Passion in Science Awards 2019 – Steven Farber

Passion in Science Mentorship and Advocacy Award winner, Steven Farber, describes his not-for-profit organization called BioEYES that uses Zebrafish to educate K-12 students about science.


Okay that takes us on to our last category today, that's, you can see it there, the Scientific Mentorship and Advocacy Award. As you know, New England Biolabs has been a supporter of science and continues to be for its entire history. As part of that, obviously, is a great supporter of scientific education. All the awardees in this category definitely also achieved that. There devoting endless time and energy, and in some cases I hear last night have become more famous for their outside activities in this regard, then they have actually their research activities as they devote this time to actually help generate the next generation of scientists. Our first awardee definitely falls into that category. I've got to keep the slides going. That is Steven Farber. Stephen is actually a researcher out of the Carnegie Institute of Science, which if you're not familiar with is associated with Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland. When he actually met Garfield, who he sat next to, he said, "Oh, I'm another fish guy." That sort of sums up his research. That sort of fish expertise has also gone into his other part of his life, which is the founding of a not-for-profit organization called BioEYES, which is actually use zebra fish or... I was trying to work out whether it was zebra fish or zebra fish in my case, but I'll say both to capture both sides of the Atlantic. He's actually been using that organism to actually excite and educate K-12 students about science. How they should think about science and what scientists actually do. I understand there's now been over 125,000 students worldwide actually involved in the program, which is a phenomenal success. I'd like to invite Steven up to give his presentation. I think we've got to switch slide projectors quickly. I need my computer. Okay. While they're getting set up, I should've actually mentioned that Steven and his wife are also, a little known fact, they're actually Billy Bragg fans. That's true. If you don't know who Billy Bragg is, he's a political singer in the 1980s that I actually saw, I think it was probably in the '90s, at a coal miner's rally. He was actually singing and he's a good storyteller as well. All right. Okay. Yeah. Let's see. All right. Is it coming up? There it is. Okay. Wow. It's really an incredible honor to be here to talk to you about BioEYES and my experience. What I'll do is try to use the time I have to give you a feel for how this all got started and maybe reflect a little bit on the little choices we make, because nobody wakes up in the morning and says, "You know what? I'm going to design a program to reach 100,000 kids." It's a bunch of little choices and maybe my story will inspire you to think that some of the little choices you make could end up in places you never imagined. I'll start out, this was a slide I made when I was a postdoc. I actually postdoc'ed at the Carnegie Institution, learned the fish system and then started my lab in Philadelphia in the Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University. After Andy Fire won the Nobel prize and he went and moved to Stanford there was an opening. I loved being at the Carnegie so much I applied and came back. This was a fish tank at Carnegie and when I started my talks back then, I would always say, "Why fish?" If you think of these little larvae, they are like little Petri dishes, little dishes of bacteria. There are 25 micrograms of protein, each mom will lay 300-500 embryos once a week, they have this little chorion around them, but you can see right through them. You can even take the chorion off if you're careful, with the tweezers, and they'll develop just fine. The key thing is development is insanely rapid. You go from one cell to a beating heart in 2.5 days. Right? They're about seven millimeters and every single cell you could see. Of course, developmental biologists went crazy over this system. Most of the field is thinking about how do I go from one cell to a critter, awesome question. Actually, that's not what my lab does, which is uses them for physiology and biochemistry. We basically use the optical clarity to use fluorescent and optical reporters that change colors to visualize digestive processes in the gut, so we feed glow-in-the-dark lipids. Here's a molecule that is quenched and when a lipase cuts off the acyl chain, it then fluoresces and then we could look at single cell at 63x under a confocal and look at intestinal absorption of fatty acid molecules into these enterocytes. One of my most highly cited papers involves showing that microbiota regulate the absorption of these molecules and really gets us into the whole understanding more about what's going on in our gut. All these features that make the zebra fish awesome in the lab is what makes them amazing in a classroom. Scientists, like me, we are not marine biologists. I say it all the time. We just use the darn fish, and so when the community picked us, and there was a little fight between the medaka and the zebra fish, it had to be really easy to use them in the lab, easy to grow, really robust. All these features have to be in this organism and that's how the community picked the fish to be the vertebrate fish system. How did this whole thing