2010 World Science Festival Blog

What if science were like sports?

Christina Agapakis joins us from the ever-inspired Oscillator, her synthetic biology blog at ScienceBlogs. When she’s not reshuffling DNA sequences in her lab at Harvard, she’s usually there making Lady Gaga video spoofs, or something obvious like that.

I’m almost embarrassed for eleven year old me, in my pink leggings, so enthusiastically raising my hand when Mrs. Foster visited our 6th grade class and asked if any of us wanted to be part of the Science Olympiad team. But then I get mad at myself for being embarrassed; first of all pink leggings are adorable, and second of all the chance to participate and compete in science (rather than just absorbing facts from classes and books) from such a young age put me on the path that brought me all the way here–writing to you about how great science is. With Science Olympiad and Science Bowl and the US FIRST Robotics Competition I learned all those things that a less nerdy kid would learn from sports–teamwork, patience and perseverance, the value of practice, hand-eye coordination–along with a healthy passion for science and technology.

In lab we often joke about what it would be like if science were more like sports–getting body-checked on the way to the cold room, PIs drenched in icy gatorade after the publication of a big paper, whispering commentators and polite clapping after a particularly arduous pipetting exercise. What if there were commercials for science as inspiring as commercials for Nike?

or Gatorade?

What if DNA isolation was an Olympic team sport?

All joking aside, what if scientists were admired like MVPs? What if science team was as common a part of childhood as little league? The reports on American education standards in math and science would certainly be less bleak if Nobel winners were treated like sports stars, as they often are in Japan, but it’s more than just having celebrity role models that make kids want to participate, it’s the chance to actually participate in the first place. What if five year olds standing awkwardly in goggles and lab coats and swarming around a miniature lab was as emblematic of suburban American childhood as five year olds with shinguards clumping around a soccer ball?

For a weak swimmer and weaker soccer player, the chance to compete and win medals in balsa wood Tower Building, Chemistry Crime Busters, or Science of Fitness was incredibly empowering, but it was the chance to put what I had learned from my Science Olympiad coaches to use, to see the iterations in design improve tower strength, to catch the imaginary criminals leaving behind DNA, fingerprints, and mysterious white powders, to hear my heartbeat and know what the valves in my heart were doing at each thud that made science come to life. Most people remember needing to memorize the Krebs Cycle in biology class and being bored to tears. When I learned about metabolism in Science Olympiad from a doctor who had volunteered to teach us about the human body I was enthralled. My regular classes became fun because of the connections I could make to Olympiad events that would get us more points in the epic battle against our mortal enemy, Coolidge Middle School. Saturdays in the 8th grade science classroom were a joy, not a punishment.

As students become older and more experienced, participation in science competitions can lead to more than excitement about science education, but also to real technological advances. In the past few years, as a judge or teaching fellow for the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition, an undergraduate competition in synthetic biology, I’ve seen teams of undergrads go from a group of bright kids who get A’s in science classes to elite teams of researchers designing and building complex biological systems with powerful applications in just a few months. Started at MIT, where robotics competitions are as popular and exciting as football games at other colleges, iGEM is a unique program for the life sciences that brings active participation, experimentation, and competition to a topic that most undergrads see only as something to just get through in order to apply for medical school. Not only does iGEM get huge numbers of students around the world fired up about science, many of the projects that come out of iGEM have gone on to be developed further as ‚Äúreal‚Äù technologies. Biosensors to test water quality in Bangladesh, DNA-based vaccines against the bacteria that cause ulcers, and bacterial photography are all projects spearheaded by undergraduates participating in iGEM. All iGEM students, whether their projects are commercializable or just plain cool are participating in the birth of a new field and a new vision of how we can learn about and do science–participatory, accessible, open-source, and hopefully also safe, sustainable, and beneficial to all. Kids can play science just like they can play sports. Some of them might go pro someday, but we all benefit from giving them the opportunity.

Although it’s not quite the Super Bowl, we’ll be announcing the Kavli Laureates ($3 million in prizes for science) live tomorrow morning, complete with ESPN Game Day-style commentary from the likes of Antonio Damasio and Mostafa A. El-Sayed (+ keynote address from Harold Varmus).

Comments

  1. #1 Chris
    June 3, 2010

    Well, I think there is no enough dissemination about goals achieved by science. Maybe starting at the news, media, schools.. more activities related with science should be promoted by governments at different levels, academic institutions, private sector. Nowadays, everything is about information, and we know that we are living with technology everywhere, so let’s take advantage of this advances to get science closer to more people.

    Greetings from Peru..
    Chris

  2. #2 John
    June 4, 2010

    Performance boosters: Before/during competition, would there be blood/urine tests to look for traces of ritalin?

  3. #3 Mekhong Kurt
    June 8, 2010

    A valid point, one I’ve thought about going all the way back to the Mercury 7 astronauts, who were, of course, treated like heroes even *before* they flew. And all astronauts are strong in some sort of science and/or engineering skill(s).

    While scientists as a group are the same as any other group in that not every single one is good at public speaking, and in any case, even those that are may prefer not to do so for a variety of reasons. But there remain some who are excellent scientists, who are excellent speakers, and — importantly — willing to speak about their scientific endeavors.

    One example is the late (and still much missed) Carl Sagan. I’m a lifelong fan of the sciences (though not myself a scientist), but as strongly as I admire scientists, every time I watched Dr. Sagan, my enthusiasm waxed to new levels, recharged by his brilliant presentation.

    Another example is a man of a very different sort, Stephen Hawking. His life story is of course a major draw; here’s a man who “should” have died long ago, who’s confined to a wheelchair, and who has to speak via a speech synthesizer — but who also is one of the most brilliant scientists around. Further, his enthusiasm shows in his writings and presentations aimed at laypeople.

    Perhaps some existing scientific organization or several of them could formally band together to form a Scientists’ Speaking Bureau — and *actively* promote having scientists who sign up give presentations for general audiences, particularly at junior and senior high schools, and to undergraduate students in universities, especially freshmen and sophomores. The idea is to catch them young.

    Such pitches could be made by those deeply embedded in sciences, but in ways many people don’t often, if ever, think about. Bioethics. The history of science. Space law. Space economics.

    Any of these could also urge the formation of clubs for enthusiasts, enthusiasts of all ages, but especially young people. We aren’t producing nearly enough scientists (or engineers or computer scientists or . . .), and these clubs would encourage young people to consider entering a scientific (or engineering or computer science or . . .) careers. They also might encourage adult members to become proactive, not least in the political arena, “political” in the broader sense so that it includes, for instance, speaking directly with not only school boarders but with school administrators and front-line teachers, in support of these fields.

    I know some of this, perhaps all of it, is already being done, but it’s clear there needs to be more of it. It doesn’t *have* to be an expensive undertaking. For example, a planetary astronomer in Hawaii wouldn’t necessarily have to fly to Boston to make a presentation, but could stream it live over the Internet, and have it available as a videocast or audio pod (or both).

    Just my two cents’ worth . . .