September 2013

Bringing science to the people

 

A look inside the North Carolina
Museum of Natural Sciences

Meg Lowman conducts a science café 
Meg Lowman conducts a science café. Photo credit: David Kroll, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. 

You have another 20 minutes on that enzyme incubation. What to do? Catch up with journal tables of contents on your RSS reader, or maybe jabber with your labmates about the exciting experiment you have going? But everyone’s too busy to listen.
 
What if you could just walk outside the lab and chat about your research with some of those folks who pay the bills — and your salary? You know, taxpayers, otherwise known as the general public.
 
But when you look down the hall, all you see is that new undergrad bumping into the FedEx delivery person, spilling freshly autoclaved LB agar all over the floor.
 
At the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, you wouldn’t even have to go outside of your floor to show off your mad skills to the public. With floor-to-ceiling glass walls, comfy bench seating in front of the lab and interactive touch-screen videos playing on the lab glass, visitors to the Southeast’s largest venue of its kind can learn about the scientific process while it happens. That’s just one of several opportunities for museum scientists and our colleagues in the local academic community and around the world to show nontechnical audiences the science that affects their lives. Science communication with the public isn’t just lip service. Here, it lives, every day.
 
The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences began as your typical late-19th-century natural history institution. Founded 134 years ago by the self-trained British naturalists and brothers Herbert H. Brimley and C.S. Brimley, the museum has grown its collection to more than 3 million specimens. Last year, the museum drew more than 1.2 million visitors to its state capital site, making it the most-visited cultural attraction in the state.
 
Much of the increase in visitors was due to the April 2012 launch of the Nature Research Center wing, a $56-million, public-private partnership that expanded the main museum’s space by almost 40 percent. Where the main wing had been traditionally dedicated to showing what we know about the natural world, the NRC was designed to show visitors how we know what we know — and engage them in scientific discovery.
 
Four new research laboratories build on the museum’s traditional strengths in research and collections, addressing some of the major areas of natural sciences research: paleontology and geology, biodiversity and Earth observation, astronomy and space observation, and genomics and microbiology. All of the laboratory directors serve half-time as faculty members at nearby North Carolina State University, North Carolina Central University (one of 11 historically black institutions in the state) or Appalachian State University.

Lindsay Zanno and the duckbilled dino 
Paleo director Lindsay Zanno and the duckbilled dino. Photo credit: Karen Swain, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. 

These are augmented by what we call the Window on Animal Health, a veterinary medicine procedure room where visitors can watch gall bladder surgery on a resident frog, with two-way communication between veterinarians, vet students and public visitors. (I recently learned from our veterinary director, Dan Dombrowski, that the local anesthetic for fish surgery, used systemically in ambient water, goes by the brand name Finquel.)
 
Meg Lowman, the founding director of the new wing and currently director of academic partnerships and global initiatives for the entire museum, specifically recruited world-class scientists with an aptitude — and desire — to bring public audiences into their labs and demystify the scientific process. Her own enthusiasm for nature and pioneering the study of treetop biodiversity is infectious. Lowman, our role model and conduit for all academic relationships, sets a very high standard for all of us to pursue science outreach as a substantive scholarly effort, making our work accessible to anyone, from schoolchildren and teachers to celebrities and civic leaders.
 
But the science world at the museum is bigger than just our own science. Lowman and our new museum director, Emlyn Koster — all of us, in fact — aim for our community to be the place for all our colleagues worldwide to have their science discussions with the public. Our venues for doing so are as varied as the science our visitors expect to see.
 
Our main museum building showcases a learning room for local and distance learning as well as an auditorium featuring 3-D science movies and special events, such as our live uplink with the International Space Station and astronaut Tom Marshburn. The new wing expands this space, most notably with the 70-foot-diameter SECU Daily Planet. Externally, it’s the largest accurate representation of Landsat Earth images in North America (1:598,000, if you care). Inside, it’s a three-story multimedia theatre featuring twice-daily Meet the Scientist interactive presentations and live interviews led by science communications expert Brian Malow.
 
Applying techniques he learned from doing improvisational comedy, producing Time magazine science videos and working on the Weather Channel’s “Hacking the Planet” program, Malow is central to our comprehensive science communications training programs.
 
Michelle Trautwein, assistant director of the biodiversity lab, describes her experience, one that we offer to our external colleagues as well:
 
“Brian Malow is incredibly comfortable with every kind of audience. And his sense of ease and confidence really translates to me when we are doing live interviews together. He makes public speaking fun for me, which is something I would have never said before. Working with him has helped me realize that connecting with the audience is more important than squeezing in more science factoids. He has really helped me tone down jargon that I didn’t even realize was jargon.”

SECU Daily Planet Theater 
SECU Daily Planet. Photo credit: Karen Swain: North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. 