of BioEYES get started? Well, for those of you who have kids, most of us with kids end up in your kid's classroom, right? You truck in your stuff for the day, you show your kid's classroom and teachers, they'll be like, "Wow, this fish thing is cool," and they might ask us to do that again and we might do it a couple times, but it's hard to sustain that. Secondly, there's this thing called the bug lady phenomena. When I was in my son's class, I remember volunteering one time. This woman came in with this wooden chest with all these compartments and it had all these insects in it. The kids go wild looking at the insects. Then, I overheard the teacher comment to someone, "I just kind of lost a day," because the way education is now, it's so focused on curriculum objectives that if you don't align with the objectives, it's not just good so that the kids have fun. These teachers are being evaluated. That's another piece that got in my mind. This whole thing started after they built my lab, and I started in 2000. Somebody was doing a Take Your Child to Work Day and since it...Thomas Jefferson University in Center City, there is a big city hospital. You're not going to have kids roaming around the building all the time, so if you brought your kid to work, it was like an organized activity with a bus that took them around. They walked around, they had lunch and somebody thought, "Well, we'll just bring them to Farber's lab, it's the aquarium." They had just spent all this money to build me a 14-rack fish facility, so they bring the kids in and I had seen... This is another point. I'd seen my mentor, Marnie Halpern, had done some of these show-and-tells for kids, so I knew set up stations. I had stations in the lab, and the kids come in, and they see the development at different stages. They came in the lab, they looked at the fish and then they left. Now, the one thing that happened was, like anything these days including maybe when you deal with anybody on the phone or whatever, you get an evaluation. Somebody did an evaluation at the end and guess who's visited was the most popular visit? It was Farber's lab. This was the letter in 2002 talking about the Take Your Child to Work Day. It was an overwhelming success. The first rule I learned at any major organization is if you do something well, there's only one thing that's going to happen. You're going to be asked to do that thing over, and over, and over again. Then, you'll get expanded on that thing. Next thing you know, I have the Nurse's, After School, YMCA, Bridge Program for Minority Kids coming into my lab. I'm having all these programs coming in the lab. The Dean's Enrichment Program. My lab is starting to complain. They're like, "Steve, this is tough." My wife, who is a social psychologist PhD academic, she was like, "Steve, if Jefferson wants you to do this so much, they should give you some money and a person." She put the seed in my mind. Then, this is where the coconut trip and the wine come in. You never get the grad student out of the PI. I come walking in my building, in jeans, maybe even ripped, and there was this display out with wine and shrimp. Even though it was for the surgeons, when you're a PI you think, "I'm entitled." They weren't there yet, so I go up, I grab the wine, I grab the shrimp, and I turn around, and it's the Dean of Medicine right in my face. All I could say was, "You're the Dean, right?" He goes, "You're Farber. You just got this Pew Award." That helped, because I got selected as a Pew Scholar. I said, "Yeah," and then my wife's comment. He goes, "I sponsored this afterschool program and the kids loved the fish." Then I made my first ask. I just said, "Well, you know, if you could provide me some funds to hire somebody, I think I could do this a lot more effectively." I remember, he was completely unexpecting that. Jefferson was under a lot of financial stress at the time, but the guy said, "Yes." He paused, and this was Tom Nasca, and he said, "Well, look," and this was another thing I learned. He said, "I can't give you a whole salary. I probably could come up with $40k, because you've got to get salary and benefits." $30k? "Go to all the other Deans, do not use my name, and say I have an unnamed Dean who will come up with most of the money, but you've got to come up with some more money." I did that, got the money and fortunately hired Jamie. How did I find Jamie? Most of us, we don't go search the whole space for the most qualified. A student was rotating my lab whose brother was dating this woman who got a masters in science education. I did put out an ad and got two other people. I had the idea to interview her with my son, who was eight. Literally, because I knew that this person needed to be a real teacher. Jamie was an elementary school teacher. The other two people, although qualified, hadn't had that much experience. When Jamie walked in the room, she treated Elias like a little person, like the way teachers do, and engaged with him immediately. When she left and everyone left, I said, "Well, Elias, who do you think we should pick?" He's like, "Jamie, of course. I can't believe, dad, you'd even think about that." This was amazing. It's all because I didn't know how to run a classroom. When I went in my son's class, I had lined all the kids up behind the microscope. They're punching each other and everything. Jamie knew you had to have workstations, and a plan, and all the ways that teachers work. What made this work was