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?
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).