Future Scientists

According to his Harvard faculty profile, Dr. Alex F. Schier is a Leo Erikson Life Science Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology. To twenty middle school students from Rochester, a handful from Milwaukee, accompanying staff, and a few scientists from Mayo Clinic, he was a first impression. Last Sunday and Monday, I had the honor of attending the 7th annual international Zebrafish Disease Models conference on the campus of the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dr. Schier was a keynote speaker and our first look at any content from this conference. His presentation title and abstract read like this:

Presentation Title: The Molecular Control of Embryogenesis: Insights from Zebrafish
Abstract: Cell fate specification and cell rearrangements are the hallmarks of early embryogenesis. Genetic and genomic studies in zebrafish have identified many of the key factors underlying these processes. I will discuss our recent studies on morphogens – signals that pattern developing tissues in a concentration-dependent manner, and on motogens – signals that promote the movement of cells.

After the talk, we filtered into a meeting room set aside especially for the kids where our scientist friends from Mayo Clinic – Dr. Stephen Ekker and Dr. Chris Pierret – led a Q&A session with the kids, probing them for understanding, clarifying vocabulary, and gathering feedback about the experience. It was amazing to hear what kids got out of the talk.

One might also wonder what I was doing there. No, I didn’t crash the event – I was invited. Back in 2009, Mayo Clinic and Lincoln K-8 Choice School in Rochester, MN teamed up to develop the InSciEdOut program (clever name!), which was aimed at engaging kids in learning science through locally developed curriculum, conducting real scientific experiments and research, and providing access to scientists and scientific resources (such as lab equipment). At the time, I was working in the Research, Evaluation, and Assessment Office in Rochester Public Schools and was asked to help evaluate the impact the program was having on student achievement in science. I was fortunate enough to be asked to continue to provide support in this area after I left RPS.

In addition to attending the conference, I was also asked to have my evaluation work included in a collaboratively developed poster presentation (see the picture of our poster below). This wasn’t the only poster presentation, however, that our collective group provided. I was proud that students shared their work doing experiments in their school via the poster presentations, right alongside graduate students and working scientists. Perhaps the best part about the conference was that those same graduate students and scientists treated the students just like other scientists, asking questions and providing feedback. With that familiar mixture of anxiety and pride, it was the kind of experience that cannot be simulated, and I think it impacted – in a positive way – the graduate students and scientists as well.


I took a number of other positive things from the conference. First, I realized that education is not the only field where acronyms abound as there were plenty to be had at the conference. Second, the data visualizations from this field were fascinating. From time-lapsed videos to color gradients to simple time series plots, the presentations included a wide-range of visuals and they truly did help to understand talks where the vocabulary was well above my head. Third, it was simply an honor to be challenged to hear such talks and to then discuss them with students. For example, in the talk by Han Wang, titled, “A circadian model for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Behaviors”, we learned that sleep cycles and the production and release of dopamine is related to ADHD. We talked with the students after about potential follow-up research questions we could ask. They came up with things like, “Do ADHD drugs impact different genders differently?” and “What would the impact of ADHD drugs on zebrafish without ADHD?”

This experience also provided plenty for me to reflect on professionally. Educational researchers also have a national conference (see my previous blog post about my experience at AERA/NCME this year) and the process was very similar in terms of posters and presentations. What is different between the research at ZDM7 and educational research is that it is much harder, in my opinion, to isolate variables and detect such specific effects in educational research. Nevertheless, I was inspired to see research in this format – and the scientific method in use – in a field that was not my own.

In closing, I was inspired by this experience (see below for a picture of the group), in particular the interactions between students and scientists and to hear what students got out of the experience. I appreciated the opportunity to be involved in such an initiative and at a unique conference, outside of my field. It has been an honor to work with the InSciEdOut program and I look forward to doing so in the future.


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