recognizing, I might know a lot about science or my little area and I might want to make a difference, but I was never trained in what it takes to run a classroom. That's the first lesson, the humbling lesson, that working together was one of the secret sauce, if you will, of the program. Our mission is to excite kids about science in biology rated fields through hands-on experience. I wanted students, kids, to feel like what I felt when I come in the lab in the morning. I don't want them to read stuff on a book or learn about scientists, I want them to do science, right? That was an underlying thing for me. I have a couple little movies to kind of give you a feel for it, because I think the movies are a lot better than me talking about it. Guess what is my favorite animal to work on? Zebra fish. Exactly. Well, we use them, because we can get so many embryos, we can feed them glow-in-the-dark foods. Believe it or not, we can use fish to figure out what goes on in people. I never would've imagined that a program started in my lab in 2002 would reach 100,000 kids all around the world. Project BioEYES is designed to excite K-12 children about science and about careers in science and give them a feel for what it's like to be a scientist. What were those directions called on how to make a living thing? DNA. DNA, very good. We're reaching 3,000 kids every year in Baltimore city. These kids really don't get the opportunity that children from communities with more resources get. What's another difference between the zebra fish and the humans? That we don't become a larva. That we don't become a larva, that's right. Through BioEYES, kids learn the intellectual concepts. They improve usually on every question by substantial amounts. Make sure you've looked very carefully. You see them? Everybody see them? Know what stage they are? The kids set up the fish to mate them. All right, you've got the female. She's going to go back to Tank A. Collect embryos and then they do observations of those embryos. 47, 48, 49. It culminates where they study the circulatory system and actually see the heart beating. When you plunk some fish on the desk, those kids will focus intensely. They like to watch the animals, observe the animals and care for them. What we've also learned is that these children can imagine themselves as a scientist. I want to be a scientist, because I can make robot parts for old people. You can help people. Did the fish teach you something about science? Yep. Did this make you want to be a scientist? Yep. The key pillars of this effort is it's got to be a teacher professional development effort, because when you change a teacher, you change all the kids that teacher interacts with for their whole life. See, I didn't know that at the beginning. I thought it was about the kids. It took me a couple years to figure out it was actually about the teachers. Cool content and the other thing that makes it really tough and expensive is you've got to co-teach. You can't send a teacher to professional development, expect them to feel confident handling a live animal. Most early childhood education teachers still are mostly female and still the stereotype is they chose that profession precisely because they felt they weren't good in science. That's changed a lot in, obviously, high school, but early childhood educators, that stereotype, that uncomfortableness with science is still largely present. These are the folks that we're sending our kids to learn science from at their earliest ages, so they really need our help. What I say to them, with my heart, is that when they come to teacher training on the weekend, I go, "We are trying in my lab to do new science. It's not on Wikipedia, it's nowhere on the internet, and we want the brightest, smartest, most diverse people. I want them to come to my lab and, before they're in my lab, they're in your class. So, I am so thankful that you are coming to work with us together." That's what I tell my colleagues. We can't just sit back and expect the kids to have a passion for these and to understand science. That's basically the model. This is from our PLOS Biology paper in 2016. We used the scientific method on ourselves, but we did experiments, we've come up with a program where we have a scientist, like me. It's all over the world and its decentralized, but it needs a scientist who's a zebra fish researcher, it needs teachers, it needs school districts and it needs to be always linked to the curriculum for that region of the country, that part of the world. What do they want the kids to learn? In little kids, it's about life cycles and habitats. When you start getting into middle school, it's just perfect for talking about genetics and you ask, what happens if you put a male or female wild type with a male or female mutation in a pigment gene? What are their babies going to look like? We have these really interesting, engaging little lab journals for them to work on through the week that a marketing team helped us with. That's another thing, as a scientist, we have maybe a... I had a negative stereotype about marketing, I'll be honest about that. What I learned there was we found this group that had done a lot of work for the Philadelphia Eagles and we came up with a little bit of money, but they did so much work for free with the storyboards and concepts. I learned a lot about that they were so happy to be doing BioEYES, so early on they helped us create some of these concepts that