Directing science outreach and education before and after COVID-19

Screenshot of Erika Reinfeld (virtually) introducing the Koch Institute image gallery awards, shown behind her.
Screenshot of Erika Reinfeld (virtually) introducing the Koch Institute image gallery awards, shown behind her.

Many of us are committed to outreach and educating the public about science, but what is it like to do this as a full-time job? We spoke with Erika Reinfeld at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) about her position at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and how it changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

First, could you tell us your position and your responsibilities?

ER: I am the Outreach and Communications Manager at the Koch Institute, which means that I oversee our outreach programs and contribute to our communications portfolio, which includes our website and our newsletter. In terms of outreach, that has three components. It’s the youth outreach, so the school field trips and K-12 programming that we run, and researcher volunteers working with youth audiences. It’s our public galleries, which is one of the ways that the Koch Institute shares research projects and ideas with the public (when they can actually come through the space). And it is public events, which comprises evening lecture series about current research and collaborations and also the annual family community Cambridge Science Festival. Basically, anything that involves telling stories about our research to the general public—that’s me.

How did you arrive at this role, and how do you compare what you do versus a classroom educator?

ER: So I’m not a biologist. My background is astronomy and theater. I worked for about a decade at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics doing exhibits. I worked on a lot of traveling astronomy exhibits, after school programs for kids, teacher professional development—what’s called informal science, education that isn’t in a school classroom. Then I ended up deciding that I loved the museum world so much that I got a master’s degree in museum education and visitor studies. While I was doing that, I transferred to the MIT Museum, to work in the education and public programs department. After a few years of that, the position at the Koch Institute opened up, and I’m going to fully admit that it was the galleries that drew me in. But I also was excited about the school field trips, because I like working with K-12 groups.

I think informal science education has always been a supplement and an alternative to traditional classroom schooling. It’s a way to have a science experience or an art experience. Whatever informal education experience you’re having, that’s different from school, it puts you in a different setting. It introduces you to different people, different approaches. So I think, as educators and as outreach people, we’re thinking about what we offer that schools don’t, and what we can offer to support schools, and also to provide a different perspective. You know, in the museum field, we talk about how kids listen to museum educators in a way that they don’t listen to their teachers. It’s the same thing. My own kids listen to their teachers in school in a different way than they listen to me as their parent. So providing multiple modes of learning, I think that’s something that outreach programs offer. I’ve never been a classroom teacher. And because I’ve never been bound by a classroom curriculum and standards, I have a little more freedom to do those things, to come at science or student learning in different ways.

Can you describe what your job looked like before the pandemic and what it looks like now?

ER: Normally what happens for school groups or camp groups, people will reach out and say hey, I’ve got a group of students, we’d like to take a field trip, can you book it for whatever day. And I will figure out what they want because our workshops are a combination of hands-on activities, science presentations, and tours, whether that’s of the galleries or of a lab. And we build a 90-minute program with whichever components the teachers are interested in. I will recruit volunteers to give a tour or give a presentation. For older or high school groups, we will do a career panel, where people from different labs will talk about their experience getting to where they are now. It’s very modular, and we basically pick the LEGOs and put them together into the program that people want. And then we were busy getting ready for the Cambridge Science Festival in April 2020. We were also looking ahead to the 10th anniversary of our building in 2021, where we were going to have a lot of special events in the building and an open house as part of the Cambridge Science Festival.

So how did my role change when the department or really the whole campus transitioned to virtual events? Like I said, we were just getting ready for spring and summer, which tends to be our busy field trips season. It’s when schools go on field trips. It’s when summer camps bring their kids to programs. It’s when tour companies start running tours to Boston (nobody comes to Boston in the winter if they don’t have to). So we had a lot of things lined up, and basically it was just a giant pause button. We were on the verge of opening our new Image Awards exhibition. I think that was scheduled for March 17, 2020.

So you had the image gallery all set up? And then everything went virtual?

ER: It was kind of a creeping. I had a group from China cancel in January, saying we’re just going to be safe, we’re not going to come over. And then slowly, some of the groups from Japan started to cancel, but only through this certain date. And they thought maybe they’d come after this date. And so it trickled like that, and MIT gradually reduced the size of events that they were allowing. So for the Image Awards opening I sent a lot of emails to the presenters and the PIs saying, it’s still happening. Then, we’re going to do it in a more private way. Followed by, we’re going to do the presentations, we’re just going to film them. And then it came down that I was not going to be allowed to run the event at all. So we ended up doing a virtual event in September, because people were still really excited to share their images.

In a broader sense, what is your role like now in terms of managing outreach?

ER: The tours and hands-on activities are absolutely paused, and they’ll be on pause until MIT allows groups and K-12 students to be on campus again. But last summer and a little bit in the fall and the spring, we’ve been running a few virtual programs. We haven’t been doing hands-on activities but we have been doing research presentations and career panels.

