Latham fellows talk science

CLAS initiative focuses on communicating scientific ideas to the public
BRAINS! Comic book cover
BRAINS!, a comic book by Anya Kim, teaches children about neuroscience.

“Welcome to the BRAIN!” Mr. Super Brain said, in a neuroscience-themed comic book written and illustrated by University of Iowa junior Anya Kim. “Why don’t I show you what I do every day? It’ll be fun, I promise!”

Mr. Super Brain does not disappoint, leading readers on a tour of the brain, interviewing cells on their function.

BRAINS! A Close-Up Look at What Is Going On Inside Your Head is neurobiology and Spanish major Kim’s capstone project for her 2015-16 fellowship in the Latham Science Engagement Initiative and Fellowship Program.

The Latham initiative, housed in the Department of Biology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, is a project designed to give research-minded undergraduates an opportunity to bring science to the public in a meaningful way.

The program is made possible by Drs. Robert J. and Sue B. Latham of Cedar Rapids. Robert Latham is the chairman and president of Latham & Associates, Inc., a utility analysis and consulting company in Cedar Rapids.

The Lathams decided to dedicate their gift to science engagement work for undergraduates at the UI. So began the Latham Science Engagement Initiative and Fellowship Program, a unique program open to sophomores, juniors, and seniors in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences who have at least a 3.0 GPA and a semester of undergraduate research experience.

Applications for next year’s program are due May 15.

Projects are highly individualized and run the gamut of science communication and outreach, said Lori Adams, the Latham program’s executive director and lecturer in the Department of Biology. This year’s crop of Latham fellows is working on a science blog and magazine, a gallery of stunning images from UI research, a youth curriculum designed around the scientific method, and a children’s book about diabetes—among other innovative projects still in the works.

The 2016-17 Fellows will display their projects at the program’s annual showcase on April 29.

​Latham Science Engagement Initiative and Fellowship Program
Annual Showcase

Sat, April 29
11 am - 1:30 pm
335 IMU
-event is free and open to the public-

Drs. Robert and Sue Latham at the 2016 showcase.
Fellows had the chance to speak with Drs. Robert and Sue Latham at last year's showcase.

Making science accessible

As Adams points out, communication hasn’t historically been part of the average scientist’s role. But lack of clear, accessible science communication means the public suffers a lack of information about the evolving world of STEM. When that happens, funding and other support withers. The chasm between scientists and the general public grows wider. And each group ends up missing out on what the other can offer.

As many non-scientists know, “it’s really easy for scientists to sound intimidating,” Kim said, adding that by contrast, science outreach is about “taking people aside and saying, ‘Science is accessible.’”

Of course, not everyone who interacts with a science outreach initiative like Latham will become a researcher, Adams said. But non-researchers can make a difference, too, if they offer public support of science initiatives.

To set about making the great world of science feel accessible to all, Latham fellows kick off the academic year with 1-semester-hour course in science communication skill-building in the fall, where they hear from guest speakers who have experience sharing scientific ideas with a lay audience. In the spring semester, they delve into science outreach work of their own in a 2-semester-hour course devoted to their capstone project.

Kim described the Latham classroom as an open environment with lots of student-initiated discussion. Adams and program manager Brinda Shetty answer questions and offer guidance. Kim and Nicholas McCarthy, both doing independent study with the program, are on hand to provide feedback based on their own experiences as 2015-16 fellows.

Though backed by a solid team of mentors, the students of Latham still drive the success of their own projects. Educators won’t leave students floundering—but they won’t rush to the rescue without giving students a chance to steer themselves back on course. Students are expected to form and maintain connections with some of the myriad resources on campus and in the community to aid in their work.

And since all fellows have to have completed a semester of research prior to applying for the program, they know they sit in a mecca when it comes to science research. CLAS alone generates over $40 million of annual funding dedicated to research, and the UI is well-known as a top tier research university. Add in the UI’s mightiness when it comes to writing and other arts or communication disciplines, and the Latham projects have “fertile ground” on which to grow, Adams said.

“They’re sitting in this university surrounded by great people with lots of expertise that can help them with their project, and they have to navigate through that,” she said.

Bench with painted science images
A bench painted with science and diversity-minded images was 2015-16
fellow Brittany Todd's project, part of the public bench project in
downtown Iowa City.

Thriving across disciplines

Students in the program—who are biochemists, economists, environmental scientists, and more—take an interdisciplinary approach to projects when possible.

This is part of what makes the Latham program thrive, said Helena Dettmer, CLAS Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs and Curriculum.

“Today’s society is faced with complex problems that often require experts across several disciplines to come up with solutions to address them,” Dettmer said. “[The initiative] provides our undergraduate students in a unique opportunity to work collaboratively on problems that require an interdisciplinary lens.”

A prime example of interdisciplinarity is fellow Elise Kerns, who sits alongside the science majors of the Latham initiative as an English major with a deep passion for science—particularly physics and astronomy. She plans to continue on to graduate school and then become a professional research communicator.

“I think science in general is in desperate need of public relations specialists who can speak publicly, accessibly, and succinctly about the importance of science research and maintaining its funding,” she said.

For her capstone project, Kerns became The Daily Iowan’s science correspondent, penning as her first piece a story on black holes.

“I’ve learned countless transferable skills, particularly skills related to digital media and presentation,” she said. “[The Latham program] has helped me craft a portfolio of work that I would be proud to showcase as a professional.”

Exceeding expectations

The Lathams said they are very pleased with the program and the work it is producing.

“[Latham fellows] are clearly provided strong mentoring and an environment for developing their communication skills,” the Lathams said. “We would like to think they are gaining more self-confidence for success in their disciplines. We are already seeing some evidence that the group and individual projects, in particular, may help distinguish these fellows from other graduate school and fellowship applicants.”

Department of Rhetoric lecturer Matt Gilchrist, who serves on the program’s Advisory Board, said the program gives him hope that “the graduate students of tomorrow will be increasingly engaged in telling the important stories of the scientific endeavor.”

Gilchrist teaches a graduate-level course—one unrelated to the Latham initiative—about science communication, and said such communication matters a great deal.

“The public needs to understand science so that we can make informed decisions about the policy implications of emerging knowledge,” he said.

Student Erin Meier with telescope
2015-16 fellow Erin Maier's project included a telescope
viewing available to campus passers-by.

All this makes for a tall order and a challenging workload, but Latham fellows are students who make a habit of exceeding expectations. Vast dreams are welcome in the Latham program. As time goes by, students’ projects always crystalize into something more tangible.

In Kim’s case, that tangible something grew into Ned the Neuroscientist, Mike the microglia, and Astrid the astrocyte. Kim took the finished product into an elementary school and read it to 4th and 5th grade girls, receiving positive feedback and requests for a second installment of BRAINS! That sequel, The Great Mutation, will follow cells banding together during a great battle, Kim said.

In the meantime, Mr. Super Brain bade his readers goodbye.

“You can make [your brain] smart, brave, kind, anything!” he said. “You can be whoever you want to be!”

The brain’s limit is sky-high, and so is the Latham program’s, as students can be whoever and create whatever they wish.

The program was and remains, Kim said, “one of the most worthwhile things I’ve done at the UI.”

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Iowa is a comprehensive college offering 68 majors in the humanities; fine, performing and literary arts; natural and mathematical sciences; social and behavioral sciences; and communication disciplines. More than 17,000 undergraduate and 1,900 graduate students study each year in the college’s 37 departments, led by professors at the forefront of teaching and research in their disciplines. The college teaches all UI undergraduates through the General Education Program, and confers about 70 percent of the UI's bachelor's degrees each academic year.