we built upon. I really got a lot of respect for that and I think that helped in making the materials really useful. Then, I'll tell you some of the topics, right? In middle school, the vocabulary might be male, female, sperm, egg, embryo, DNA, Petri dish, microscope. Well, we're talking about reproduction, right? We are talking about sex. By the way, that's completely age-appropriate. Girls are getting their periods, right? But in some parts of the country, we are so wacky, we cannot talk about this topic, right? The thing about fish, they just swim by each other and there is no mechanical issue to discuss, so then no one gets upset. I purposely showed you a parochial school for that reason, right? We've had Catholic schools. There was one case where the educators didn't tell me, because I would've gotten upset. One Principal didn't want them to use the word sperm, they used special cell. They were okay with egg, they were not okay with sperm, and parents came to the class. Now, they didn't tell me, because I probably would've gone ballistic over that or whatever, but it worked out. Okay? It worked out. It's a bizarre quirky aspect of the United States, I think, and kids, they know. In middle school, they are always applying human stuff. They'll say, "Do the fish have to kiss for the sperm to come out?" They'll start talking about humans. We'll go, "You know what? We're working on fish today, but that's a great question for your parents." That always works out, right? We've been doing this all over. If you think about it, that's what is great about this system. The first experiment they do is who's a male and who's a female? I love always turning the tables on kids, because you'll see in one kid, I have a little clip, they always think the male is the female, because when you look in the tank, that female looks so respectable and the mail looks so wimpy. In fact, we put the tree in there because she'll whack him and you'll come in, he'll be dead, right? The tree is so that the little male can hide from her. The girls will almost always say, "The bigger fish is the male," right? Without saying any lecture or anything, they learn, the female is the bigger fish. She has eggs, right? They also do things like they say, "Oh, my female doesn't like my male, because she's running away." Then you teach about selection. Say, "Well, it's more like chase. What kind of skills do you need to play chase in the playground? You have to be fast, you have to see, you have to do all this. Suppose your male is really sick, right? Are you going to want to waste your eggs for that sick male?" There is a discussion about selection; and again, they don't think that the female is evaluating the male. There's so many fun topics that are organic with the just looking at... Kids all over the world say some of the same things, because these stereotypes are so prevalent. There's a lot of fun with that. The other thing I'll mention is, for those of you that don't know about this story, this is a wild type fish and this is a golden fish. As you can tell, they are the same species and all. It's a different mutant line. A colleague of mine, Keith Chang at Penn State, he set out to clone what's different between golden and wild type. He clones a gene and one of the things we've learned, as most of you here appreciate, is it was really amazing when they sequenced all these genomes and saw how similar the zebra fish genome and the human genomes... In fact, all the genomes actually are much more similar than we imagined, because we always thought humans, we're the big cheese, we're going to have more genes. Once we realized fish had twice as more genes, it wasn't going to be about that. This is just an example of the chromosome structure. You'll see whole syntactic clusters. Anyway, they clone this gene in the golden fish and you go on the internet, instantly comes up, sl24a5. What's that mean? It wasn't really explored before, so this is part of the high school curriculum. We talk about what the central dogma, DNA to protein. From that paper, you can align the sequence of this gene and you notice there's this T here, right? Now, guess what, this was a White dude. What do you all think an African has there? An A. Exactly, an A, which means that White people are mutants, right? The natural color is dark and this single gene turns out to explain the largest fraction of human skin color. It was cloned from that fish, from golden. I think that kids come into the class with a concept of race. This is a social construction, but they leave the class with realizing this gene has been hit so many times independently in evolution to change and adjust pigmentation. It's one amino acid and it only really reflects where your ancestry came in reference to the equator. I think that's a very different concept that most kids had before they do the unit. In a way, we didn't plan it, but what better situation? We can deal with sex, we can deal with race. Then, in this climate where you can't kill things, when I went to high school, my teacher snapped the neck of a frog, jabbed a poker into the nervous system, it was called pithing, and you did this thing on a leg. Somebody's shaking their head. You cannot pith a frog in a classroom anymore, right? With the fish, you can look at them and they can adopt the embryos. We don't talk a lot how they... Well, the kids do face the fact that the parents eat the babies and that's often a big topic of discussion, but it's at least