Penguins, pyjamas and postdocs

What started as an idea for a birthday party got a little out of hand. The California Academy of Sciences (one of the largest natural history museums in the world) runs an annual sleepover for grownups, during which visitors can explore the museum after hours then roll out their camping gear and sleep with the fishes in the aquarium or with the penguins in the African hall. This year, Antoine de Morrée (co-chair of the Stanford University Postdoctoral Association) decided that instead of convincing a handful of friends to attend the sleepover, the association should get together a committee to convince 40 Stanford postdocs to spend days preparing samples and scientific stories to share with the public. Astonishingly, that’s exactly what happened. A call for submissions on our postdoc mailing list was met with a pile of submissions from enthusiastic postdocs looking to share their science with the world. Now we’re all here, setting up microscopes, laptops, lasers and hula hoops and waiting for our big moment. I’ve visited the California Academy of Sciences many times, but it’s never been this empty. With several thousand visitors passing through each day, it’s usually difficult to get close to the exhibits. Not so this evening. With around 280 people inside, the museum is almost eerie. Crowds do assemble in some places – at the big cat exhibitions and around the bar (where we have also set up a slide show of scientific images) – but it’s very easy to find empty spaces. It’s a privileged feeling and surprisingly relaxing. I spend several minutes hypnotised in front of the jellyfish free from the worry that I’m blocking someone’s view.

Spending Friday night watching planetarium shows in a science museum may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but an interest in and enthusiasm for science is what connects the participants at tonight’s sleepover. Most are local to the Bay Area and, like me, have visited the museum before. As a result, many guests are keen to spend time at the special exhibits organised for this evening only. And that includes us. After a quick dinner, a stiff drink and a brief encounter with a real live serval, it’s time for our scientific presentations. It feels pretty empty in our designated room and I’m starting to worry that we threw a party that no one wants to come to. Then, as more people start to trickle in, I realise the benefits of a limited audience. Our presenters are having long, in-depth conversations with people and the intimacy has given guests the confidence to ask complicated questions. Devsmita Das (Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences) is talking about her research on mouse models of Down syndrome with a guest who has a family member with the condition. Another guest who has suffered from chronic pain is keen to talk with Katie Martucci (Anaesthesiology) about her non-invasive fMRI studies.

The personal interactions also allow visitors to get hands on and I’m keen to join in. Viola Carretti (Neurology) hands me what I would describe as a bread knife and offers me the first cut of a real human brain (fixed in formalin). It’s astounding to see how clear areas of the brain become visible underneath that amorphous walnut exterior. All the guests get to try – something that keeps them busy well past our scheduled finishing time. Next to our informal dissection, Jenny Lumb (Immunology) is teaching people in dinosaur onseies how to hula hoop. The effect is confusing to say the least, but I don’t have time to reconcile my emotions. I’m drawn to the other side of the room where Adler Dillman (Microbiology) has brought samples of moss from a local park – at first blush, not so exciting. But with the addition of a little water and a microscope, I’m brought face to pharynx with one of nature’s most enchanting animals – the tardigrade or water bear. Boil them, freeze them, dehydrate them, bombard them with radiation, these little guys will come back swimming. Next to Adler, Stefano Bonetti (SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory) is demonstrating how superconductors can be used to make levitating trains – a technology that has already been tested in Japan, with trains reaching speeds of up to 581 km/hr.

Left to right from top: 1) Jenny Lumb (centre left) explains the science of hula hooping; 2) Adler Dillman (top) magnifies the world of the tardigrade; 3) Viola Caretti (right) offers the author a piece of her brain; 4) Gazi Yldirim (left foreground) explains the Quake Catcher Network as Fiona Strouts (background) shows how fermentation can add deliciousness to food; 5) Stefano Bonetti (left) explains how trains can levitate; 6) lasers demonstrating fusion energy provide the perfect backdrop for the liquid nitrogen needed to make a levitating train; 7) Urvi Vyas (right) shows how ultrasound is used for non-invasive brain surgery. Photo credits: 1,2 and 6 Luqia Hou; 3 Rishi Rakhit; 4, 5 and 7 Mark Padolina.


Feedback from the sleepover suggests that presentations from our postdocs were popular and engaging. So why doesn’t this sort of event happen more often? I think the barriers are primarily psychological. Some scientists assume that lay people are only interested in the spectacular – images of deep space from Hubble, robotic prosthetics or the threat of global destruction from a synchrotron – or they assume their work is too boring for a general audience. But the people we spoke to at the sleepover were interested in real science happening now – from advances in surgery, to modern theories of the multiverse. On the other hand, non-scientists may be afraid that they won’t understand the science. Of course most people are perfectly capable of understanding, but it is only through programmes like this, that allow people quality one-on-one time with scientists that we can really get our message across. Whether that message is about atoms or asteroids, evolution or engineering, people are interested. And science museums may prove to be an ideal venue, particularly since their recent renaissance and rebranding as a place for adult education.

Museums all over the world now run late-night programmes for adults (see box) and are reaching more people than ever before. With specimens and equipment in house and all the necessary safety and insurance requirements in place, museums provide a perfect setting for scientists to bring experiments into the public sphere. Science communication doesn’t have to be about reaching thousands or even hundreds of people at once. Introducing scientific ideas to a general audience at a personal level can really inspire people to learn more. So if your local museum runs special programmes, why not approach them and offer to bring your university’s students and postdocs to showcase their work for an evening? The museum gets to show people cutting-edge science, the public get to learn about how research is actually done (and what a postdoc is) and you get to tell the world about what you spend your life doing and why it’s important.

Tips for Participation/Organization

  • Give presenters time to prepare. We ended up giving presenters less than two weeks’ notice to prepare. Many participants requested more preparation time in the future.
  • Arrange the format of presentations ahead of time. Make sure, as an organiser, that you have a clear idea of what exactly the museum is looking for. Do they want a handful of short lectures with slides or more interactive booths with hands-on activities? Communicate the format to presenters as soon as possible.
  • Know your audience. Is the event primarily geared toward children or adults? Is there a theme to the evening? How many attendees?
  • Go and see the space. How large is the room? Are the acoustics appropriate for your presentation style?
  • Make sure you get the appropriate permissions and insurance. As a “student” group we were covered for the event by the university. Since we had to transport liquid nitrogen, we needed documentation from the university and the museum to cover our presenter on the way to the event. Most universities and museums have insurance policies in place to cover outreach events, but you should make sure you have the correct signatures.