The organizers of the Cambridge Science Festival could not have asked for a better day for the first day of their 9-day event. The first real jacket-free, t-shirts-and-sandals day of the year brought families and kids out in droves to Cambridge City Hall where the “Science Carnival” got underway. I have a personal interest in the intersection of science and the public, so out of curiosity, I spent a bit of time there, wading through the sea of children, to see how the city’s scientists would showcase their work.
The scientists on hand were mainly Cambridge-based biotech/pharma folks, from the companies sponsoring the event. They brought out some high-tech “toys” for people to play with, in hopes that they would teach the public a little about chemistry, protein structure, and drug development.
The booth from Vertex Pharmaceuticals had giant screens displaying 3D protein structures that people could rotate with a mouse.
Millennium Pharmaceuticals had microscopes for people to look at cell samples and more 3D molecular structures on display.
Some booths were better than others at really engaging people. It was clear from some of the displays that industry scientists aren’t trained on how to make their work accessible to the general public.
Not sure how much kids like this one (he looked to be about 8 or 9 years old), or even adults would learn about signaling pathways from a slide like this from Vertex.
There was also this not-so-slick display by the Vertex table:
And I don’t think too many people were paying attention to this slide about the aurora kinase A inhibitor at the Millennium booth.
(The poster in the background was about the drug development cycle.)
Still, these kids seemed really into gel electrophoresis at the Biogen booth.
I thought some of the best exhibits were the simple, low-tech, really interactive ones. Who would have thought that jujubes and toothpicks could be turned into molecular models? (This was from the Science Club for Girls)
Yes, there’s nothing like candy to draw kids in. Chemists from Merck, using nothing but Skittles, water and filter paper, were able to give quick lessons about chromatography (apparently, purple Skittles work the best).
In the basement of Cambridge City Hall was a menagerie of animals from the Burlington Science Center.
And here I thought was a fun and clever way to talk about the importance of exercise and nutrition: DDR! The Cambridge Public Health Department had the Dance Dance Revolution game on hand for people to play. People place their feet on markers that light up in time to music, so that they “dance.”
Participants were asked to guess how many songs you’d have to dance to to burn off the calories from various types of food. Brilliant!
I was glad to see so many scientists volunteering their time to put their work and themselves on display, even if they weren’t always the most polished, accessible displays. But the large presence of biotech/pharma at the epicenter of the opening day of the festival was hard to miss and it would have been nice to see more of a balance…where were the academic labs? Of course, academics don’t have as many resources on hand to be educating the public, but the public should get the message that biology isn’t just about making drugs. I hope that next year, we’ll see more university labs strutting their stuff at the Science Carnival.
I’ll be checking out other events throughout the week where university scientists will be participating so I’ll be reporting more.