Scientists + experiments = Big fun for museum visitors

Hands-on genetics experiments designed by Stanford experts are a huge draw at The Tech

Courtesy of the Tech Museum

The genetics exhibit at San Jose's Tech Museum of Innovation is one of the museum’s busiest spots.

Sitting at a portable table surrounded by small tubes, black lights and other laboratory trappings, Leremy Colf called out to passing kids, "Do you guys want to try doing science?"

It didn't take long to recruit his first round of scientists-in-training. Four fifth-graders sat down in front of a row of tubes while chaperones looked on. This type of experience is exactly why schools bring classes to San Jose's Tech Museum of Innovation.

What sets Colf's presentation apart from the other museum programs is its origin. Colf is one of the Stanford graduate students and postdoctoral scholars who trek down to the museum each quarter, engaging visitors in one of three hands-on genetics experiments. One goal of the demonstrations and of the main genetics exhibit, also designed with the aid of Stanford experts, is to show people how the field of genetics touches their lives each day.

In Colf's demonstration, the children learned how scientists make medicines, such as insulin, that are produced by bacteria. Colf started by asking what the kids knew about diabetes. "It's when people get overweight and can't eat a lot of junk food," one child replied. "There's insulin in your blood and people don't have enough so they have to take shots," his friend added. Another boy said that his uncle had diabetes.

A protein that glows bright green under a black light stands in for colorless insulin for the experiment. The kids start out with a small tube filled with bacteria that contain the glowing protein. After about five minutes they've separated the green protein from the other proteins in the cell. Best of all, the kids can take home their final product.

For Colf, a third-year graduate student who works in the lab of associate professor Christopher Garcia, PhD, this was a typical morning at The Tech, where he strives to present the same experiment in ways that are interesting to kids of different ages. "I sometimes have a seventh-grader and a second-grader, and I have to make science interesting to both of them," he said. What's more, he never knows how much visitors understand about genetics until he starts talking to them.

That's the kind of challenge Richard Myers, PhD, professor and chair of genetics, had in mind when he sought funding to establish a relationship with the museum. "I think students and faculty who are fortunate enough to receive public funding owe the public something in return," he said. "If all scientists spent time doing this, there would be a lot less misunderstanding of science."

His hope is that by fostering the program he's both helping to educate people about genetics and teaching young scientists the importance of talking about their work in a way that makes sense to people with little knowledge of science.

The collaboration between the genetics department and The Tech began in 2002 when Myers and genetics professor Michael Cherry, PhD, got a National Institutes of Health grant to partly fund the museum's DNA exhibit and to hire Barry Starr, PhD, as the department's liaison at the museum. This project was also supported by a Science Education Partnership Award from the NIH's National Center for Research Resources.

Starr started working with the museum staff in 2003 to set up the genetics exhibit, which has gone on to be among the museum's most popular destinations. Visitors line up to participate in a computer-guided, hands-on experiment.

Other parts of the exhibit showcase the role of genetic counseling for genetic diseases, demonstrate how to sequence DNA and explain how genes are responsible for our physical traits.

As visitors make their way through the exhibit, they can store information or experiment results on a Tech Tag, worn around the wrist. From home, the ID on the tag lets each visitor log in to a personalized Web page that contains information from exhibits visited that day. Visitors can also get results from experiments that take overnight to produce data.

Melissa McAlexander, PhD, interim director of education at the museum, said the collaboration with Stanford is a major part of the success of the genetics exhibit. "Being able to talk with actual scientists makes the science more real and more relevant for visitors," she said.

Although the genetics department now funds the program, the collaboration isn't limited to genetics students. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from any Stanford bioscience department can apply for the two-quarter program. In addition to leading weekly hands-on sessions, the participants answer questions at the "Ask a Geneticist" portion of the Tech's "Understanding Genetics" Web site, and complete a project, such as written materials that visitors can take home, new exhibits or hands-on activities.

With 400,000 visitors to the museum each year, Myers said he hopes most of them will walk away knowing more about the role of genetics in their day-to-day lives.

Myers also hopes the graduate students get something valuable from the experience, whether they go on to laboratory careers or choose alternative paths. "I think it's a great experience having to think spontaneously and answer tough questions," he said.

Dan Ginsburg, PhD, who participated in the program in 2003 while he was a genetics graduate student, said it was among his most rewarding experiences at Stanford. Now a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health, Ginsburg said most scientists don't do an effective job communicating with the public.

"One of my biggest pet peeves is the depiction of science and scientists in the popular media. We're always shown as making horrible problems, whether intentionally or unintentionally," he said. To address these concerns, Ginsberg's project was to develop the exhibit "Genetics in the Flicks" as a way of setting the record straight.

Ginsburg and other past participants consistently cite "Ask the Geneticist" as a valuable part of working at the museum. This popular Web page has received more than 600,000 unique visitors to date, with 43,000 unique visits in December and 375 questions submitted from all over the world. Starr, with help from last quarter's graduate students, responded to all the questions, posting four of the most interesting on the site. This writing experience has steered some past participants to careers outside the traditional research path, such as patient outreach and advocacy.

Between the Web page drawing in readers from all over the world and the in-person visitors, the museum collaboration has given the genetics department a wide reach.

The elementary students whom Colf sent home with glowing tubes of protein will likely grow up in a world where genetic technology and genetic testing are increasingly common. The experience of interacting with a scientist could be the difference between being afraid of those advances and embracing them or even entering science as a profession.

"You can run around and read the exhibits, but it's the interaction with people that makes the genetics exhibit such a rich experience," McAlexander said.