NEB Podcast Episode #16 -
Interview with 2019 Passion in Science Awardees: Global STEM Education Programs

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Interviewers: Lydia Morrison, Marketing Communications Writer & Podcast Host, New England Biolabs, Inc., Alicia Bielik, Glycobiology & Proteomics Group Leader, New England Biolabs
Interviewees: Steven Farber, Founder of BioEYES; Mahmoud Bukar Maina, Founder of Science Communication Hub Nigeria; Daniel Heid, Founder of Xenoplex STEM Center

Lydia Morrison: Hello and welcome to the Lessons From Lab and Life podcast. I'm your host, Lydia Morrison, and I hope that our podcast offers you some new perspective. Today our podcast focuses on the importance of STEM outreach programs, in communities around the world. Joining me today is my colleague Alicia Bielik, who's a very active member of the New England BioLabs educational committee. Thanks for helping me out with the podcast today, Alicia.

Alicia Bielik: Thanks for inviting me.

Lydia Morrison: Alicia and I had the opportunity to interview some really inspiring individuals, like Steven Farber from the Carnegie Institute in Baltimore Maryland who founded BioEYES, which is a program that offers students hands on experience, studying the lifecycle of zebra fish.

Alicia Bielik: His program's incredible, and Mahmoud Bukar Maina, who founded the TReND Outreach program and Sci Com Nigeria, both of which help connect scientists to the public and promote local research and science stories.

Lydia Morrison: It's amazing what Mahmoud has accomplished with his programs and lastly, Daniel Heid, who established the Xenoplex Stem Center, in the Black Forest area of Germany. The Xenoplex Stem Center is a resource for high school students that offers mentoring programs for students interested in science.

Thank you all so much for being here today.

Steven Farber: Thank you for inviting me.

Mahmoud: Thank you for having us.

Steven Farber: Thank you.

Lydia Morrison: So we'll start with Steven. Steven, could you tell us about the BioEYES program?

Steven Farber: Sure. BioEYES is an outreach program to excite K through 12 children about science and the experimental method and really gives them a sense for what scientists do every day, using live animals. It's also not just from the kids' perspective, we're training teachers to think and act like scientists. Because if they don't really understand science, it's harder for them to teach science, especially early childhood teachers who teach elementary school level kids.

Lydia Morrison: So your program's specifically designed for elementary school children?

Steven Farber: Their designed for at all levels. We have pre-K, third grade, fifth grade, middle school and high school and I neglected to mention that BioEYES, in every city it's active and when we founded it, is always associated with an active scientist. So my main job of course is running a lab, eight to 12 people, that is interested in Zebrafish biology and specifically lipid metabolism, as a model to study cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes. So that's what I do a lot of the time. But what makes BioEYES special, is it's connected to an outreach effort to train the next generation.

Lydia Morrison: Is it hard to identify scientists in areas around the country or around the world, who want to participate in the program?

Steven Farber: Well surprisingly, it's not that hard. I think the bigger challenge is funding the effort. Because our model, because being a scientist is pretty tough in and of itself, you need an assistant, if you will, or an educator to work with the scientist. Because it's not sustainable to just have a scientist bare all that responsibility. So every city that launches a BioEYES effort has an educator and so there isn't a problem finding Zebrafish researchers that are really into it, they next run into the challenge, "Okay, well how can I get the institutional resources to hire one person?" That's always a mix of some local foundations, maybe some institutional help. But once they have a person, that person works with the scientist, brings the teachers on and helps deliver the content and the classroom and it's using live Zebrafish.

Lydia Morrison: Mahmoud could you tell us a little bit about your program?

Mahmoud: Yeah sure. So I was born and raised in Nigeria and I went through the schooling system and in 2011, I moved to the UK. So going there actually made me see the entire different system, and the support available for science is entirely different. So I started this program in which I target students, teachers, as well as the members of the public and the decision makers and the idea is that, growing up as a young boy, going to school, it was difficult to really find role models and also the teaching in the classroom wasn't as exciting. So that's why I feel like this program is to reach out to students, inspire them. But at the same time, you want to be able to get to the teachers as well. Because you want it to be sustained. So that's why we organize activities with teachers as well, to reinvigorate their passion and their skills for teaching science. But at the same time, the problem with science in Africa is that the public doesn't really support science, because of the high level of misconception, that could religious and cultural and also decision makers, also are not doing that great.

So I mean, it's quite ambitious and quite big. But I thought, as someone who went through that system and saw it done differently, the best way to tackle it or contribute to the problem is to organize this program where we have these things being tackled. I guess, in a way, because we've got a lot of people involved. So for example, we've got over 30 people as part of the outreach program. In Nigeria alone, we have over 20 people, and you know the African continent's gotten lots of people. So close to 80 to 90 I would say.

