Education and outreach
An exciting new outreach program is burgeoning at the Michael Smith Laboratories (MSL) and set to launch into the public sphere spring 2023. Spearheaded by Dr. Anna Blakney, a social media outreach maven in her own right, a team of graduate students and faculty members spent several weeks in the fall of 2022 designing interactive activities based on their own scientific research. The MSL Reaches Out program aims to deliver their uniquely crafted curriculum to high schools throughout the Lower Mainland beginning early this year. During the workshop, students from five different labs across the MSL and the School for Biomedical Engineering (SBME) gathered for sequential brainstorming sessions, distilling each of their ideas down to a science activity that translates a foundational aspect of their research to a lay audience. From neurobiology, to biophysics to stem cell engineering, the topics explored were varied and complex, ripe with inspiration for engaging learning opportunities.
RNA vaccine technology expert and pivotal member of the “RNAissance” emerging amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Blakney is passionate about scientific knowledge translation. With a TikTok following of over 270,000, Blakney is keenly aware of the positive impact science communication can have on society. Having participated in a similar program as a postdoctoral student at Imperial College London, Blakney is eager to pay it forward to the UBC student community by building her own outreach program here at the MSL. Not only do programs like this teach scientists how to communicate their research to non-experts, but they serve to educate and inspire the next generation of potential scientists.
“MSL Reaches Out is a great tool for communicating all the fascinating science that happens in our research groups. Activity-based outreach is mutually beneficial – the community learns more about our work and hopefully we inspire some budding scientists. It also allows our researchers to hone their science communications skills. It’s a true win-win,” Blakney explains.
Seasoned MSL faculty members Drs. Freda Miller and David Ng lend respective expertise in STEM outreach and education design to the program. Dr. Freda Miller, Deputy Director of the MSL, brings 20 plus years of knowledge as a senior scientist with a passion for diversity, equity and inclusion to the program. A Professor of Teaching and founder of the MSL’s outreach arm, the Advanced Molecular Biology Laboratory (AMBL), Associate Director Dr. Dave Ng lends his educational and outreach expertise to the workshop process. Working closely with students during the ideation sessions, the mentorship of these experienced faculty members helps bring the students’ visions to life.
“Our emphasis is on designing a fun, educational activity that accurately reflects the student’s own research project. This is challenging to do, especially in just 6 weeks. By getting several interdisciplinary scientists in a room together to brainstorm they come up with really fun and creative ideas,” reflects Blakney.
The initial results of the workshop sessions are promising. Building a brain from scratch and then drop-testing it, creating a Rube Goldberg machine to mimic stem cell differentiation, navigating a whodunnit-like mystery to deduce out which protein spectra you’ve got…the creative possibilities are endless. And with the heavy lifting done, having whittled these scientific concepts down to bite-sized fun for all ages, everyone involved is looking forward to rolling out the activities with the public.
“We’re looking forward to connecting with our community and hopefully helping to inspire the next generation of scientists,” says Blakney.
Facilitators and students eagerly await the final challenge of rolling out their activities within schools across the Lower Mainland. The true learning in any scientific experiment lies in the validation of the hypothesis, and this will be theirs. The program will run within both elementary and high schools kicking off in April 2023. The successes and challenges throughout the process will serve both the scientists and public participants as they learn from each other, refining what effective science communication looks like in real time. This is a particularly valuable lesson for young scientists beginning their careers. We applaud their efforts and that of their mentors, which will help to shape the next generation of impactful scientists.
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