Science Saturday Stories

By Derek Simon

Approximately 100 volunteers devoted their time to making Science Saturday a reality. The group was comprised of over 60 scientists (including RU laboratory heads, RU postdoctoral fellows and graduate students, and scientists from neighboring Weill Cornell Medical College and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center as well as other institutions around New York) and nearly 40 volunteers from the RU staff, Summer Science Research Program students, and outside vendors. By 3pm this exhausted yet passionate group gathered together for a photographic memory of all those that made the day possible.

As could be expected, not every child was enthusiastic about spending their Saturday at a science fair, but it was impressive to see the amount of focus and joy most of the kids displayed. I, myself, ran a booth, along with Cornell graduate student Aisha Abdullah called “Natural Selection in Action!” which involved a game using legos and a colorful spin wheel to teach how a random trait can be beneficial or harmful depending on the particular environment. It was awe-inspiring for me to see most of the kids make serious attempts to understand what I was teaching them, intently paying attention in addition to having fun with the game. I could tell many of kids were genuinely interested in learning about science! The kids were also very polite to one another, taking turns and making sure everyone got a chance to spin the wheel. When I asked one girl what she thought natural selection was, she gave the analogy of “someone telling you a fairytale and then the next time you tell the fairytale it changes a little” which is a charmingly appropriate way of describing mutation and inheritance.

Natural Selection in Action – image from Jerry Melchor

I think it only appropriate to let some of the other volunteers share their own stories and experiences from the day:

Kate Stoeckle, daughter of RU scientist Dr. Mark Stoeckle (who himself ran a booth on the DNA barcoding of cockroaches), says:

I ran the “Sushigate” booth – my poster described a project I did when I was a junior in high school where myself and a classmate did DNA barcoding of sushi and other fish products sold in NYC and found that 25% were mislabeled as a more expensive fish. I had so much fun talking to the visitors to my booth! One of my favorite interactions was with a girl who looked to be about 6 years old. I was telling her one example of fish mislabeling, in which a piece of sushi sold as white tuna turned out to be tilapia, a much cheaper farmed fish. She quickly replied, “Tilapia! I am in loooove with tilapia! Yum yum yum!” She smacked her lips and beamed.

The Krueger Lab of Investigative Dermatology was represented by Dr. Jamie Harden and Dr. Daniel Gareau. Dan writes:

Jamie set up several light microscopes with real human skin sections from not only normal skin, but also skin diseases. The kids were amazing at describing, in their own words, the differences between the normal skin and the various skin diseases! I demonstrated in vivo confocal microscopy, imaging the fingertips of the kids so that they were able to visualize the cells in their skin. They left with a deeper understanding of the cellular nature of biological tissues because they got to see their own cells first hand!

Dr. Ezequiel Alvarez Saavedra, one of the volunteers for MiniPCR, described this story:

I had a girl, maybe 7 yrs old, come by the table that left me very impressed by her persistence. I started out the day way too optimistic and set up to have children do PCR- followed by a restriction digest- followed by running a gel. In the end, I ended up mostly talking about what PCR is- and teaching kids how to pipette and load gels. But this girl came towards the beginning and I told her the whole story, and that she would have to come three times to do the whole experiment. She not only managed to set up a PCR by mixing primers, DNA and PCR mix, but then came 30 minutes later to take her PCR out and set up a digest, then came ten minutes later to take the digest out and load a gel, and then came back once again to look at her result. She certainly made my day!

miniPCR – Image from Meredith Wright

Alisa Dong, a graduate fellow at Weill Cornell Medical College, said:

I was at the Civil Engineering Marker Space booth and one particular child was very inquisitive. We were building structures out of marshmallows and spaghetti and testing them on a chemical shaker “earthquake” simulator. The child brought up other principles besides structural stability, such as efficiency (the amount of materials used), and even came back later to do another structure. Another older child was very inquisitive about Taipei 101, and how flexibility as well as stability are important for building design.

Karina Sakmar, who volunteered along with her husband Dr. Thomas Sakmar, shared this experience about her daughters:

My twin daughters Charlotte & Juliette (11 years) had a great time at Science Saturday! They were volunteers in the Sakmar Sensory Vision room where they simultaneously demonstrated and explained cow eye dissection in front of many diverse audiences from 6-year old kids to full Professors (Seth Darst for example). I know they enjoyed the experience very much and only wish they could have had a bit more break time from their immensely popular exhibit to go around and see the other exhibits. A very interesting exhibit we did have time to enjoy was the Vosshall Sensory Smell room where both girls and I had fun trying to figure out sets of different smells in vials. Overall I’d say it was a smashing success from a parent perspective and I know my children would agree!

Dr. Anna Durrans, a research specialist in Laboratory of Dr. Vivek Mittal at Weill Cornell Medical College, wrote:

I was working on the C.Elegans worm race with Stephanie Agbu, where we had one wild type strain and two with mutations which affected the worms’ movement. We had lots of kids coming in and getting really excited about seeing the worms, and just the fact that they could barely see them by eye but then saw them close-up (sometimes really big fat worms) under the microscopes was pretty exciting for the younger ones especially. Some of the older children had been learning about genes at school, and could understand that genes determine certain traits. So they were impressed with the fact that a mutation could have such a big effect on movement. We also had a lovely couple of grandparents come in who were checking out the science fair to see if they should bring their grandchildren if it happens next year. They were very impressed with it!

Racing Worms – Image from Meredith Wright

Finally, Kate Bredbenner, a graduate fellow at RU, shared this story:

I ran the Banana DNA Extraction booth and overall it went amazingly. One particular memory I have is of a little boy who was maybe 6 or 7 and he was there with his mom. He seemed like a really shy kid and his mom was trying to open him up and one of the things she said was that this was his first scientific experiment. When she said that it hit me that this was a big impact. For me it was a fun way to talk to kids and get them excited about science, but for a few kids this would be their first introduction to science. I helped this little boy do his first ever experiment. Maybe he won’t really do many more experiments or maybe he’ll be a famous scientist, I have no idea, but what I know is that Rockefeller helped introduce him to science in the first place. Very incredible. Plus his first ever experiment worked, how many scientists can really say that?

I think this last story perfectly sums of Science Saturday. Who knows how many future scientists got to do their first experiments that day? Sometimes a person just needs the opportunity to be exposed to something in order to realize they have a passion or talent for it. I think we were all honored to be apart of creating that opportunity for these children.

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