So what we do basically is, "Okay, as a scientist, if you have more access to students for example, we encourage you why don't you organize your activities tailored to the people you have access to here and if you have access to teachers and access to other audience?" So it's quite flexible in terms of what people do. But particularly what I do is to target these different class of individuals, through different activities: outreach, science festivals and teacher's workshop.

Lydia Morrison: And how many outreach activities does your group do in a year?

Mahmoud: Well I think in the last six years, we probably organize more than, I would say, 40 to 50 and every year, at least in Nigeria, I know that we do have at least six programs. So in other countries, depending obviously, and I agree with what has been mentioned earlier, funding is a big issue. So it all depends on also, the funding available. But at least in a year for the whole program, we do have at least eight or nine in a year.

Lydia Morrison: And do you find that community members become really active participants in it and continue to support it through future years? Or do people participate in one activity and move on?

Mahmoud: Yeah I think in the last few years, I've seen a lot of change, which is quite positive. People are beginning to appreciate it and are becoming supportive, and I hope that this will continue and this is why I think it's really important, when doing these kind of activities, to have people who also belong to a category of individuals, to engage them and especially in Africa this is important because of the high level of misconceptions that could be religious and cultural. So if I'm a Muslim for example, and people see me enhancing science or trying to encourage people to embrace science, people will like to accept that more than if I wasn't. So that trust is also key, and the kind of people then you reach out to is really important. So I think the fact that I am from the community, and I was born and raised there, really had the influence on the success that we're having so far.

Lydia Morrison: That's great. Daniel, could you tell us about the Xenoplex project?

Daniel Heid: Yeah, of course. So that project started a long time ago. When I started to do it, it was in my final high school year and we faced the issue. We wanted to do science. But we were in the Black Forest. In Germany, that's not a scientific area and there was no way to do a scientific project. So I and some colleagues, we decided to setup a club to support these kind of projects and then we need to build up a lab. So in the first step, this was a garage. So we had a garage, but nothing inside. So we need to grow the lab. We need to find some supporters. We were kind of successful. We had students working in there. They got some prizes in national and European competitions and we are fascinated how all the students liked this. They had this opportunity we gave them and it was really great to see how they evolved over the time during this project and so we grew the lab and we moved from the garage to a lab we built ourself in a big industry hall.

This lab was then BSL-1 classified. So we could go genetics, genome editing, genetic engineering and we got a lot of more projects, more students involved and as this was very successful in the context of life sciences, many others engaged in a project and we finally established Xenoplex. That's a super regional STEM center, recently opened in January 2019 and it's a new building and there we cover many more disciplines than just life sciences. There are informatics, mechanics, mathematics, physics. So that's a great opportunity for all science enthusiasts in the Southern Germany.

Lydia Morrison: Yeah it's great. It sounds like you have a really broad offering of educational opportunities there. How many staff members do you have that service that?

Daniel Heid: It's mostly, we don't have that much stuff. So we started as a small initiative, just students and teachers and we're running this life science lab completely based on people working in their free time and for this new building, the Xenoplex, we have teachers working there and we have one person responsible for the administration and supervision of the lab. But that's of course not enough. So in order to expand our activities, we need funding for people working for us.

Lydia Morrison: Yeah. So how many students do you service at that complex?

Daniel Heid: So I service the students in the life science area and during the last years I supervised about 20 projects of one to three students in a project. But my colleagues, some have robotic classes with whole classes. They have biology projects with whole classes. So it's strongly dependent on the project, how many people are involved.

Lydia Morrison: It sounds like a lot of personal attention that someone wouldn't be able to have access to in another scenario.

Daniel Heid: Yeah it's a lot of personal involvement and the great thing is, my first students, from the first years of our project and now, the mentors for the younger students. So we're also shaping mentors for future generations.

Lydia Morrison: That must be so rewarding to see that sort of cycle of growth.

Daniel Heid: That cycle is so great and my co head lab head was my former student and it's really great to run the lab together with them.

Lydia Morrison: That's awesome. So Mahmoud, I wanted to ask you, how does your program help foster interest in science and technology education?

Mahmoud: So basically, because in a way the program tries to connect scientists to students and the public, we have a range of scientists doing research in different disciplines. So it could be neuroscience, engineering and other different disciplines. So by having such broad experts, you are not just enhancing peoples' awareness about say, medical sciences as well as inspiring people to pursue career in that. But you also have others doing in area of engineering, mathematics and also in the science festivals, that we organize, we usually invite schools to select a student and group of students to come up with some ideas to develop something and they send us these ideas and if it is successful, we invite them to the science festival and we invite experts to come and review those things. So often what you get students doing, are in the area of physics, engineering, mathematics, chemistry. So I think the fact that the science festivals also bring members of the public and other students from other schools, it helps in showing them the different things that can be done in STEM and that way helping to, for start that particular discipline or different disciplines.