not a mammal, right? A key thing that I think we do as scientists is we published, very early PLOS, when they highlighted us in the community page. It was a huge gift to get a notice in a New York Times article, because that really helps when you're calling up companies like NEB or other places. You say, "Hey, Google, "Steve Farber Zebra Fish," you'll get the New York Times link" it gives you that ability, the legitimacy, so that was a huge help to raise the popularity of the program. Then, we capped off the analyzing, after the 100,000th kid, we published all of our data on it. I'll show you a tiny bit of that, but in Baltimore each year we reach about 3,500, 3,400 kids, 53 teachers in 46 schools. There's sites all over the place in Utah, in Melbourne, Australia. We do do assessments. Kids, we measure what they learn pre and post and there are big differences. This is a sum of all the questions data. I'm not going to take you through the detailed questions. We ask questions like, "Science is interesting." Sometimes, we played around with the question, "Men are better at science than women," on a Likert scale. What's amazing is the little kids are like, "What?" Strongly disagree is one and the little kids will say, "Two." They're really puzzled by that question. As you get to high school, it does move, that people agree with that still more. It just shows those fourth grade kids are so open to everything. In fifth grade, science is interesting has a score of 4.2. These Likert scales are one is strongly disagree, five is strongly agree. Even before we do anything in the classroom, kids are already into science. This idea young kids are not into science is completely wrong. They think science is really cool. Let me give you a little taste of some other just short snippets before I wrap up. My hypothesis was that the female fish would be... The male fish would be bigger than the female fish, because humans the male sometimes is bigger than the female; but the conclusion was females were bigger because they had to lay eggs, so they had a lot of eggs. Last night I was talking to my dad about how they eat their babies. I don't think that's being a good parent, because you just eating your babies. That ain't right! Eating your babies is a big point of discussion, right? That captivates. We bring in other modalities, art and writing. When you ask them to write a little essay from the perspective of the fish, they always talk about, "I was really worried my parents were going to eat me." It's very common. After the embryos were collected, the students began to monitor their growth through a microscope. That growth was then recorded in their lab journals for them to make hypotheses and draw conclusions, much like professional scientists. We had to look under a microscope and look at how fish were growing. I've never been able to look at that before. Today, we were looking at the heartbeat and that looked really cool, because it's like you could see all the blood flowing through them, their veins and all. I never really worked with animals as I did this week. It was kind of interesting to try something new. This program not only explores the excitement of science, but also other aspects, like meticulous data collection and the mistakes that occur. The graphs were to show how your data progress over the week, so we noted how many embryo we had. The first, we had a lot. Our group had 330 embryos and then we accidentally put them on the heating pad. In science, mistakes happen, and so we put them in the container that they're supposed to be on top of and the heating pad. Most of them got overheated and died. You can tell that they're dead, because one the [inaudible 00:29:37] that we had earlier, there's a black side. If you put it on the black side, they look like white little crystal-like things. I show that all the time and scientists are like, "This is our life," right? This is our life. Metaphorically, where most experiments fail. To get teachers to give that freedom and ambiguity to have that happen; now, we don't use the word mistakes per se, but that teacher did. There's a good teacher behind that story, right? Some teachers want to show power points of how to do everything and what the outcome should be. We constantly say, "That is not the point. It's purposely ambiguous." We may know and we've done this enough times that we do sort of know the results, right? But, these kids don't. What that girl and her partner did was we have a heating pad with a little sensor. Everything is real cheap, so it's a little amphibian heating pad with a row of empty tanks. Then you put your embryos on top of the empty tanks so that, as the heating pad turns on and off, the temperature flux is not hitting the embryos hard. These girls thought, "We're going to make our extra special, We'll lift the lid and put it right at the bottom, which put it right up against the heat plate." Of course, these embryos were getting heat shocked every 15 minutes, right? I think what it shows is that's giving them the experience of what it is to be a scientist, that we are effect... That's what we do everyday. If you're not used to failure, you're not used to being a scientist. Here's some of the things the kids say. "You have to be careful with these science tools, because you can make things bad." "Not everything does turn out all the time like you think it's going to and you need to be careful at everything." "You must not be afraid of being