Rachel Zwick (Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology) is a coordinator of “Science in the News.” She does it because “We feel that it is our responsibility as scientists to convince the public of the importance of scientific research.

We have two main goals with ‘Science in the News’: First, to help the New Haven community understand the science behind research that could profoundly change our day-to-day lives. And second, to support each other in learning to communicate productively with people who have different perspectives and levels of knowledge.”

Science and the incredible things we can do with it truly amaze me, and I feel it is our duty as scientists to share this excitement with the general public,” says another member of the Yale Science Diplomats, Richard Sarro (Genetics). He also points to the urgency of countering misinformation. “The popular media today have a nasty habit of skewing facts and distorting scientific findings. The internet has afforded people access to an unbelievable amount of information. Unfortunately, this also comes with a huge amount of misinformation. Too often, the validity of an article has been superseded by the number of page views it receives. People cannot make informed decisions if the information they base these decisions on is inaccurate. We are trying to inform the0public of the facts behind scientific controversies and to clear up common misconceptions that are propagated by even some of the most reputable news sources.”

Almost all aspects of our lives are affected by scientific discoveries,” adds Becky van den Honert (Psychology), who is secretary of the group. “Because these things are so interesting and important, it is a shame when opportunities for the public to learn about them are non-existent or distorted by politics. We hope that ‘Science in the News’ provides a way for audience members to become better informed, while our speakers improve their communication skills.”

In February, Lola Brown(postdoctoral fellow, Biomedical Engineering), Maggie Sledd (Cell Biology), and Jeremiah Johnston (Biological & Biomedical Services) presented talks about regeneration biology, from stem cells to entire organs grown in the lab. To illustrate the power of natural regeneration, they introduced the audience to planaria, tiny worms that can be cut into hundreds of pieces, each of which can grow into a whole new worm.

Rachel Zwick and Ashley Gard(Engineering & Applied Science) coordinated the event. “We wanted to give the audience a sense of how stem cell research has already translated into powerful clinical tools, and what we can reasonably expect from the future of regenerative medicine,” Rachel says. “It can be frustrating to watch popular media focus on controversies without factual basis rather than exploring major achievements. It’s very gratifying to work through ‘Science in the News’ on events that let people know about real science and share information that we are passionate about.”

Earlier this year, Nicholas Apostolopoulos (School of Medicine), Karen Dannemiller(Engineering and Applied Science), and Pamela Chan(Immunobiology) presented “Your personal zoo: Microbial diversity and our health,” focused on the microbiome (bacteria living on and inside our bodies) and the immune system.

Science in the News” is coordinated by Bryan Leland (Cell Biology), along with Richard, Becky, and Rachel. The organizers hold auditions for speakers in the fall. Potential speakers give a five-minute presentation about any topic that they find interesting in their field.

We look for speakers who are engaging presenters and passionate about their science and sharing it with the public,” says Bryan, who is co-president of the Yale Science Diplomats with Keerthi Shetty (Immunobiology). Three accepted speakers are grouped together, and each presents a 15-minute talk on one topic. They are partnered with group coordinators – Yale Science Diplomats and previous “Science in the News” speakers, whose job is essentially to “coach the speakers through the process of creating and rehearsing their talks, and ensure that the final talks are interesting, informative, and easy to understand,” Bryan explains.

Typically about 60 people attend the talks: approximately one-third affiliated with Yale; another 20-30% community members with a high-school education; 30-40% community members with a college degree; and 5-10% children.       

We love to see a diverse audience, and are always trying to expand our advertising efforts,” Bryan says.

Yale Science Diplomats also send speakers into the public schools to engage teenagers in real-world science and interest them in careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.Timothy Webster (Anthropology) coordinates this program, which has brought “Science in the News” to classes at Co-op Arts and Humanities High School and High School in the Community so far. Tim plans to expand the outreach program and connect Yale graduate students and post doctoral fellows with teachers at local schools.

This is a great opportunity for anyone interested in K-12 outreach,” he says. “We have interested teachers, but we’re looking for more speakers at all levels of commitment: once a year, once a semester, once a month, etc.”

A new Yale Science Diplomat initiative — together with the U.S. State Department — led by Keerthi, will pair Yale graduate students with college science students in Indonesia via Skype and email for mentoring. Earlier this year, the Yale Science Diplomats held a workshop on policy writing, led by Yale Law School Lecturer Noah Messing, and are working on a “white paper,” with other stakeholders, about countering Connecticut’s current brain drain. They have hosted faculty lectures and discussions on the intersection of science and policy. In coordination with Graduate Career Services, they send a group of student scientists to Washington, D.C., every two years to meet with scientists at the National Institutes of Health, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the State Department, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency to learn about career and fellowship opportunities for science PhDs.