Lydia Morrison: I think makes a lot of sense. I know when I was in school, before I went to graduate school, I would think as a scientist as someone wearing a lab coat and goggles and working at a bench. But I think there's a lot of different and unique disciplines in science, such as bioinformatics and a lot of mathematics and engineering that can work into science now too. So it's really great to be able to expose the community to the really broad opportunities that the world of science encapsulates.

Mahmoud: Definitely.

Alicia Bielik: So Daniel, I wanted to ask you, you're program's very unique and it's slightly different than just the traditional school model. So do you think that your program offers something that's missing in traditional education, that it's complementary to it, adds to just the traditional schooling in some way?

Daniel Heid: Yeah, definitely. Because in the traditional school system, there is no space for creativity, for own ideas. So there are some projects you can do in school. But it's very limited and when people have ideas, want to make their own things, then it's very important to give them the space to do so and if students are really interested in science, we should give them the space instead of what we're offering. So we give them space to do research on their own ideas.

Alicia Bielik: And do you work with local schools or national schools to find the students or do they find you on their own?

Daniel Heid: Some of them find us on their own and we go to schools, promote what we offer them. We also have lab courses that they can have a first dive into the lab world, get connected to it. If they like it, then they can maybe to another module, like maybe they start with just extracting DNA or PCR based analysis and they want to do something with CRISPR and then they said, "Wow. That's what I want to do and I have an idea and now I want to do my own project."

Alicia Bielik: Yeah. It's excellent. The collaboration with local schools is-

Daniel Hyde: The collaboration is very important and also the collaboration with the teachers.

Alicia Bielik: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Daniel Hyde: Because they identify the talent and they yeah, they need to shape an environment where they can have this access to science or engage them.

Alicia Bielik: And are you primarily working with upper level students? High school level students?

Daniel Hyde: Yeah. I'm primarily working with high school students due to restrictions to genetic projects, by law. But we also have advisors in our STEM center and they work with elementary school, middle school students. So there is a wide variety of scientific offers.

Alicia Bielik: Yeah. That's excellent. Steven, I wanted to ask you, why do you feel it's so important or you think we might already know why. But I'd love to hear a little bit more detail as to why your program and programs like yours, are so important to have available to young scientists. Because I know that you span all the way through the grades from pre-K, kindergarten-

Steven Farber: Right. I always say-

Alicia Bielik: ... Up to high school. But-

Steven Farber: Now it's actually-

Alicia Bielik: ... There really is a large focus in that, in the school age.

Steven Farber: It's pre-K to post-doc

Alicia Bielik: Yep.

Steven Farber: But I think what Daniel and Mahmoud and I are saying is the theme is it's collaboration with teachers. It's engaging at all levels and it's urgent. Because society is increasingly one that requires analytic skills. We don't necessarily want everyone to be a scientist. But we're at a time where people have to understand what makes something more true or less true, without diving right now into the political realities in the United States. There's widely held views that you just believe what you can find on the internet or you listen to people that say things that you like to hear. But what we all do every day is exactly different than that. We might want something to be true. We're go to the lab and it doesn't turn out to be true. So that means, everything that we do and everything in this room, every cell phone, microphone, technology, computers, the internet, was created with a scientific method of experimentation, incremental study. That's what created all of this. So I think it's urgent across the entire globe. We face serious challenges that every child needs to understand how to think analytically and to evaluate reality, which is increasingly technological.

And the second point on this is, in my lab we're trying to tackle really difficult problems. 25% of the world is dying of cardiovascular disease and obesity is hitting every country in a big way. We have kids now, that are developing adult onset diabetes. I mean, their trajectory of healthcare costs is phenomenal. So we have real challenges that are complex and we need a diverse group of people from all walks of life, to want to be interested in a topic and so before they come to my lab. They're in these schools and if they're not being fostered to think about scientific problems, where's the next generation of scientific leaders going to come from to deal with all of these big problems, that the generation before us and this generation is continuing to make. So I feel it's not an exaggeration to say, "There's a sense of urgency."

Alicia Bielik: Yeah. I mean, I couldn't agree more. I think exactly what you're saying is that we need to increase STEM literacy across all ages and it's probably raising both their attitudes and their aptitudes of the students. Correct? You want them to understand that literacy in science and technology and engineering. But also the attitude towards it.

