When the chemistry and biochemistry department at the University of Oklahoma (OU) designed its new research building, it wanted to maximize the educational opportunities it could provide not just for its own students but also for those in other departments and even for members of the general public.
“As scientists, we have an innate passion for the research that we do, and we wanted to do more to transmit that passion to the public, which supports our work through their tax dollars,” says OU chemistry and biochemistry department chair George B. Richter-Addo.
Toward that end, Richter-Addo included an interactive education laboratory designed to engage visitors in the work being done in the new building, the Stephenson Life Sciences Research Center (SLSRC), which was completed in 2010.
Called the “chemistry petting zoo” or simply the “zoo,” the lab features a large picture window “that allows the public to view, directly from a comfortable, centrally located lounge area, first-rate research without the need for goggles or lab coats,” he says. The zoo will soon be equipped with an intercom so that observers can more directly interact with the scientists at work.
Aiming to highlight “how chemical principles form the basis for life sciences research,” Richter-Addo is using the zoo to showcase work being done by OU chemists and biologists in its Natural Products Discovery Group, he says.
That group focuses on the discovery of bioactive secondary metabolites from fungi and microbiome-derived bacteria, says Robert H. Cichewicz, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, who heads the group.
In the zoo, “students learn while conducting research to extract and identify new antimicrobial agents that might serve as lead compounds for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s disease or Parkinson’s disease,” Cichewicz says. That work is supported by two National Institutes of Health grants totaling about $3 million.
To engage visitors, a display inside the lab window features items such as molds, plants, and insects that “anyone can relate to or recognize,” Richter-Addo says.
Just outside the viewing area, the department has set up a kiosk that links to a set of interactive pages that allow the visitor to learn more about the work being done in the zoo or how they themselves can participate in the research process. For example, visitors are encouraged to submit soil samples from around the U.S. for the Natural Products Discovery Group to use for microbe testing and experiments.
After catching a glimpse of the research being done in the zoo during an SLSRC tour with her mycology class in December 2010, Leslyn Dillow, a senior zoology major at OU, gained a “completely new appreciation for chemistry and the role that it plays in life processes,” she says. “Up to that point, I saw chemistry as something pretty boring and not very tangible. Yet seeing people growing fungi and extracting compounds from it was very real and very cool,” she says.
Inspired by what she saw, Dillow asked Cichewicz if she could join his group as a research student. She now spends roughly 15 hours a week working in the interactive lab. “Leslyn is now an ambassador between the chemical and biological worlds,” Cichewicz says. “These are the kinds of connections that the zoo enables us to make.”
Whether they come from another OU department or from outside the university, “visitors are almost always surprised to learn that chemistry is at the heart of the research they observe in the zoo,” Cichewicz says. He welcomes the opportunity to talk to zoo visitors about the chemistry connection to the life sciences, he says, while also highlighting other SLSRC projects such as those involving cell signaling and biofuels. “Most zoo visitors are dumbfounded by the rich diversity of topics that fall under the umbrella of chemical research and the incredible relevance that chemistry has to their lives,” he says.
Some in the broader chemistry community applaud the OU chemistry and biochemistry department’s efforts to connect with the public through an open, interactive lab. “This is an outstanding example of university faculty taking the lead in building public support for scientific research,” says John M. Schwab, a former program director at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (C&EN, May 30, page 43).
“The public elects lawmakers, and it’s the lawmakers who determine the budgets for the agencies that support research,” adds Schwab, who recently spoke at a public symposium at OU. In tough economic times, “it is urgent that we as scientists convince folks with little to no background in science that what we’re doing has real-world impact on their lives. We simply can’t afford to leave that to someone else.”