Fun with Science for the Holidays: An “Actor’s” Perspective

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to be a part of “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri”. Bassam Z. Shakhashiri is a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who is well-known for his fun science demonstrations and a fervent dedication to public science communication. Once Upon a Christmas Cheery started in 1970 as an end-of-semester treat for Dr. Shakhashiri’s freshman chemistry class; by 1973, the Christmas lecture had become so popular that Wisconsin Public Television offered to broadcast it during Christmas week, and this collaboration has continued uninterrupted ever since.

That’s 49 years of Christmas lectures, commemorated by making indium, the 49th element, the Sesame Street-esque “sponsor” of the show. It helps that indium burns bright violet, the name of Dr. Shakhashiri’s granddaughter and hence his favorite color. The color purple made a firm foundation for many aspects of the show: The chrysanthemums frozen in liquid nitrogen were purple, as was the balloon I inflated during my spiel on air movement. Most of the set was various shades of purple, too.

Bassam Shakhashiri and J. Nepper on the set of Once Upon a Christmas Cheery
The set was whimsical and very purple. Photo by Eric Baillies.

Continue reading “Fun with Science for the Holidays: An “Actor’s” Perspective”

Hello PhD + Promega: Partnering to Support Young Scientists

Hello PhD LogoThink back to your grad school days. Think about a time when you were struggling with challenges either inside or outside the lab. Maybe you dealt with failed experiments, a toxic lab culture or mental health problems. For graduate students, these have been real, everyday experiences for as long as anyone can remember. The Hello PhD podcast, hosted by Joshua Hall and Daniel Arneman, aims to address those problems. We’re excited to announce that beginning with Episode 94 (released June 11, 2018), we are now partnering with Hello PhD to promote their mission to support young scientists in training.

Hello PhD will be celebrating its third anniversary in July 2018, and in the past three years they’ve covered topics from grad school admissions to choosing a career path, and everything in between. They’ve interviewed post-docs, science communicators and students with interesting experiences to share. Their most popular episode ever, “When Research Sucks,” discusses what to do when research starts to drag you down. After 94 episodes, they still haven’t lost sight of their mission to make the grad school experience better for both current and future students. Continue reading “Hello PhD + Promega: Partnering to Support Young Scientists”

Reflections of a Thankful Former Teacher

Today is the start of Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States, punctuated tomorrow by National Thank a Teacher Day. I used to be on the receiving end of the various expressions of gratitude bestowed upon our educators: platters of brownies or cookies from the Board of Education, free meals from restaurants, discounts at retail stores and, if you were really lucky, maybe a student or two (likely initiated by their parents) would bring a gift card or note.

I would also reflect on the teachers that I was personally thankful for: my elementary teachers through graduate school professors (I still remember most of them by name and, with few exceptions, I received what I needed from all of them to learn and grow), my colleagues (who provided mentorship, support and comradery to me and so much more to their students) and my parents (who taught my earliest and most important lessons).

But now I find myself looking at this annual celebration of teachers from the other side—it has been two years since I became a science writer after nearly a decade of teaching high school science. The transition has completely changed my life in ways I could not have imagined and has also impacted the way I think about educators.

The main impetus for this career change was burnout. I had spent countless early mornings, late nights and weekends grading, planning lessons, completing professional development requirements and simply worrying about what challenges I would face the next morning, week or class period. The pressures of each school year would crescendo to a near breaking point every May, and then be swiftly wiped away by the arrival of summer break.

This cycle seemed inevitable, but I had been conditioned by the cultural narrative about teachers to consider it a tolerable tradeoff to the enviable benefits of teaching: holidays and summers “off”, ending the workday before 4 (even I groaned while typing that), great (read: better than average American, worse than someone with similar level of education and experience) benefits & retirement.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t sustainable for me. Moreover, legislative changes and budget cuts exacerbated the ever-present stress to new levels during my last few years as an educator. The strain was taking a toll on my mental health and my ability to be present with family and friends, especially my children.

