News

Students Offer Decade of Science in the Public Interest

In an era when humanity’s collective scientific knowledge is burgeoning, I have heard scientists marvel that this is the best time in all of history to be a scientist—a true “golden age” in research. But where does this leave the nonscientists? Even specialists can barely keep up as the breadth and depth of scientific knowledge grow at a dizzying rate. Now the general public has a greater need than ever for accessible and accurate scientific information as major newspapers (notably, our own Boston Globe) are folding their science sections due to tight budgets. Debates about societal issues with science at their core, such as global climate change and healthcare, are simmering across the nation.

Ten years ago, a graduate student at HMS saw the need for better adult science education and decided to take action. Liz Bromley envisioned an all-student group that would present free public seminars focused on current scientific issues. Liz founded Science in the News (SITN) and gathered many enthusiastic Harvard graduate students who were willing to help and give seminars. They designed lectures centered on current and controversial scientific issues, such as genetically modified foods and HIV. Liz explained, “The greatest strength of SITN in my mind is that it teaches people basic science by using the hot-button issues in the news to get them through the door.”

In the sound bite era, it may be surprising that anyone would sacrifice a whole evening to listen to a few graduate students talk about science. Liz initially met resistance on this point. “One well-meaning person told me that people from outside of academia wouldn’t have attention spans long enough to focus for two hours,” she said. Yet every year, SITN continues to have a large and enthusiastic audience.

This month, as SITN launches its 10th annual lecture series, it is a tribute to Liz and the other founding members that SITN’s annual lecture series has survived more or less unscathed. This year, SITN’s seminar topics range from playful (“What Makes a Champion? The Biology of Great Athletes”) to serious (“Modern Mass Extinction”). Three graduate-student lecturers and one coordinator toil to make their presentation comprehensive, yet clear and accessible to everyone. The result is a two-hour exploration of a scientific topic, from background information to the most cutting-edge research.

When I joined SITN last fall, I had the experience of going through the complete process of planning and presenting a seminar with two other graduate students. It was extremely fulfilling to see how interested and engaged our audience was—they wanted to hear about the nuances inherent to science and the caveats to new discoveries. I was so impressed with this great organization, centered around the mission of free public science education, that I agreed to join Morgan Thompson as co-director of SITN this year.

In the past year, we sought new ways to bring science to the community at large. In April, a team of SITN members put together a “model organism zoo” for the Cambridge Science Festival. The zoo featured some of the most common organisms studied in the lab, including nematodes, fruit flies, plants, yeast, bacteria, and zebrafish embryos. Dissecting microscopes helped the public—kids and adults alike—view the organisms close up. The zoo also featured mutants of the organisms, highlighting the study of genes through physical traits, as well as the use of genetic mutations as tools in biological research.

We also expanded our spring programs to include four “science cafés” (www.sciencecafes.org). Science cafés follow a different format from our seminar series, bringing a Boston-area scientist into a local bar and starting an impromptu discussion of his or her research with bar patrons. This allowed for a fun and relaxed discussion of science in a very accessible context, and it helped break down barriers between scientists and nonscientists.

This spring we also initiated a high school outreach program that brought graduate students into local high schools to talk about their research, reaching this diverse and young audience at a time when they are starting to make decisions about college and careers. In all of our programs this past year, we encountered a voracious hunger for more knowledge and better information about science.

As SITN enters its 10th year, we remain indebted to those who believed in us from the start. As our founder, Liz Bromley, said, “The whole program owes so much to the person who not only ‘got it’ but also took a chance on funding it from his own meager budget—Don Gibbons, the former associate dean in the HMS Office of Public Affairs [now Communications and External Relations].” We thank HMS, the Harvard/MIT COOP, and the Biomedical Graduate Student Organization for their continued financial support of our programs, and we look forward to another 10 years of science education for the Boston community and beyond.

The 2009 SITN fall seminar series will be held on Wednesday nights at 7:00 p.m. at the Armenise amphitheater at HMS. Seminars are held every week, excluding major holidays. Check out the new SITN website (sitn.hms.harvard.edu) for more information.

Marshall Thomas is co-director of Science in the News with Morgan Thompson. Both are graduate students in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences program at HMS.