Friday, April 01, 2011

Alternative means of science outreach

The recent cobra "escape" at the Bronx Zoo has gotten lots of media attention lately.  However, the best thing to come out of this little escapade can be found on Twitter.  Yes, I finally broke down and ventured into the world of Twitter during the recent disasters in Japan to get up to date information.  Basically, a few humorous individuals have latched on to several characters, including the cobra, the zoo keeper, and a honey badger.  Check out this post which outlines the excitement.  It gets better.  The cobra has apparently hijacked for April Fool's Day and turned it into the snake version of the Huffington Post, complete with information on 5 do's and don'ts for dating a cobra.  In addition, the honey badger is directly influenced by a video on youtube which is a humorous re-narration of a wildlife video (warning, foul language).  This spontaneous interconnection of different media has gotten so much attention because it's fun, and a nice change of pace from the bad news that surrounds us lately.  It's escapism.  But the coolest part is, it's escapism about biology.

During the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, slightly less charismatic organisms took center stage.  A friend found himself center stage, discussing the plight of the pancake batfish.  Somehow even the strikingly ugly looks of this creature (the fish, not my friend) provoked discussions on blogs around the web, and even among my friends on facebook, scientist and non-scientist alike.  Everyone knew the severity of the situation, but somehow this funny looking fish brought a face to the situation.

Another example of possibly alternative outreach can be found in the xkcd webcomics.  While the audience mostly consists of math and science geeks, it's always fun to see a bit of yourself in a comic (much like phdcomics) and it makes me wonder if things like this bring our science to a larger audience.  At least it connects the biologists and the physicists and the mathematicians.

"It wants to hug you!  So cute!"

At a recent meeting in Puerto Rico (I swear I'll get to updating those travel stories one of these days...) I was fortunate to be able to attend a lunch workshop with Randy Olson.  The topic was, 'Don't be such a scientist'.  As a tenured biology professor turned filmmaker, he definitely had a unique point of view with concrete suggestions on science outreach.  One keep aspect he mentioned was being less cerebral and reaching out more with emotion.  The above examples, along with such things as "Dance your Ph.D." contests and my best friend's talent of writing biology based songs highlight the fun side of science.  We are still people, and if more folks knew the fun and excitement that drives us, maybe we'd make a little bit of progress.  Connect as individuals and maybe pass on some education on the scientific method- shockingly few people understand what a theory actually is, gravity is just a theory, afterall.

Of course, spending all day with 4th graders like we did in an outreach event yesterday definitely helps you re-connect with the fun side of science.  Yeah, I guess that "big red" coat we get to wear in Antarctica is pretty cool, after all.  And I'm not ashamed to admit that I geeked out with my lab mates afterwards over the really cool cyanobacteria and algae they had on the microscope at the next station over.

See?  They can be cute!  Giant microbes rock.
But I think the best current example of alternative science outreach is the popular book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  The author draws you in with the striking story of the unknowing donor of cancer cells that have gone on to figure prominently in cancer and other biomedical research.  I definitely recommend you read it.  

In other news, I've updated past posts with tags, so take a look at the "cloud" on the right side bar to read posts by topic.  Also feel free to contact me if you're interested in turning me into a comic book hero, like those over at Women in Science!