And with so much of our public interactions in visual media, staff television personality Emelia Cowans mentors every scientist and staff educator who appears in promotional segments on local and statewide television. Everyone from undergraduate student researchers to seasoned principal investigators benefits from Malow’s and Cowan’s expertise. I even have my NC State science journalism students pitch their semester project stories to the public there.
 
Webmaster Brian Russell and museum webbie and ace photographer Karen “Nik” Swain work with me on science blogging workshops for staff, students and visiting faculty. A surmountable hurdle with many scientists is convincing them that a significant subset of our visitors is rabid to learn of their expertise. I’m particularly cognizant of this point as a biochemical pharmacologist who joined an organization with experts from geology and insect-microbe symbiosis to paleontology and evolutionary genomics. To me, an expert in another area, everything is interesting.
 
The museum also features science café discussions with the public fashioned after the Café Scientifique movement. Our seven-year-old program was founded by Katey Ahmann, deputy director of education, and originated as monthly programs in local pubs. But with the new wing, weekly programs are held on every Thursday in our on-site restaurant — The Daily Planet Café — featuring a stage and large-screen TVs (think science sports bar) plus a large selection of food and North Carolina microbrews and wine. All the programs are webcasted live by our digital and emerging media specialists, with questions taken on-site and via Twitter and then archived at livestream.com/naturalsciences.
 
I’ve learned that one has to be intellectually agile in such a diverse environment of scientists and visitors. As I was about to present a carefully crafted Meet the Scientist talk on the 50-year journey of the Herceptin antibody-emtansine conjugate for breast cancer (Kadcyla), Malow told me that I would have a crowd of 60 first-graders. I quickly opted for a tried-and-tested demonstration of thermochromic substances (think Coors beer labels) and the chemistry of color.
 
Unquestionably our most involved partner is Rob Dunn, a NC State associate professor of biology. A frequent writer for Scientific American and Smithsonian Magazine and author of the book “The Wild Life of Our Bodies,” Dunn nicely captures the opportunities scientists have to partner with public institutions like museums and science centers:

NCMNS logo

Who’s who

  • • Emlyn Koster is director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.
  • • Meg Lowman is the founding director of the new Nature Research Center wing and currently director of academic partnerships and global initiatives for the museum. Follow her at www.twitter.com/canopymeg.
  • • Brian Malow is a science communications expert at the museum. Follow him at www.twitter.com/sciencecomedian.
  • • Michelle Trautwein is assistant director of the biodiversity lab at the museum. Follow her at www.twitter.com/flylogeny.
  • • Emelia Cowans is the museum’s television expert and coaches all affiliated researchers and students on TV appearances.
  • • Brian Russell is the museum’s webmaster. Follow him at www.twitter.com/brianr.
  • • Karen “Nik” Swain is a Web editor and photographer at the museum.
  • • Katey Ahmann is deputy director of education at the museum and founded its scientific café program seven years ago.
  • • Rob Dunn is an associate professor at NC State and an author who partners with the museum. Follow him at www.twitter.com/robrdunn.
 

“Public funding for science is a privilege. That the public entrusts us to struggle toward the truth on their behalf is amazing. It is sometimes said that scientists don’t try to communicate to the public what they do. Sometimes this is the case. Some of us have our heads up our, well, labs. But I think more often the issue is that scientists don’t have an easy place where they can reach the public. I think museums provide such places, and in an ideal world, I think there is a huge opportunity for museums to better link to scientists and scientists to better link to museums in such a way that thousands of scientists are able to share with the public what they do and why they do it. This can only benefit scientists. Certainly the public is more likely to want to keep paying us if they know what they are paying for.”
 
Dunn adds, “But I think it also benefits science. I know engaging the public at museums has made me a better scientist. If nothing else, it gives me a measure of what the public wants to know. We are so ignorant about the world that we have some choice about what dark hole we plunge into, and I’m delighted to listen to the public more about what that should be, so long as the hole isn’t at the end of a pier.”
 
Broad engagement is the key at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. We provide venues for all manner of scientists to press the flesh with all manner of other citizens. We never really needed funding agencies to tell us that ensuring the public impact of our work was important, although that now may matter much more to you in grant applications. It happens every day here.
 
So if you’re coming through Raleigh or the Research Triangle Park area, drop me a note — david.kroll@naturalsciences.org — or direct message me @davidkroll on Twitter. Someone will want to hear your story.
 
Stay up to date with all the museum’s activities at www.naturalsciences.org, www.twitter.com/naturalsciences and www.facebook.com/naturalsciences.

David KrollDavid J. Kroll (david.kroll@naturalsciences.org) is the director of strategic positioning at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. He also is an investigator at the museum’s Genomics and Microbiology Research Laboratory, an adjunct associate professor of English at North Carolina State University, and an adjunct associate professor at the Duke University School of Medicine and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

 

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