It's important to go to scientific conferences, especially if one teaches and does research in a small liberal arts institution. It can be easy to lose that "spark" of enthusiasm for science, or the ability to network/share experiences with colleagues, otherwise. I try to go to two sets of meetings per year: the West Coast Bacterial Physiologists conference in Asilomar, California in December, and the dual American Society for Microbiology General Meeting and the American Society for Microbiology Conference for Undergraduate Educators in May or June. The latter two conferences are usually back-to-back or overlap for one day.
I have been attending ASMCUE meetings for quite a few years now. I have developed strong friendships and a network of colleagues with whom I can share ideas or gain advice about microbiology education. This year, the ASM-sponsored conferences were both held in Denver, Colorado. It was a lovely time---I had a chance to attend exciting "cutting edge" talks, catch up with old friends and colleagues, make new friends, physically meet with fellow microbiology enthusiasts from Twitter (whom I call "microtweeple" or "microtweeps"), and even visit with former students attending the meetings (which is the big payoff for me, as an educator) or otherwise living near Denver.
During ASMCUE, I was quite excited to attend a wonderful talk on "Citizen Science." This idea---outreach of science to the public, or even how to obtain a bit of funding from the public---is increasingly important, not simply because external funding is difficult to get these days. More important, I think, is the ability to inform the public of what we do in the lab, that it is exciting, and why they should care that we do science in the first place! We often hear that the public doesn't "understand science." This may or may not be true; what is true is that we scientists can and should do something about it. Outreach can be a large part of this strategy, and it is increasingly clear to me that the public is receptive.
Dr. Nicole Garneau, of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, has a fascinating project in which she involves the public: the genetics of taste perception. Dr. Garneau was enthusiastic, energetic, and a superb spokesperson for "citizen science." During her talk, she described the myriad ways in which the public could become involved with science, and the benefits---direct and indirect---of doing so. During her talk, Dr. Garneau briefly mentioned how students could explore the connection between science and art in an educational setting, and showed a familiar image from my own past!
Yes, that is an image of my former student Kayla, who extracted pigments from bacteria and then created paintings using those pigments---joining microbiology and art in an effective and evocative fashion. I took the above photograph myself, and realized Dr, Garneau had found it on my own blog post describing the linkage of art and pedagogy and microbiology!
Surprised and a bit excited, I stood up during the talk, and exclaimed "I know that student!"
Dr. Garneau (whom I had never met) smiled and replied "And I know you, Mark Martin." She then had a few kind words about my blog and that particular post. In fact, I asked Dr. Garneau if she would pose next to that slide after her talk. She did so, charmingly, as you can see:
The point here goes beyond my feeling flattered that anyone, let alone Dr. Garneau, reads this blog. It demonstrates that we are all connected via social media, and often in ways we might not expect. And it underscored Dr. Garneau's larger point, that there are many ways in which science and the public can engage one another in productive and interesting ways.
It was quite a nice feeling for me, to be honest. And I contacted Kayla who was very excited to learn that a small side-project she and I had carried out a couple of years ago still created some buzz outside Tacoma, Washington.
Albert Einstein is reputed to have said "If you cannot explain what you do to your grandmother, you do not understand it yourself." There is much truth to that, regardless if it is an accurate quotation. As scientists, we must "preach" about our science to students and the public. We rely on science in modern society, and increasingly so. One way to help the "outreach" of science to society is by approaches such as those championed by Dr. Garneau and others involved in "citizen science."
I should add that there was an entire (and quite exciting) session on "Citizen Science" at the ASM General Meeting later that week. Dr. Jonathan Eisen of UC Davis co-Chaired an entire session on that topic, which was quite remarkable. He describes it here.
Do give some thought about how to best explain the excitement of your field of research to others---other scientists, students, and the educated layperson. It is an important part of being a scientist, I think. Perhaps one of the most important parts of being a scientist, in fact.