DIY Microscopes to Microbial Discovery: Alumni Bring MBL Spirit to Local Communities

Student-made Winogradsky Columns. Project funded by the MBL Alumni ROCS program. Credit: Elliott Meuller

The MBL Alumni ROCS (Regional Outreach and Communications in STEM) is a competitive program that provides funding for alumni of Advanced Research Training courses to create and deploy an outreach project that brings their MBL experience back to their community.

On July 12, three of the four inaugural Alumni ROCS awardees presented their projects to the MBL community in a talk titled: "Spreading the MBL Spirit and Engaging and Impacting Communities through STEM Nationwide."

From California to Connecticut, the alumni sought to share their favorite parts of their MBL experience with students in their local communities. 

Photo of students in the field in LA
Students in the field. Credit: Elliot Mueller

To inspire students in the Pasadena School District in California, Microbial Diversity alumnus Elliot Mueller, Caltech, partnered with GO-Outdoors, a student driven outreach organization that works collaboratively with K-12 school districts. 

He collaborated on a month-long educational program on environmental microbiology that included bringing students into the field to collect soil and water samples, create Winagradsky columns, and examine their specimens under a field microscope.

Mueller says he chose environmental microbiology as the focus of the program because it’s something that doesn’t typically show up in standard curriculum. “It falls between the cracks, yet it is so important to food webs and climate change. By showing students the microbial life around them, we hoped to open their eyes to a whole new world of scientific exploration which they could even turn into a career.”

“We used the MBL ROCS funding to purchase enough equipment to run this program 5-10 more times in the coming years. With the success of our pilot exercise using the MBL funding, we hope to secure even more funding to support transportation costs for high schools that are farther from nature,” says Mueller. 

On the other side of the country, Physiology alumnus Brady Goulden, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine provided hands-on science experiences to underserved students at William Paca Elementary School in Baltimore, MD.

Students from  William Paca Elementary School in Baltimore, MD. Courtesy: Brady Goulden
Students from William Paca Elementary School in Baltimore, MD. Courtesy: Brady Goudlen

“Instilling confidence and passion in STEM fields for disadvantaged youths is important for many reasons, but it’s especially important to me,” says Goulden. “I know how difficult even the slightest amount of adversity can be. These students in Baltimore City go through so much, and I wanted to give back to them in a way that I was fortunate enough to receive.”

Goulden partnered with John’s Hopkins outreach group Students in Action (SIA) to coordinate 30 – 40 volunteers in 5 classrooms (150 students) in title 1 Baltimore Public Schools. The goal:  to inspire youth from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue higher education in STEM, or at the minimum, create interest and creativity in solving complex problems with science!

“It makes a difference [to these kids] to see other people be excited about science,” Goulden said during his July 12 presentation.

Goulden said his favorite part of the project was seeing the student’s excitement when they arrived in the classroom for lessons. "You could tell they were eager to do more experiments and get answers to all their science related questions.”

The John’s Hopkins SIA group is currently doing lessons at one nearby title one school, but hope to branch out to more schools in Baltimore City. They have already expanded their lesson plans thanks to the funding from the Alumni ROCS grant. 

“We started this and funded it out of our pockets, so it makes a huge difference when you have MBL funding to do these experiments.”

In New Haven, CT, Embryology aluma Alice Sherrard, Yale University, helped local students visualize embryos by creating their own custom-built microscopes.

custom built microscope using cell phones
Courtesy: Alice Sherrard
people holding custom built scopes
Courtesy: Alice Sherrard

“The microscopes are very easily accessible. You can buy everything on amazon or at the hardware store,” said Sherrard during her July 12 presentation. She added that if they’re bought in bulk, the microscopes come out to only about $8 each. Each student got to keep the microscopes. 

“You can teach them a lot of principles in science in a fun and interactive way.”

Sherrard says her project was inspired by her time at the MBL Embryology course. “The course was an amazing experience and had a huge impact on me and my research. I was hoping to share some of the excitement I felt when I was introduced to these embryos for the first time…” adding that she hopes the images will inspire some of the students to pursue biology.

Sherrard worked with four other MBL alumni from various courses on this project. They hosted one virtual and one in-person event so part and plan to continue to host the event annually at the Yale Science Fair. “We have also arranged visits to local schools where we will run the class several times over the upcoming months,” says Sherrard.

A fourth project was also awarded to Lily Khadempour, Assistant Professor, Rutgers University-Newark and 2021 Microbial Diversity Alumna, Khadempour is creating an Ant Room, where colonies of different charismatic species of ants are maintained, partially to be used for experimentation, but mostly to be used as a community outreach site. 

"Every year, hundreds of students come to the MBL to take part in our Advanced Research Training Courses," says Linda Hyman, MBL Director of Education. "The Alumni ROCS initiative is an amazing way to spread that experience to their wider community."

Funded by the National Science Foundation, MBL Alumni ROCS seeks to extend the MBL experience beyond Woods Hole and into the community nationwide by sharing MBL experiences while increasing the science literacy of and connecting with student’s local communities.

Learn more about the Inaugural Alumni ROCS projects Learn more about the Alumni ROCS Program