Watching the dinosaurs while ignoring the elephant in the room {13}

Last week, I skipped my own my cell and molecular biology class to attend the Undergraduate Science Education Program Directors and Professors Biannual Meeting of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The meeting was held at the HHMI headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland, which is amazingly posh. I wanted to snag a few photos, but I am a newbie in this group and didn’t want to embarrass myself by acting like a tourist.

I realize that many of my students have not yet attended a scientific meeting, and while this meeting was a bit atypical – the focus was on science education rather than an area of scientific research – it might be valuable to share some of my perspective from this meeting. Also, it might assuage some of my guilt for skipping my own class. (How’d it go guys? Were you OK without me?) So here’s a recap of day 1:

On the opening night, typical of many scientific meetings, we had a social hour (read: beer and wine), a big dinner (read: more wine and ice cream), then our first presentation from 7 – 9 PM. These evening sessions are always a challenge for me. At meetings, I try to counteract the eating and drinking with some serious exercise, and that morning, I set out for an 8-turned-12-mile-run where I got very lost. Consequently, I was dragging as I entered the auditorium and said a little prayer that I wouldn’t embarrass myself by falling asleep, or if I did, that at least I wouldn’t snore.

I hadn’t looked at the meeting program very carefully, so when I walked into the auditorium,  I was surprised to see that the title of the evening session was “Science Education through Film”. Film? Not the usual meeting fare, even for an education meeting. I like movies. This session might not be half bad.

And it wasn’t. The session was quite good indeed, and just like some of my favorite movies (e.g. The Usual Suspects), the real plot twist came at the very end, and jolted me right of out of that comfortably numb state of being passively entertained for a half hour or more. The movie, The Day the Mesozoic Died, was a compelling documentary about the key discoveries that led to contemporary understanding that dinosaurs really did go extinct rather abruptly due to a cataclysmic collision of an asteroid with Earth. The movie was produced and narrated by Dr. Sean Carroll, a notable evolutionary biologist and science writer and Vice President for Undergraduate Education at HHMI. Carroll was clearly proud of his work. The target audience is K-12 classes, with an obvious intention to combat creationist momentum, but also to hopefully inspire future generations to become scientists with a compelling story of scientific discovery. I felt Carroll had done a good job, but then the film ended, and as the lights were raised, the plot took an unexpected twist.

Even before Carroll asked if there were any questions, a hand near me shot up. The man who spoke had been noticeably agitated through much of the film. Was he too an evolutionary biologist or maybe a paleontologist? Was he itching to posture that the world was 67 not 66 million years old?

“Why did you exhaust 30 minutes of footage featuring the work of 27 white male scientists without acknowledging the work of a single female or minority?”

I was dumbstruck. Me -who has published on strategies for teaching science for gender equity. Me – winner of the 2007 Diversity Award. Of the 2011 Inclusion and Access Award. I was enjoying this movie so much, that I hadn’t even noticed. Bias in science. In many science education discussions, we call it the elephant in the room. On this evening, I was too captivated by the dinosaurs to notice the elephant.

To say a lively discussion ensued would be euphimistic. Sean Carroll was barraged with criticism from all sides of the auditorium. Why, why, in 2012 did he make a film featuring only white males to be shown in public schools? “I’m a journalist. I had to be honest. Those were the people who did the work.”  Then why not include current work in the field, by a more diverse group of scientists? “Because this is film; I felt the story needed to be conclusive.” (I suspect that Carroll was nervous about presenting any ambiguities or uncertainties in the field of evolution, but of course they exist, as in any field of science. That’s why we need to inspire more people to study evolution.) Why not tell a different story then? “Because this is the story I wanted to tell!”

“This is the story I wanted to tell.” Therein, I believe, lies the real answer to why Sean Carroll made this film, and therein lies the real problem. Sean Carroll wanted to tell this story, and who could blame him? It’s an excellent story, and he did a fantastic job with the film. Perhaps the mysterious disappearance of the dinosaurs haunted Carroll when he was a child. Perhaps this story inspired him to become the successful scientist he is today. But will it inspire everyone?  Probably not.

By coincidence, this is the week in my class  in which I ask my students to tell a story. We are gearing up to learn some hard core molecular biology techniques and I feel it is helpful to spend some time in advance of that appreciating the decades of research and discovery that form the foundations of what we take for granted today (polymerase chain reaction, molecular subcloning, gene transfer). Back in the days when I taught in a traditional lecture format, I would recount a few hundred years of key discoveries in defining and ultimately manipulating the gene. To convey the passage of time, I would pause after each breakthrough and play a song from that era. I had compiled a lovely soundtrack and my students always cited that class as their favorite of the semester. In retrospect, I see that the only problem was that I was the only one telling the stories, the stories I wanted to tell.

Fast-forward to 2010 and beyond. In SCALE-UP, I ask each student team to identify and research  a breakthrough in molecular biology. They can choose anything they want, as long as each team picks a different event. In addition to describing the experiment, they will discuss the scientists who did the work, the place where the work was done, and what was happening in the world at that time. They will pick a song from that era. My job is to buy the songs, and compile the playlist.  The students will tell the stories about the science and the scientists who inspire them. I’m just a resource and a DJ.

This year, I do intend to indulge just a bit and tell one of my own stories. Sir John Gurdon, a developmental biologist who, like me, worked with frog embryos, just won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. For decades, I’ve been inspired by Gurdon’s classic experiments, his big picture thinking, and I admit, by his charming British mannerisms. Gurdon conducted his Nobel winning experiments in 1962, a fantastic era for music. I’m not sure I can pick a single song. But, this is all stuff for next week’s blog post… It’s getting late and I still need to check under my bed for elephants.