IME students translate big ideas beyond the lab

Improv put Chicago comedy on the map. But what can it do for graduate students at the University of Chicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering (IME)?

Quite a bit, says PhD candidate Whitney Fowler. She is participating in the Science Communications program, which incorporates improvisational techniques in its methodology.

“We do a lot of improv to get you thinking on your feet when you enter the room,” said Fowler.

The MSI Science Communications program, a partnership with the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI), is a training opportunity that helps IME students learn how to better communicate their research and connect with other scientists, the public, and industry – skills that can pay off during and after their time at the IME.

During eight intensive workshops over a two-year period, IME students work with instructors from MSI to learn the fundamentals of storytelling and how to use interaction as a way of connecting and building knowledge with an audience. IME students present the capstone of the program, an MSI Junior Science Café, at the museum to elementary or middle school students. Students also get teaching credit, a graduation requirement.

In May 2019, Fowler presented her capstone project, talking to a group of fourth graders from Lindop Elementary School in Broadview, Illinois, about how she develops materials to help solve the global clean water crisis. She wowed the young audience with a demonstration of the Oleo Sponge, a special material developed at Argonne National Laboratory -- an IME partner organization – that absorbs oil in water.

“I love giving kids the opportunity to have the lightbulb go on and exposing them to cool new ideas about science and engineering,” said Fowler. “I like showing that science can be understood – that it can be for everyone and actually help the world.”

Rachel Weathered also presented the same day, showing kids how to extract DNA from strawberries. Weathered, who is studying cancer fighting materials with the Swartz Group, says the techniques she learned during the program have made it easier to talk about her research with anyone.

“Learning to get feedback from the audience and tune your lecture to the feedback you’re getting is really useful,” said Weathered. “This program helps make communicating as a presenter to a scientific audience or even to a general audience a lot more effective.”

The MSI Junior Science Café program, which runs from April through June, has had a ripple effect of making science accessible and relevant that goes beyond the IME, says Margy LaFreniere, MSI’s interdisciplinary learning manager and instructor in the program.

“We at MSI have improved our work with scientists, which is crucial because we want kids to be able to get their hands on authentic science. And IME students have taken their work further into the community, giving variants of their MSI Junior Science Cafes to Chicago Public School students in classrooms and connecting with youth at outreach events,” she said.

Laura Rico-Beck, the IME’s educational training and outreach coordinator, says the program adds value in countless ways.

“In addition to learning communication skills that they can apply to a broad array of professional contexts, many MSI Science Communication program participants emerge embracing a newfound role as science ambassadors, making science more accessible, generating positive attitudes towards scientific research, and creating long-term connections with the community,” said Rico-Beck.