Steven Farber: It's actually at the heart of having an open society, is the ability to challenge and question and to explore. So I do think societies have periods of great growth during a renaissance and we've had periods where the public has burnt the libraries down and we've had periods of the Dark Ages. These cycles of human experience are no joke and that happens sometimes, when scientists become ... One component is they lose touch with where everyday folks are at. So I think we as scientists have to remember that it's like part of our job. We cannot give up. We have to reach every day folks and up their competencies. Because we depend on a functioning society and when societies stop functioning, it's a much bigger problem than doing science or getting the next grant.

Alicia Bielik: Yeah, absolutely. I think we all probably couldn't agree more.

Lydia Morrison: So Mahmoud, you originally started working with TReND in Africa and you've moved onto the project, the Sci Com Nigeria project. What do you think has been key to your program's success over the last couple of years?

Mahmoud: So I still work with TReND in Africa as the outreach coordinator, directing outreach in different countries. But the main reason why, for example I started Sci Com Nigeria is because of enhancing visibility of scientists. But in terms of success, I think like I mentioned earlier, it's really important to be able to engage people, as well as be aware of where they're coming from. So for example, I was born and raised in Africa and I went through the same thing. So it's important to be able to identify with people in some aspects of my project. So for example, like I said, I'm a Muslim and it's important to be able to dispel misconceptions associated with the religion. Even though I do know that there are misconceptions. So I think being part of that has helped a lot. Because it enabled people to connect with others here and also to disregard their long misconceptions around science and I think the second issue has to do with the fact that I work with a lot of different scientists.

So if you are working alone, it's almost impossible to be able to do a lot. But because I kind of worked with scientists, it helped to direct them to do some activities. It means, within a short time, we could achieve a lot. So in Nigeria, for example in a year, like I said earlier, we could have up to eight activities, six activities and the African countries could also have more of that and the more people that do it, the more they reach and yeah, that's why I think as of now, we've been able to reach out at least, 5,000. I mean, personally I've been able to reach out to close to 1,000 people. So I think that has been critical to the success.

Lydia Morrison: That's incredible. So it's really the adoption of the community members and spreading the word and I think you said, the likeness the people can associate themselves with those same community members-

Mahmoud: Yeah.

Lydia Morrison: ... Makes it easier to adopt those visions.

Mahmoud: Absolutely, absolutely. Because people would likely listen, and I agree with what someone from their own community said and that person, if he is a scientist, it means that they would believe him much better than someone coming from elsewhere. But I mean, it depends again here, on the audience. So this applies to the members of public and students. But in terms of policymakers often they don't only want to see someone from the community engaging and saying things about the importance of research. But they also want to hear from other experts outside say, the community for even who they think have the track record of doing research in such areas. So I think it depends on the audience. In terms of policy, you really want people who have a strong track record and often also people that are even not within the community or within the country.

Lydia Morrison: Well it sounds like you're making a big impact and I think that those are problems that are maybe more intensified in Africa. But I think that those are things that we can recognize on a global scale as well.

Mahmoud: Definitely.

Lydia Morrison: Daniel, could you tell us where you see the Xenoplex Institute in five years?

Daniel Heid: Oh that's not an easy question. But I hope we're still able to grow to go deeper into the schools, connect to more students, have a broader coverage of all scientific areas, and I hope we're still manage to keep the talents when they're going from high school to university as mentors. So that we still go along this alumni tradition.

Lydia Morrison: I want to just thank you all for your efforts in STEM outreach and in reaching out particularly, to young children. I actually, I grew up in rural Maine and my parent sent me to a science camp when I was about 10 years old and I think that that probably opened my eyes to really, opportunities that wouldn't have been available to me if I hadn't accepted that early in my life and so I think that the work that you're doing is extremely meaningful and the teachers that you're training to speak to children in different ways and to offer them different opportunities, in the world of science, magnifies all your efforts, 100s fold. So thank you guys so much.

Daniel Heid: Thank you for having us.

Steven Farber: Thank you for having us.

Lydia Morrison: Thanks for listening to this episode of our podcast. I hope that you feel as thankful as I do, for the dedication of Steven, Mahmoud and Daniel, to introducing the broader community around the world, to scientists and scientific research. As always, check out the transcript of this podcast, for lots of links to learn more about these STEM outreach programs. Be sure to tune in next time, when I'll be joined by another 2019 NEB Passion and Science Award winner, Nathan Schoepp, who is bringing antibiotic resistance, to point of care testing.

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About your host:


Lydia Morrison
NEB Marketing Communications Writer

Lydia is a scientist by training and a communicator by nature, and has a knack for asking one too many questions.

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