Science for All: Bringing Science to the People of Philadelphia
By Chris Edwards, Ph.D.
What happens if you submerge candy in a mixture of water and baking soda? Depends on the candy. M&Ms do nothing, but Sour Patches fizzle like fireworks due to their acidity! From the acids in foods to the circuits in smartphones, the footprints of science are all around us. Yet widespread doubts regarding climate change and vaccine safety illustrate that many people do not fully understand science or its benefits to society. Maintaining a scientifically literate and engaged public is thus important, not just to prevent the propagation of bad science, but also to ensure that taxpayer-funded research and the resulting rewards are understood and appreciated.
To support this cause, Dr. Zenobia Cofer, a postdoctoral researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), created Science for All. Formed in 2015, this organization holds local science outreach events with the help of volunteer postdocs from CHOP, The University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), and the Monell Chemical Senses Center. As Dr. Cofer explained, through these events, this group aims to educate the public, generate excitement about science, and give lay people an opportunity to meet and interact with scientists. Additionally, these efforts give scientists a chance to learn how to explain their research, and science in general, to a lay audience. Science for All held three such events this past fall at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Fumo Family Branch.
The first event brought science to children on Halloween with a trio of interactive demonstrations. Participants saw the effects of submerging dry ice in water in a demo led by Dr. Cofer. In another activity led by myself and inspired by demos at candyexperiments.com, participants learned about the acidic content of candies by dropping Halloween treats into a baking soda solution. A particularly notable activity led by Dr. Gautami Das demonstrated DNA extraction from blueberries using alcohol and detergent. As explained to participants, releasing DNA from the fruit via detergent followed by precipitating it with alcohol is the method used by scientists in a laboratory. Thus, although these demos appeared to be merely simple and fun activities, they gave audience members insights into laboratory procedures and showed that scientific phenomena are present all around us, even in everyday items found in our kitchens.
In November, Science for All held its next event, “Scientists Talk Science.” This was the group’s first event aimed at teens and adults and consisted of presentations by researchers outlining the significance of their work. Dr. Amanda Zacharias highlighted the importance of intergenic DNA, the “dark matter” of the genome, and its role in regulating gene expression. Dr. Jessica Chacon outlined her strategy to improve melanoma therapy by culturing patient-derived T cells, to make them more aggressive, followed by reintroducing them to the patient. A talk concerning the circadian rhythm by research associate Dr. Sarah McLoughlin concluded the event.
Communicating research to a lay audience is no easy task. To accomplish this, the presenters focused on the underlying concepts motivating their studies rather than technical details. Importantly, they utilized real-world examples to emphasize their work’s significance to society. Dr. McLoughlin, for example, highlighted the importance of circadian rhythm research by noting that the Chernobyl accident occurred at night, when workers are least alert. The presentations were well received by the audience. As library branch manager and audience member Renee Pokorny mentioned, it “…was fascinating to hear what kind of research people are currently conducting…. What I loved about [the] presentation[s] was they made it…really easy for me to grasp as a layman…. Science actually intimidates me, and [the presentations] made me really comfortable and interested in what the scientists are doing.”
Science for All’s most recent event, “The Science of Baking,” was held in mid-December. Directed towards children and families, it was the most hands-on event of the three and explained the chemistry behind converting butter, sugar, and flour into cookies and cakes. Participants baked a pound cake after calculating the required amounts of ingredients, a tomato soup cake after determining the needed amount of leavening agents, and cookies using a variety of sugars. Each baking session was preceded by an explanation of the underlying science by Drs. Cofer and Zacharias, Dr. Keeley Mui, and myself. The bakers gained much from these activities beyond just a hearty meal. They learned to see a recipe as scientists do, as a protocol where reagent types and amounts can be adjusted as needed to change the outcome of the procedure.
Given the hectic lives that scientists live, why did these researchers take the time to volunteer? As Dr. McLoughlin pointed out, being largely government-funded, scientists have an obligation to communicate their endeavors to the public. “We don’t need to live separate from society, we’re part of society and we should tell people what we do, cause we’re dealing with taxpayers’ money….” Importantly, these outreach activities were also an opportunity to develop valuable communication skills. “A lot of people don’t realize how challenging it is to explain your research to a non-scientist,” explained Dr. Chacon. “[These skills are] really critical because not everybody you meet is going to be a scientist — such as donors, your spouses, your children, your family…this kind of practice helps you to become a better scientist by allowing you to gain expertise in talking [with] non-scientific terms….”
Since its creation early last year, Science for All’s popularity has grown, with “The Science of Baking” having particularly strong turnout. The participants have benefited by meeting scientists and learning to see science in everyday life. Likewise, the volunteering postdocs have honed their communication skills and given back to the public that financially supports them. As Dr. Cofer noted, it is also particularly rewarding to see that more and more people are attending these events after hearing about them simply by word of mouth. Science for All will continue its mission of bringing science to the people of Philadelphia with additional events in the upcoming year. For more information, contact Dr. Cofer