Structural Biology goes to the Science Museum

April 3, 2019 at 11:11 am
By Lauren Goboff

Pool noodles, pom-poms, and plastic toy animals — these might not be the supplies you would imagine for a college science class. In Professor Rou-Jia Sung’s Structural Biology Seminar, however, it’s all par for the course. For the past two years, Rou-Jia has incorporated an Academic Civic Engagement component to her curriculum. Students are tasked with creating an interactive project to take to the Science Museum of Minnesota, and the results are as fascinating as they are fun!

From the time she was an undergraduate, Rou-Jia has been interested in the unseen structures of proteins and how they can affect functioning on a larger scale. “I like to use the metaphor of a car,” Rou-Jia explains. “If we take off the car’s coverings, it is still a car, but now we have a more complex understanding of it. When we understand its parts, we can figure out how to fix it, how to customize it, how to soup it up. Understanding how it connects helps us understand how it works.” The aim of the Structural Biology Seminar is to give students this ability to look at molecular structures and understand more about their functions.

But that’s not where Rou-Jia's goal for the course ends. In addition to increasing her student’s academic knowledge, Rou-Jia wanted to bring this scientific material out of the college environment and to a wider population. “Being able to communicate and engage with each other is something we all need. I think it is more important than ever to get out of your own bubble and to extend beyond it.” That’s where the idea for a partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota came from.

Students were challenged to take some of the complex concepts they spent their term grappling with and find a way to communicate these ideas to a general public audience. The projects had to be both entertaining and adaptable in order to cater to a wide array of museum goers. “Since our audiences ranged in age, from preschoolers to middle schoolers, we had to simplify and adjust our vocabulary and the length of our activity to improve their understanding and maintain their engagement,” Jessica Makori ’19 remembers. “Through this experience, I improved my ability to communicate science to a variety of people and in a fun way that makes it more accessible.”

Using highlighter marks, water, mason jars, and jellyfish cut-outs, Jessica and her partner Saki Amagai ’18 explored how green fluorescent protein makes jellyfish fluoresce, or glow, and how it is used in research. Another project used blocks and tubing to examine how the shape of hemoglobin can block blood vessels in disease, and yet another looked at how structure can allow cells to be “picky” about what is let inside. What all the projects had in common was their ability to excite young museum goers about STEM topics and relay information that may otherwise be inaccessible to people outside of the scientific community.

The CCCE wants to extend our sincerest gratitude to our colleagues in the office of the Dean of the College for their persistent support of dynamic, public-facing coursework like this.