In my new position, I have been met with intellectual challenges equal to those I encountered as a teacher but face a manageable amount of stress and few threats to work-life balance. Ending my teaching career was probably one of the best decisions I have ever made for my personal well-being. But despite this newfound joie de vivre, I am left with a feeling of guilt that resurfaces whenever issues I used to be so connected with make their way to the national spotlight.

Two of these have been in the news a lot this year—repercussions from budget cuts to education and gun violence in schools. I shouldered the burden of helping my students’ process school shootings and personally dealing with the reality that I could be in the middle of such a tragedy. Similar to the recent wave of teacher walkouts, budget measures that targeted educators brought me to the state capitol in protest.

Yet, I don’t have to face these issues with the sense of urgency I used to. My guilt is rooted in the fact that being a good teacher required selflessness and I chose to be selfish and leave because I couldn’t meet that expectation. It is perhaps because of this nagging feeling that I now feel a gratitude toward teachers that I didn’t before. I am still thankful to all the teachers in my past, but now my appreciation also extends to those that are and will become the future of education.

This year for Teacher Appreciation Week I want to express special gratitude for all of the teachers who feel the same pressures I did and are able to persist. I admire those of you already in the classroom and know you are putting your students’ needs ahead of your own. I’m grateful for all of you who are studying to become teachers, looking past all of the reasons you shouldn’t go into education and focusing instead on the impact you’ll have on future generations.

At a time when it is increasingly difficult to be optimistic about the future, knowing that there are still teachers willing to fight for themselves and their students gives me all the hope I need. Thank you teachers, this week and every week, for all you do!

The University of Wisconsin Master of Science in Biotechnology Program Celebrates Its 15-Year Anniversary

The University of Wisconsin Master of Science in Biotechnology Program began with its first cohort of students in 2002, and its 14th class graduated this May, with the BTC Institute serving as a major partner since its inception. The 15-year anniversary highlights the success the program has garnered over the years, with over 300 alumni successfully completing the program between 2002 and 2017.

Kevin Conroy, JD led the panel discussion

To celebrate and acknowledge the program’s 15-year anniversary, a panel discussion was held in March of this year on the University of Wisconsin – Madison campus at the Wisconsin Institute for Medical Research (WIMR).  A panel of alumni and faculty, led by Kevin Conroy, CEO of Exact Sciences, addressed the question: What are the future education needs of the biotechnology industry in Wisconsin? Continue reading “The University of Wisconsin Master of Science in Biotechnology Program Celebrates Its 15-Year Anniversary”

Welcome to Your Biotechnology Field Trip at the BTC Institute!

Kaukauna High School students arrive at the BTC for a biotechnology fieldtrip.
Kaukauna High School students arrive at the BTC for a biotechnology fieldtrip.

BTCI provides our students an opportunity that they could never get in the classroom.
—Jim Geoffrey, Biology Teacher, Kaukauna High School

Your bus has arrived and parked in the circular driveway at the front of the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center on the Promega Corporation campus in Fitchburg, WI. Your BTC Institute hosts – and instructors – for your field trip are Barbara Bielec (K-12 Program Director) and Ryan Olson (Biotechnology Instructor). They’ll greet you in the Atrium and direct you to a conference room where you can leave coats and backpacks, and then to the lab you’ll be working in during your visit.

Here’s a taste of what happened next for students from Random Lake High School and Wonewoc High School on December 3rd, and from Kaukauna High School on December 4th. Continue reading “Welcome to Your Biotechnology Field Trip at the BTC Institute!”

Phylo: A Crowdsourced, Beautiful Biodiversity Game

European Honey Bee card. Image credit: Phylogame.org
European Honey Bee card. Image credit: Phylogame.org

They started with one provocative thought: “Kids know more about Pokemon than they do about the plants and animals in their backyard. We’d like to do something about that.”

And then the team behind the Science Creative Quarterly released the idea to the web to see what would happen. It was 2010.

Now, just a few years later, the resulting fruit of a crowdsourced labor is Phylo: The Trading Card Game. Phylo is a frankly beautiful, “sneakily educational”, immediately compelling and truly cross-functional collaboration of the artistic, gaming, scientific, education and even intellectual property law communities all coming together to create and curate a sort of “biodiversity Pokemon.”

Okay, sounds neat, but why?

Continue reading “Phylo: A Crowdsourced, Beautiful Biodiversity Game”

Bacterial transformation and counting colonies for grade school students

Our experimental setup: Microbe plushies, Lego DNA, plates, iPhones and makeshift stand, ready to go.
Our experimental setup: Microbe plushies, Lego DNA, plates, iPhones and makeshift stand, ready to go.
A few weeks ago, our elementary school held its annual science fair. Owing to the greater-than-usual number of scientists among the parents, the halls of this event were lined with tables staffed by said parents, showing off the wonders of science, tech, and especially biotech. There were at least three stations devoted to various aspects of stem cell research, and the table next to us had kids run simple nucleic acid extractions from wheat germ using detergent and alcohol – my son loved that one, as he pulled out the stringy goop with a q-tip at the end of the process.

My wife and I contributed to the festivities by putting together a presentation on bacterial transformation. I was just about finished working on a colony counter iPhone® app for Promega, so I figured why not try it out in the field: Print out some colorful ersatz bacterial plates, have the kids count the colonies using the app (yay, touch screens!) and maybe teach them something about genetic engineering along the way.

Our setup turned out to be a lot of fun to run, and quite popular to boot. It went roughly like this: Continue reading “Bacterial transformation and counting colonies for grade school students”

My Daughter Hates Circle Time

My daughter has been in a learning center environment for all of her early years. One hallmark of that environment—something that happens in every class she has been in since age 2—is “circle time”.

Circle time is an unquestioned tradition of early childhood education in the USA. A Google search of “circle time” on the web quickly produces a host of curricula, sites with songs for circle time, and suggestions for circle time activities for toddlers. Even early childhood educator forums discuss the topic in great length.

However, at the risk of being labeled an educational heretic, I am going to ask some questions about circle time. Where did it get its start? What is the empirical evidence that circle time actually accomplishes the things that everyone says it does? It possible that circle time, this so honored educational tradition, also may be a mechanism for crushing creativity? Continue reading “My Daughter Hates Circle Time”

Odyssey of a Grad Student and the Playlist that Paved the Way

Grad school is no walk in the park. Whether the topic is English or Astrophysics, most grad students would agree that the journey to the coveted PhD can simply be described as “hard”- academically, financially, mentally. It is very important to have an outlet for the associated stress such as a hobby or exercise. My outlet was music. Music is very important in my life. It is so important that most people close to me have their own soundtrack that plays in my head when I think of them. Needless to say, music played a big part in saving my sanity during my 7.5 years in grad school. As time went on, there were several songs that marked important milestones and emotions I experienced along the way. When I defended my thesis, I decided to leave the department with a musical story of how I made it through. I created a compilation CD of all these songs to share with the department and any other struggling grad students I encountered. The CD has a custom label featuring the structure of the protein I studied, cardiac troponin C.

In this blog, I will share with you that playlist, entitled “Odyssey of a Grad Student,” and a description of the significance of each track. You can listen to all but one* of the songs on YouTube (http://youtu.be/8qrriKcwvlY). Click the link and listen as you read along. Continue reading “Odyssey of a Grad Student and the Playlist that Paved the Way”

Writing Your Worries Away

Experiencing sweaty palms, a rapid heart rate and nausea shouldn’t be the standard response before taking an important exam. However, for many students this has become a debilitating reaction when the pressure to perform academically affects their test scores.

I became more aware of this situation when my 13-year- old niece started “choking under pressure” on her math exams. She did well at solving problems in class. She completed her homework on time and received good scores. But when it came to the day of a math test, she would become anxious, her stomach would hurt and she failed to complete all the questions on the test. Consequently, her parents focused on personally sitting down to help her with homework assignments, assuming this would overcome her anxieties.

So it was just by chance that I picked up the January 14, 2011, issue of Science to read over lunch, when I came across the title “Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Performance in the Classroom”.  The title seemed counterintuitive though. Writing about fears makes them disappear? But as I’ll convey here, timing is everything. Continue reading “Writing Your Worries Away”