Andrea Hodgins-Davis plays a game about how Arctic foxes make different coats in summer and winter with an interested visitor, Morgan Wittkopp. Image credit: Patricia Wittkopp.

In the interest of helping scientists share their research with the public in fun and engaging ways, the Detroit Zoological Society offers a Fellowship in Science Communication.

Six of this year’s fellows hail from the University of Michigan Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology: graduate students Delaney Cargo, Jill Myers, Jeff Shi and Alex Taylor; Joe Coolon, assistant research scientist in the lab of Professor Patricia Wittkopp; and Andrea Hodgins-Davis, postdoctoral fellow in the Wittkopp lab.

As part of this effort, the Detroit Zoo offers a Portal to the Public to bring scientists and the public face-to-face at the zoo, such as on Girl Scout Day, Scientist Day and Summer Camp Day. Fellows attend three professional development workshops, working with zoo staff to learn interesting ways to help a general audience relate to their scientific work, including the development of hands-on activities. Fellows also meet a network of colleagues who are equally excited about sharing their work with the public.

Shi 3D printed a variety of bat skulls from the U-M Museum of Zoology to showcase the diversity of shapes and functions present across modern bats. He used the skulls to teach about the many functions bats serve in ecosystems worldwide. “I also had a little game set up for the very ambitious to match a bat's form to its function.”

Shi said it’s been great to talk to a huge diversity of people who are interested in biology but have had little to no exposure to scientists in person. “They've all been super curious and supportive of research being done right here in Michigan,” he said.

“Far too many kids, as always, ask me about Batman, but it was also great to hear lots of kids correcting their grossed-out parents by telling them that bats do a lot of important things for us and the environment!”

“My presentation was about legume nodulation, a mutualism between many legume plants and nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria that is important for human nutrition and maintaining soil quality,” said Taylor. “Most people don't know about this symbiotic partnership, so I brought live pea plants (Pisum sativum) to show people the root nodules, which are visible structures on the roots that house the bacteria (Rhizobia leguminosarum).”

Kids explored how mutualisms can help both species using boxes of toothpicks and marshmallows. The competition was to build a "pea plant" or "bacteria,” but the quantities provided were unbalanced so they needed to share to build their species, the way legumes and bacteria share protein and sugar.

“I really enjoyed the Zoo Fellowship,” Taylor said. They “unlearned how to talk like scientists and learned how to be accessible and engaging with non-scientists,” he described. Zoo staff helped in the crafting of presentations to impart one or two takeaway points in a five to 10 minute presentation.

“Presenting to the public was amazing,” Taylor said. “I got to see what people found interesting and worthwhile about my research.”
A few paraphrases from visitors to Taylor’s station:

"There are so many friendships in nature – even underground!" from a young Girl Scout.

"I always wondered why farm fields rotate between corn and soybean," from a woman.

"So that's how vegetarians get their protein," from a young boy.

Hodgins-Davis illustrated that both an organism's DNA and the environment in which that DNA is expressed can shape phenotype (an organism’s observable characteristics or traits). She chose well-known examples of organisms that look different depending on their environment – like Arctic foxes, Daphnia, and butterflies that change by season. 

“For each critter, I made two sets of puzzle pieces representing two different phenotypes (e.g., Arctic foxes in winter and summer coats) and then mixed them up in a container labeled "genome." For each organism, I made a spinner featuring the different environments. Kids would spin to find out what environment they found themselves in and then sort through the color-coded puzzle pieces in the genome to assemble one of the phenotypes.”

She said it’s been fun to interact about science with folks outside of her discipline including zoo visitors, employees and the other scientists. 

Myers said the fellowship was a great experience that really surpassed her expectations. “Prior to setting us loose in the zoo, we attended a few workshops where we discussed the challenges that scientists face (and where we often fail) in communicating our work,” she said.

Myers’ set up a game whereby kids (or adults) took on the role of plants on her chalk-drawn pavement farm. The plants’ fate was determined by picking chips out of a bag – some chips helped them grow, others were harmful fungi, and others were viruses that hurt the fungi – thereby helping the plant. 

“Some kids thought it was neat that a plant could be infected with a fungus that itself was infected with a virus, and surprised me with how quickly they understood how that hierarchy could ultimately affect the plant,” Myers said.

Myers’ table displayed various fungi – including baker’s yeast. One woman was not thrilled to learn that bread is fluffy and delicious due to a fungus, but her daughter thought it was pretty cool.

Myers said, “I’m glad that we’ll get to continue having ‘zoo days’ throughout the fall, and can keep going back in future years!”

“The presentation I made aimed to describe how changes to the DNA that is in each one of our cells can affect genes in two major ways,” explained Coolon. “It can either change what the gene makes (function) or it can change where, when or how much (regulation) of that gene product gets made. I demonstrated this difference with an electronic system I made that had LED lights in different parts of a fruit fly. These lights could be modified by a series of dimmers or with a switch demonstrating the consequence of DNA changes to function or regulation. I then had them try to match patterns with the lights to demonstrate that evolution may more frequently act through changes in regulation.”

“One girl asked me if all my scientist friends wear glasses and lab coats all the time,” Coolon said.

Hopefully, by meeting more scientists in person through programs like this, the image of the stereotypical scientist will be replaced by real individuals engaged in incredible and important work.

The fellows will be set loose at the Detroit Zoo on additional Portal to the Public days to be held during August, September and October 2015. Cargo's fieldwork prevented her from participating so far, but she plans to join in this fall. 

Image credit for photos of Jeff Shi and Joe Coolon above: Alex Taylor.

Kids thought it was fun pretending to be cornstalks on Jill Myers “farm.”