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15 Years of IGB: Integrating Science and Society through Outreach

BY Shelby Lawson

Since the inception of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, its slogan has been “where science meets society.” This highlights the institute’s deep commitment both past and present to communicate the research and discoveries happening at the IGB with the public, and promote scientific thinking to encourage a new diverse generation of scientists and science-informed citizens. “We established a comprehensive outreach program within a few years of opening the IGB, for several reasons,” said IGB Director Gene Robinson (GNDP). “First, as part of a land-grant university, we have an obligation to engage with the public, locally and at the national level, because genomics can impact people in so many different ways, now and in the future. In addition, outreach programs help enhance the value of our diverse research enterprise, help us make new friends, and provide important professional development opportunities for graduate students and postdoctoral scientists.”

The outreach team at the IGB has organized a suite of events throughout the years, many of which happen annually, that have been growing in size since their start. Here, we highlight the IGB’s major outreach events that bring science and society together.

World of Genomics
The World of Genomics is the largest broader IGB outreach event, typically seeing thousands of participants across multiple days. Participants can wander the many booths, activities, and games to learn about a variety of scientific disciplines and research happening at the IGB. The event first debuted in 2017 at the Chicago Field Museum and took place over a 3-day period. Activities included driving a robot to learn how robotics can help grow food, looking at prehistoric microorganisms under a scope to understand the evolution of life, examining bee colonies and brains to learn how brains affect behavior, and more. Since then, World of Genomics has been hosted by the St. Louis Science Center and the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., with plans for other large-scale in-person events to start again as the COVID-19 pandemic is subsiding.

Art of Science
The Art of Science program is a celebration of common ground between science and art, and will enter its 13th year in 2023. The collection of artwork ranges from microscopic to holistic images, and features both physical and abstract concepts. The program’s goal is to emphasize the diversity of research at the IGB through art, and present research in an eye-catching and understandable way to everyone. IGB’s Creative Program Manager Julia Pollack is the current curator for Art of Science, with previous curators including Kathryn Faith and Noah Dibert. The program is co-sponsored by BodyWork Associates, and artwork from the program has been displayed in numerous places across the country, including Chicago O’Hare airport, local Urbana businesses such as Cafeteria & Company and Broadway Food Hall, the Springer Cultural Center, the I Hotel, Abbott Laboratories and other corporate offices and headquarters, public libraries, the NIH library, and even the U.S. Capitol.

Genome Day
Genome Day is an annual local open-house event that teaches people of all ages about genomes, DNA, and evolution. When it first started it was held at the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum in Champaign. It moved online with the onset of the pandemic, during which participants could pick up packets from the local libraries and work through the activity over Zoom. Since moving back in person, it has been held in downtown Urbana, where the event typically draws hundreds of people. The event features hands-on, child-friendly activities related to genomics. Participants can extract DNA from strawberry cells, make DNA models, and participate in different activities that highlight how DNA can affect how organisms look and behave.

Pollen Power
The Pollen Power camp was established in 2013 to foster interest in plant science in the community. The camp encourages participation from local children in underrepresented groups, typically in 6th-8th grade, though the past year focused on younger children. Students learn about interactions between plants and pollinators through a series of hands-on activities, experiments, and crafts led by IGB researchers and outreach staff. In addition to plant science, children also develop skills and problem-solving abilities, and learn how to observe the world around them as scientists. The pandemic led to the camp activities being moved online, with activity kits handed out in advance to the children. This past year the event was once again held in person with great success.

Genomics for Professionals
Genomics for Professionals aims to teach basic concepts of biology and genomics to professionals within a specific public sector so they are better equipped for dealing with genomics when the need arises in their jobs. In the past the program has partnered with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, National Courts and Sciences Institute, the Minimum Continuing Legal Education Board of the Supreme Court of Illinois, Next Generation Science Standards, and the University of Illinois College of Law and College of Media to bring scientific teachings to a variety of professional groups. The program has covered many job sectors over the years, including judges, lawyers, clinicians, journalists, police officers, and more. The program includes lectures led by researchers as well as a hands-on component relevant to the specific sector.

STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) TRAIN (Transdisciplinary Research Across Institutional Near-peers) is a program partnered with the Champaign Franklin STEAM Academy that allows middle school students the opportunity to conduct a research project on whatever they want, provided that it is feasible. The students receive two levels of mentorship during the project: high school students from University Laboratory High School, and researchers at the IGB. Both give guidance on how to design the project the students are interested in, and IGB provides any tools necessary to accomplish it. Past projects include studying the behavior of poison dart frogs, plant growth under different conditions, and even metabolism in the Minecraft universe.

Game Day Genomics
Game Day Genomics takes place outside of most home football games during tailgating. Tailgating participants can engage with games and activities designed to teach people of all ages about genomes and biology while they wait for the big game to begin.

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute
OLLI partnered with the IGB and Beckman Institute in 2009 to create a citizen science program that brings in people over 50 years of age who are curious about scientific research yet have never had the opportunity to try it. OLLI members are matched with IGB or Beckman researchers, and are trained in knowledge and skills to make meaningful contributions to a research project. Members are paired with a graduate student or postdoctoral research associate for hands-on mentoring and training, and volunteer for several hours each week in the lab.

Vaccine Outreach
The pandemic brought about a wave of misinformation and confusion about the COVID-19 vaccines as they were released. To help counter this, outreach members of the IGB attended a variety of community and PTA meetings, as well as hosted forums at the library and online, to teach about the benefits and safety of vaccinations. The team also created fun visuals on social media to educate the public, including graphs made of candy that showed transmission rates in vaccinated vs. unvaccinated populations.

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