Forget the Super Bowl. If you want to draw a HUGE crowd, throw a science and engineering open house in the Washington, DC, convention center. But get ready to stand back. This weekend, the USA Science & Engineering Festival attracted over 325,000 fans. Yes, you read that correctly—325,000 kids and adults turning out for a science event. Inside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, they loaded up on gumdrop molecules or paper mutant Drosophilae. They wore Eppendorf tubes of precipitated DNA around their necks or carried plastic condiment cups filled with soil and germinating seeds. Some had "infection" stickers on their shirts, part of a Virus Tracker game to illustrate disease transmission. Fortunately for the massive crowd the event had more than 3,000 science, engineering, technology and math (STEM) activities inside the cavernous center waiting to soak up their attention.
In the midst of all this, the ASCB's booth of interactive exhibits did brisk business, although nothing on the scale of the Planetary Society's, which was stationed right across the aisle. Whenever the Society's CEO, Bill Nye, the Science Guy appeared, he was mobbed by fans. But ASCB had its own attractions. The booth featured a sleek lineup of four CellScopes, iPad-mounted high-resolution microscopes, created by ASCB member Dan Fletcher's lab at University of California, Berkeley. Twelve scientists volunteered to leave their labs for a day and help the public see for themselves the wonder and beauty of unicellular protozoa as well a few other microscopic critters, on the CellScope's large and crisp screen. Uniformed in ASCB "Feelin' the cell love" t-shirts, the volunteers reluctantly embraced their scientist-titles with "Dr. First Name" nametags to show the attendees the diverse faces of biomedical research. (For the record, the "Dr. First Names" included ASCB members Laura Diaz-Martinez, Pinar Gurel, Bruno da Rocha-Azevedo, Andrew Flannery, Jordan Beach, Ernest Heimsath, and Ryan John Petrie).
"Can you see anything in here?" Laura Diaz-Martinez, member of the ASCB Committee for Postdocs and Students, asked kids as she held up a demonstration slide packed with euglena. "No!" the kids yelled before "Dr. Laura" put the tube on the stage. "Now you can see what's in the tube," she explained as flagellates zoomed across the iPad screen. The kids were enthralled, excitedly touching the screen to magnify the microorganisms. Diaz-Martinez swapped out the samples to show them Stentor, paramecium, hydra, and rotifers.
Other ASCB volunteers showed attendees how to use the CellScopes, pointing out how the flagella "tails" allow the euglena to swim or how the hair-like cilia on Stentor are used to swim and eat. They gently explained how Hydra uses its "harpoons" to catch food.
The only thing that outnumbered the crowd were the questions. "What happens if I eat them?" "Are these like the ones in my body?" "Where do they live?" the kids asked.
Hands down, the number one question was, "Where can I get an iPad microscope?"