Science Says: UC Davis Grad Students Promote Science Communication

Science Says' Science Idol event

Darren Peck, a morning weather anchor for FOX40, announces the winners for the second Sacramento Science Idol held in January. Bobby Castagna

by Greg Watry

On a Wednesday evening, the Streets Pub and Grub in midtown Sacramento was packed. Though, it was oddly quiet for a busy night. The crowd’s attention was focused on Eric Walters, a microbiology Ph.D. student studying the parasite Giardia.

“Though over a billion people are infected by [Giardia] every year and suffer from diarrhea and malnutrition, not a lot of people study it,” Walters said, standing in front of a screen which usually plays sports games. “The papers that do get published on it end up in journals with names like ‘Neglected Tropical Diseases.’ Why does nobody care?” 

Walters’ goal that night was to make his audience care.

Welcome to Sacramento Science Idol, an outreach event organized by science communicators, including UC Davis graduate students and alumni. Each of the 10 presenters had three minutes to present science research in a succinct manner digestible to the public. The event was hosted by the Powerhouse Science Center, Capital Science Communicators and Science Says, a student-run organization focused on cultivating science communication in the UC Davis community.      

“We founded Science Idol as a way for young scientists to actually talk about science to the public in a local bar,” said Don Gibson, the event’s host and an integrative genetics and genomics Ph.D. student. “We want to use the public venue as an accessible way to teach science to the community.” 

Pub science

The night’s topics ranged from why plants have certain flavors and the puzzle of autism to scientific literacy and public policy. Though it was a competition, the vibe was friendly and inviting. 

Walters explained his lab uses Giardia as a model organism, a small, less complex organism that follows the same rules of life as humans. “We can look at these tiny parasites and when we see how they grow and how their cells divide, we learn a lot about how we work,” he said to the audience.   

Walters’ research focuses on microtubules, which give Giardia cells their structure. When Giardia infects a host, its microtubules rearrange to form a suction cup-shaped dome. Giardia uses this disc-like structure to latch onto a host’s intestines, allowing it to stick around and sicken the host.

“It’s using microtubules in a way we haven’t seen anywhere else,” Walters said. “When we study this one weird structure in this one weird organism, we’re learning new things that can have ramifications in everything we know about how life works.” 

Science for all

Sacramento Science Idol is part of a larger speaking series cohosted by Science Says called Sac Science Distilled. Organized with a café scientifique sensibility in mind, the events are designed as an informal way for real scientists to meet and talk with the general public. Previous talk topics have included geology, HIV research and parasites.

“Scientific curiosity is so common for kids, through school and informal education like museums, summer camp, reading and hobbies. The lucky few adults who maintain that curiosity often go into the sciences, but for most everyone else it seems to get squelched at some point by boring classes or a refocusing of interests,” said Nicole Soltis, Science Says’ president and a plant sciences Ph.D. student. “The public funds most research in science, so it’s important that the public be enthusiastic, informed and have some literacy in science.”

Founded in 2015 by Distinguished Professor Pamela Ronald, Plant Pathology and the Genome Center, Science Says started as a project funded by the UC Davis Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy and was intended as a way to combat misinformation in food science. Since then, it’s grown into a campus-wide student group. Today, approximately 30 graduate students are members, and the group is involved in a number of projects, including blogs, a book club, videos and public events.

“I hope that Science Says can become a hub of science communication efforts for early-career scientists at UC Davis,” Soltis said. “There are many groups that work in this area and each has unique resources and skill sets. I'd love to see Science Says help to make connections between these groups, so that students find it easier to engage in outreach, whether joining an existing project or finding support for a new idea.”    

Upcoming Science Says events include “Tiny Solutions to Big Problems in Human Medicine” and the “Science Says: Carnival” scheduled to coincide with UC Davis Picnic Day.  

For updates on Science Says events, you can follow the student group on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. You can also find them online at www.davissciencesays.com