What do toothpaste, fertilizer, volcanoes and tea have in common?

Thursday, November 12, 2020

They all contain fluoride!

This and other fun science facts were revealed to over 80 young science enthusiasts Monday as Yale trainees opened a virtual door to the research labs at the University’s West Campus.

From schools across New Haven, West Haven, Orange, Milford, Stratford and beyond, school children from 6th to 12th grade logged on for the evening of “cool” science presented by Yale graduate students and research scientists.

“We came up with the event to open young minds to what scientific research can look like and show them what’s taking place at West Campus,” said Jennifer Troiano, one of the graduate students organizing the event.

Alongside fellow graduate student Josie Jacob-Dolan and research scientist Dave Hiller, this year the group set to exercising their creativity to supplement the West Campus Science Festival – an annual partnership event through Yale’s Pathways to Science program – with a virtual offering.

As online lab tours and demos got underway, any concerns about “Zoom fatigue” soon disappeared under an avalanche of excited middle and high-school chat.  

With a welcome to campus dispensed with, participants followed graduate students Jacob Spies and Uriel Tayvah through the corridors of the Energy Sciences Institute to a demonstration of colored molecules excited with a laser spectrometer – improvised with flashlight and CD to show the dispersion of color for the try-it-at-home audience.

The colorful light show continued at the Cancer Biology Institute with grad student Isabelle Trier using fluorescence microscopy to take pictures of mitosis – the process of cell division responsible for the important business of reproducing our genetic codes.

Next stop, the West Campus growth chamber with Chemical Biology Institute scientists Lori Tausta and Alysha Auslender, who explained how plants tolerate fluoride – for the most part a good thing in small doses - through a protein that transports the common mineral from the inside to the outside of plant cells.

The science speed tour over, the Zoom chat returned to maximum with endless questions, clapping hand emojis, and repeated calls for an encore, something that Jacob-Dolan is determined to make happen.

“We want to encourage school students who might not feel like they belong in science,” she said. “By making the science approachable, and showing how broad our work can be, we hope they are encouraged and inspired to think about science in future”.

The benefits of the outreach events are felt in many different ways.

“As valuable as we hope these events are to the broader community, they are also a great opportunity for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at Yale,” says Troiano. 

“Communication is key in translating science to the public and these events help us hone our skills. We want our science to be understandable to middle and high schoolers.”

Paradoxically, with the Coronavirus pandemic curtailing this year’s West Campus Science Festival, the student organizers are taking advantage of the new virtual world to provide even deeper access to Yale’s bench lab space.

“We were excited to be able to give students an insider’s look at these typically off-limits spaces. Hopefully we can keep it going and inspire young people to pursue their scientific interests by getting to know us here on West Campus.”

For more information about West Campus science outreach, contact jennifer.troiano@yale.edu. You can learn more about Yale’s West Campus here.

By Jon Atherton