wrong. Explore!" That a profound one, right? I get letters. Now, in fairness, because I have to run my lab and it's pretty demanding being a scientist, as you all know, these days. I go to classes once a year to twice a year, just to make sure that educators are saying scientifically correct things. Sometimes you go when you're like, "I don't know about that." I do go and I happened to go this time. "Dear Dr. Farber, Thank you for your time. It was fun learning about zebra fish with you and Krista. I hope you and Krista can come back to Russel Knight some time to visit," that's their school. "I also hope you and Krista can discover lots more. Hope being a scientist is not boring, because I want to be one. Sincerely, Margaret." She's got zebra fish, and microscope, and I love fish, and I guess that's me and Krista and that's a pipette. I should show some more boy letters, but you talk about sexual dimorphism. Oh my gosh, you look at letters from boys and girls. At least, in gender, these days, I haven't looked at when gender differences really arise, but there is some really amazing differences in writing. "Thank you so much very much for one of the best weeks of my life. It was so exciting watching the fish developed during this week. One of my favorite things that we did was use the microscope and using the pipette. I'm so glad that now I have some kind of knowledge of fish and zebra fish like how useful they are to science. You have inspired me to maybe be a scientist when I am older. Thanks again, Elizabeth Doda". I took out one, one of my favorites, is I think it was like, "This is Antonio and I just wanted you to know, this is great and can you have the program for my brother?" It was a totally boy... And the writing is not as good as this. Anyway. I want to end with this letter, because this was back in 2003 with Jamie and I think it points to the challenges we face in public education. "Dear Ms. Sharp. I just wanted to thank you for coming to our class. I think you thought we were the worst class we ever had. All the teachers say that. Thank you for telling us your microscope, Petrie dish, pigment and embryos. No one has ever worked with our class for a whole week and we were happy that someone was you. Sincerely, Junior Scientist, Dasha". You ask yourself, there's so much in that letter about what messages these kids are getting and this is fourth grade. Fourth grade, and we are already worst class. I think it's tough on educators to go into this space, because you have amazing teachers and you have teachers that shouldn't be teaching. The way I look at it, we are not going to solve education with just BioEYES, but there are those diamonds in the rough and we have programs, in every city, we hook up with the public programs, the test in schools, in Baltimore we have Baltimore Polytech which is like Bronx School of Science. It's an amazing school and the kids... That kid that said I want to be a scientist when I grow up, you make sure that those parents get the forms to make sure they applied to the programs that the city has to offer. One thing I'll say that happened to me was, I'm also on the Board for an accelerated gifted program in Baltimore Polytech, and these kids are the best that Baltimore has. Diverse, income diverse, racially diverse. They do research in high school, like at Hopkins or they work at companies. They get recruited from all the best schools. They go to Berkeley, and Oxford, and everything. At the end of the year, they have a symposium, and the kids present their work, like a scientific symposium. I was in the audience, and I'm sitting there, and this one first-generation woman whose parents came from Africa, she was talking about Sudden Infant Death and she was doing a lot of sequencing of the actual genes that link to Sudden Infant Death. She got a full scholarship to Wash U. Someone in the audience said, "Hey, what got you interested in science?" She said, "Well, when I was in fifth grade, this program, BioEYES, came to my class." I was just like sitting there like, "Wow. We've been around enough that this actually happens." Some of my funders were in the audience and I was like, "See?" Some of the foundations. It's hard to do a scientific study to measure that, we actually are trying, but it's definitely something that I'm super proud of. Some of the mentors said, "Hey, Steve, you're not going to get tenure, don't get distracted, everyone will see you not focused. This is a good thing, but you could run into trouble." I got a lot of negative messages, but I also had mentors that didn't say that. Bringing it back around, it was just those little steps. It was the ask of the Dean, it was pushing a little further, and then it just grew, and grew, and grew. I just say to myself, "I just feel lucky that I followed through with this and have this out there for all these kids to enjoy." Just to acknowledge, of course, I wouldn't be able to do it if I wasn't also doing stuff in my lab and had a lot of support for that effort. Jamie, as my then co-creator and partner in this whole effort. She's at University of Pennsylvania as the Director of Community Outreach there. The team in Baltimore is Valerie, Tyrone and Rob. Also, every institution I've been with has been super supportive, from Thomas Jefferson University, to Carnegie Institution, folks at Penn. I'm glad to answer any of your questions and thanks. We're a little bit over time, but the
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