On a Sunday afternoon in August, Dr. Fan Zhang, post-doctoral fellow in environmental science, and Grace Aquino, a third-year doctoral student in environmental science, assembled an exhibit inside the bustling Jeanes Center of the Mayborn Museum Complex.
Zhang began a presentation on silver nanoparticles that enter the human body via the air we breathe.
Meanwhile, Aquino handed out silver dollar-shaped pieces of white clay to a group of attentive museum visitors. She encouraged participants to press the clay into the bottom of an ordinary kitchen colander to obstruct the colander’s tiny holes as completely as possible. The clay was meant to represent human endothelial cells of the lung, which provide a barrier between the air we take in and our blood.
Aquino instructed her youngest audience members to toss handfuls of uncooked rice—representing ubiquitous silver nanoparticles—into the clay-plugged colander to see how many of the grains passed through. Most did not; but a fair number made their way through or around the barrier and into the imaginary bloodstream.
“The kids loved the model,” Aquino said. “They were throwing the rice. They were loving it. Maybe they didn’t understand the research in the most detailed way, but I think they took away the message that we do have some control over what goes into our bodies.”
This presentation at the Mayborn Museum and a growing list of others like it are part of Portal to the Public. Facilitated by the Pacific Science Center in Seattle and funded by a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, Portal to the Public is a national program that connects researchers and experts in the STEM fields with the surrounding community.
Portal to the Public Network includes more than 50 science centers, museums, zoos, universities and other institutions. As a member, Mayborn Museum is fulfilling significant aspects of its strategic plan formed in 2016.
“Last year, we put together a three-year strategic plan and came up basically with four big ideas,” Mayborn Museum Director Charles Walter said. “One of those big ideas is increasing the quality of the visitor experience. Another is pursuing greater connectedness to Baylor’s students, faculty and staff. As you walk our galleries right now, you might not know you’re in a Baylor museum.”
Portal to the Public at Mayborn Museum provides Baylor’s faculty and researchers with a place to connect with the general public to communicate and demonstrate the real-life, tangible impacts of their research.
“When you write a grant—say, an NSF [National Science Foundation] grant—there are two criteria,” Walter said. “One is intellectual merit. ‘How great is this research?’ The second one is, ‘What are the broader impacts of that work?’ You have to answer this question in a national grant. A lot of researchers would say, ‘Well, we’ll go lecture at schools in classrooms.’ That can be really boring and could actually turn kids off if it’s done in the wrong way. The NSF and these types of organizations love Portal to the Public because it helps researchers be more effective science communicators.”
Nancy Minter is Mayborn’s Portal to the Public coordinator. Among her many responsibilities, Minter conducts a comprehensive, four-hour workshop aimed at helping Baylor scientists devise fresh, engaging ways to present their research clearly and simply for museum guests while incorporating activities and displays that attract visitors of all ages.
“[The workshop] has been held here at the museum, and we’ve also taken it over to the labs in the Baylor Sciences Building,” Minter said. “In inquiry-based informal education, face-to-face interactions, eye contact and effective communication are all important for both the scientist and the visitor.”
“All scientists want to show the value of their work. Communicating with the community is a way to demonstrate that I’m making a contribution,” Zhang said. “I’m obviously very proud of my work, but if no one understands what it is or what it means, I can only be happy or proud by myself.”
Aquino said that while learning to speak to a target audience is helpful, learning to deliver a clear message is of utmost importance.
“You could have the cure for cancer,” Aquino said. “But if you can’t communicate it to the public, what good is it?”
Gavin Saari, a doctoral candidate in environmental science, said the training guided him to ask better questions to help connect his work in the field or laboratory to an audience member’s everyday life—whether the audience member is 5 or 85.
“All scientists want to show the value of their work. Communicating with the community is a way to demonstrate that I'm making a contribution.”
“You only get a finite amount of time to deliver your ‘elevator pitch,’ and I’d say the whole point of Portal to the Public is concision, to help people see why they should care about this subject,” Saari said.
His research looks at pharmaceuticals and personal care products in bodies of water and the potential hazards as aquatic life are exposed to even trace amounts of these products.
“I am looking at a specific heart medication, and I brought two models of the human heart as part of my exhibit,” Saari said. “The kids who were there got to touch this realistic life-size model of a human heart.”
He then asks the children to make a fist and tells them that’s about the size of their hearts. The questions proceed to ‘how many chambers in a reptile or amphibian heart,’ among others.
“Once you have them interested and they’ve made that connection between our research and their lives, then you can keep pressing deeper with additional questions,” Saari said.
In addition to providing a richer experience for visitors to the museum and helping researchers connect with the community, Walter sees Portal to the Public as a means of cultivating a better-informed citizenry and elevating Mayborn’s offerings for Baylor, Waco and Central Texas.
“Portal to the Public helps Mayborn to be a more effective museum, standing ‘toe to toe’ with museums like the Pacific Science Center, doing work in the broader, public understanding of science, technology, mathematics and engineering which is so critical to the future of our country,” Walter said. “The average U.S. citizen spends only 5 percent of their waking life in a classroom. Portal to the Public gives us a chance to reach individuals at any stage of their life.”
>> To learn more about Portal to the Public at Mayborn Museum and to see a schedule of upcoming events, visit baylor.edu/mayborn.