Grad Student Partners With Pixar to Tell Science Stories

A photo of a sign that reads, "Pixar Animation Studios."

Photo credit: Jacob Davies at Flickr Creative Commons.

“So what are you doing at work?”

For a lot of people in STEM fields, that’s not an easy question to answer. That seems insignificant, but it creates distance between people in science and the rest of us—a distance that lowers the ambient scientific awareness of the population at large.

Sara ElShafie, a grad student at UC Berkeley, knew that trouble. Trying to explain her studies in integrative biology to her family was always difficult, and she recognized that she wasn’t able to express the importance she found in her work. Since her goal in life is to become the director of a major science museum, she yearned to be able to communicate better.

That’s what led her, in 2015, to contact the outreach department of Pixar Animation Studios and ask if they could work with her to teach students how to adapt film-making ideas for science communicators.

“I just thought, ‘Why not?’” said ElShafie in an interview with Berkeley News. “Communication skills require training, just like any other skills. Good communication requires good storytelling. Maybe we can learn from professional storytellers.”

Her efforts snared her two volunteers from the studio, and together, they worked up a pilot seminar, and began presenting workshops in March of 2016. Participants in the workshops follow a template that illustrates the links between film-making and science, and emerge with a story outlined about their own research.

Since the first informal workshop, the audience has grown to nearly 200 people per seminar. ElShafie hopes to continue holding it yearly at Berkeley, and has presented it by invitation at UC Santa Barbara and the Western Society of Naturalists.

“It has never been more critical for scientists to be able to explain science to the public effectively, and the backbone of all communication is a story,” said ElShafie, adding that humanizing the tellers of these stories can combat misconceptions about the “agenda” of scientists.

The Early Gap

Wooden train set

A new study shows that the gap between privileged and unprivileged children when it comes to STEM starts even earlier than we thought.
Image: Shutterstock

It’s a statistical fact that fewer women and people of color wind up in careers in STEM fields, those jobs that make up the backbone of economic progress. While the disparity has causes at every level of education, a huge one has been revealed much earlier than expected–before kindergarten.

A study done by researchers at Penn State University involving nearly 8,000 young students indicates that minority children (minority here including girls) entered kindergarten with low levels of general knowledge. And those who start behind stay behind.

These five-year-olds were asked questions like “What do firemen do?” and “What do planes and trains have in common?” Those who could answer them at that age were likely to score much higher on science tests in higher grades than those who couldn’t.

The research found that general knowledge of that kind was a much more accurate signpost of how well a student would do later in life than reading and math scores. The links are not entirely solid, but they suggest that young children who have more questions answered for them at home before school begins will do better all their lives.

With this in mind, it seems that the links to class and gender are obvious. Minority children are more likely to have parents who work, often multiple jobs. Less time with their parents means fewer educational opportunities while very young. And girls are statistically less likely to have childhood questions answered by parents of any gender than their brothers.

General knowledge is a vague metric to measure, which is why Paul Morgan and his fellows used such a large study sampling. But their findings are a good piece of evidence to help us adjust the way we educate every student.

StemBox: Science By Mail

Girls with microscope and magnifying glass outside

Stembox is a new product encouraging young people (especially girls) to get involved with science.
Image: Shutterstock

It’s 2015 and we still have a problem with women in science. For fifty years, the percentage of women standing as full professors in the top fifty Ph.D.-granting institutions has held steady at a mere ten percent. Ten percent. Let that sink in. Fifty years of no progress, a plateau barely ankle-high.

Kina McAllister, until recently a research tech at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA, thought about that–and set out to make a change, as grassroots as you can get. Inspired by subscription services like Netflix and Grazebox, she has brought to life StemBox.

Once a month, StemBox subscribers get a themed science kit designed to build STEM skills and scientific passion in young girls. From dissecting owl pellets (Don’t worry, parents! They’re clean!) and identifying the luckless contents to computer programming games, each month offers a different facet of science to intrigue and expand young minds.

While aimed at inspiring young girls, StemBox kits are not gendered and would be a fantastic gift for any child. And not only children. At a recent demonstration at Seattle-based GeekGirlCon, all ages were thrilled to dig into the simple yet fascinating projects. Separating strawberry DNA into strands you can see and using a lemon to light up a series of LEDs are tantalizing tastes of genetics and applied chemistry.

That’s precisely what StemBox is. It’s a tasting, offering powerful glimpses into as many STEM fields as McAllister could stuff in.

StemBox’s kickstarter earlier this year was a success, and McAllister was able to move into full-time development. Subscriptions and sample boxes are still available, and the first project boxes are due to begin arriving in eager hands in January 2016.

Harvard Chemists Levitate Cancer Cells

Scientist doing lab work

Harvard chemists are developing a way to levitate cancer cells.
Image: Shutterstock

Researchers at Harvard recently discovered a way to levitate single cancer cells with magnets. Aside from just being cool, the levitation process allows scientists to differentiate between different kinds of cancer cells, which makes the diagnosis of many different diseases easier.

The researchers are associated with the George Whitesides Research Group. George Whitesides is the current Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor, a professorship supported by a fund set up by J. Christopher Flowers in honor of his parents in 2006.

The study involved using magnets to levitate individual cells—a method that’s been used before, but never to levitate something so small (previous subjects include frogs and strawberries). The cells are first soaked in a magnetic solution, then put between two magnets. Based on the density of the cells, they levitate higher or lower than the cells around them, making it easier to determine the nature of each individual cell.

This study looked specifically at cancer cells, namely lung cancer, breast cancer, and others.

In addition to the levitation process, researchers were able to see single cells die, noting how their density changed in the process. This could be a new way for scientists to determine how individual cells react to different situations—a great way to test new drugs and to diagnose different diseases.

While the study is a breakthrough, it also brings to light some weaknesses with the method. For one thing, it’s difficult to determine if the magnetic solution affects the density of the cells. It’s also possible that the process of putting the cells between two magnets changes certain properties, which affects the validity of the results.

Still, if the technique can be refined and put into general practice, it could make it easier to process multiple cells at once, giving scientists a quicker, more efficient way to diagnose diseases.

“The nice thing about mag lev is it’s pretty simple to do,” said Whitesides in an interview with New Scientist. “Now what has to be done is the hard work that comes with any new analytical method.”