Science outreach has always been one of my primary interests. I like talking about current research with the general public in a language that they will understand and I like knowing their thoughts and opinions on science and scientists. All of yesterday and the day before, I was a demonstrator at an Edinburgh International Science Festival event talking to people of all ages about my research and general science at the University.
One of the moments when I smiled, realising the importance of what I was doing was this…
A woman walked in with her daughter. Ours was one of the first tables she got to, with a curious body language. I was showing some kids how to use a microscope and helping them look at some biological samples we had. These women waited patiently. I noticed them and said hello. I politely asked if they would mind waiting another two minutes until these kids were done and I would be happy to talk to them. The mother said in a very strong Scottish accent “You take your time. We traveled all the way from Glasgow for this event and a few minutes is no delay at all.”
In a few minutes I was with them. The daughter was shy and didn’t say much at all. The mother was the curious one, looking at all the different samples we had and asking me if I worked with them and how these samples helped our research.
At some point the mother asked if she may digress a little and ask me about DNA. I was very pleased and I said I’d answer as much as I knew about it. She asked me what DNA was, how it was different from a chromosome, what the genetic code was all about and what mutations meant. She asked me if every cell in our body had the same DNA and how each cell looked and did different things if the DNA was the same. She asked me if we could get DNA out of her cells and mine and tell them apart. Her questions were amazing. I admired her curiosity. Her daughter stood next to her. Quiet but attentive. She smiled at me from time to time.
I have to admit that I greatly enjoyed talking to them. I love talking about the DNA, as it is my primary area of interest too. And I love explaining the basic concepts of genetics and inheritance and I always enjoy watching eye getting bigger and smiles getting wider as they marvel at the idea of a single molecule holding all the secrets of life. I ALWAYS enjoy these moments. These are the moments that stuck to me and made me a biologist.
In the end, after a long conversation, the mother said to me (in almost these very words), “I am mostly asking these for my daughter here. She’s shy but very curious.”
I turned to the daughter and asked, “What do you study? How old are you?”
“I’m 15 and I’m home schooled.” she replied.
I smiled and said wow!
The mother continued talking to me…
“Home schooling can be difficult. You can always talk about history and art and politics but science is a challenging subject to teach beyond a point. Having a microscope helps so much. A laboratory makes a world of a difference. Being able to see things and note results and make sense of them is what science is, isn’t it?”
I agreed with her. Having access to laboratories makes such a big difference. Experimentation is what I do for a living and I know how much I enjoy it. I told her about ASCUS, the open laboratories in Edinburgh and encouraged her to pay a visit from time to time.
The mother thanked me for my time. And she explained why these science festivals were such a great idea for kids like hers. And in that moment, I forgot how exhausted I was from two days of talking and demonstrating. I forgot that I had a lot more work left to be done. I was happy to be there. I was happy to have made a difference to someone…