And outside of K-12, we had kind of assumed we wouldn’t be able to do anything because we couldn’t have events. And then we started getting a lot of questions about well, what’s the Koch Institute doing? What’s MIT doing around COVID? So we organized our first webinar in May of last year, for the labs that were open at this bare-bones capacity working on COVID projects, to talk about what they were doing. And that went really well. We had four labs in that. So we did another one in June. And then we said, okay, this is working, we can do webinars, and we can reach a lot more people than we could with an in-person event. And so we ended up rescheduling our April public lecture for November, we did the Image Awards in September, and then we’ve planned an anniversary virtual season and virtual and video lab tours for the Cambridge Science Festival. But it took a lot of time to figure out how to transition to those virtual settings.

Chemical engineering graduate student Stephanie Gaglione taking attendees on a virtual tour of Michael Birnbaum’s lab.

How effective are these virtual events? How well do they meet your goals?

ER: I think they’re pretty good. You absolutely don’t have the hands-on component anymore, which is a big loss. And I think there are some programs that have figured out a way to ship materials to groups. Then you also lose something by not physically being in the space. A lot of people come to the programs to be at MIT. Our goals are to teach people about cancer research and how MIT is involved in cancer research and to give kids real interactions with scientists. And I think in that sense, it has been quite successful because kids are getting to talk with the scientists. They’re getting to see people that they wouldn’t meet normally. Then in terms of public events, as I said, we can reach more people because we’re not limited to the people who can travel to us, which is a really nice component of the virtual. And one of the things I’ve discovered in lab tours is when it’s just the researcher and their device, we can take them to places that we can’t bring groups in person. We can go into the tissue culture room and we’ll show people what that looks like. So there are some ways we can increase access.

I’m curious if you see your role changing to incorporate research into COVID and understanding of the pandemic?

ER: Obviously our outreach program is focused on cancer and cancer research. But you can’t do outreach unless you connect with where the people are now. And I definitely saw that in our approach in our virtual programs, where people would have questions about viruses or how the immune system works, and drug development.

I think conversations around COVID do a great job of getting the audience invested in science. They’ve seen it, it’s something that’s affecting them right now. Although, you know, you certainly have that for cancer. Most people coming to our programs know someone who has been treated for cancer or has survived cancer or not survived cancer. So it is a connection point. And I think COVID was another connection point for people. And it was also a really important gateway to what I call the “scientists are people too” threads. You know, I encourage researcher volunteers to talk about who you are, why you’re doing this, what you’re interested in, things you do that aren’t science, stuff like that. As much as it’s great to see people in the lab, there’s also something really nice about talking to a researcher who’s sitting in their kitchen, and their cat walks across the keyboard and throws random characters into the chat. Something that a lot of teachers say when they request field trips is, “I want my kids to be able to visualize themselves as scientists.” And I do think COVID was an equalizing force, where we’re all sitting at home having this conversation together.

But I also think the pandemic really did highlight a lot of the inequities in our society, on a few levels like how we think of the workforce, but particularly in K-12 education. I think access to opportunity is a huge challenge. And we knew that but it really, really comes into focus when you see people who can’t take field trips having a virtual experience or searching for the technology to reach more places. The other things that really came into focus over the last year were diversity and science education. And that was partly through the pandemic and partly through other current events. And I had a lot of volunteers, a lot of researchers come to me and say, what opportunities are there to work with BIPOC students and underrepresented minorities and, we in the K-12 group did a lot of thinking about that, and the answer was, there are a lot of opportunities, but you have to be willing to put in the time and sustain long-term engagement with the kids and the relationships that you’re developing. You or I can’t just come in, do your activity, and then pop back over to the status quo.

Wow, so it sounds like in some ways, there was an equalizing force, by virtue of everything being virtual. But in other ways, there were exacerbations of inequities.

ER: Yeah, it was absolutely a double-edged sword. Or two sides of the same coin? And I think that’s a really important thing to talk about when you’re talking about what we’ve learned and what people are going to do differently or do the same as we move back into more in-person experiences.

If you had unlimited resources, what event would you organize at the Koch Institute?

ER: Three things: First, an open house, where people from all over the building from every lab get to create an interactive demonstration about the research they’re working on. Second, shipping materials for some super cool hands-on activity, getting that out to kids who don’t have lab access, who don’t have resources in their school. And giving them some face time with scientists to carry out their experiment or build their model or whatever it is. So, those aren’t very detailed plans. Third, my personal dream is to do an imagery exhibit, from microscopes to telescopes and looking at everything in between, or maybe just those two juxtaposed. I mean, I have more experience with the two juxtaposed but it seems rude to leave the earth out of things. It is where we live, after all.

About the Author:

Tim Fessenden is a postdoctoral fellow studying immune cell motility and tumor immunology in Stefani Spranger’s lab at MIT. In his free time Tim coproduces the podcast GLiMPSE, along with two other postdocs at MIT ( Twitter: @timisstuck Email: