A little over a week ago the humongous *all things biology* conference called Experimental Biology took place in sunny San Diego. I was delighted to participate as a representative of the Small World Initiative with an oral presentation and a poster. It was well-received and I felt very energized by the conversations and connections. I did the usual conference stuff: attend sessions, check out the posters, let the vendors scan my badge in exchange of bags, mugs and other freebies, and of course meet friends.
However, one of the highlights of that weekend was a meeting that was associated but not part of the conference: the workshop entitled “Fostering partnerships among colleges, universities, and K-12 schools.” Organized by the Hands-on Opportunities to Promote Engagement in Science (HOPES) group, it was a morning of delightful exchange of experiences between scientists and K-12 schools.
At the end of the session, a group from the Center of Molecular Modeling took center stage and distributed colorful bits of the molecular world to play. Scientists and teachers, young and less young alike took the pieces in their hands to try to solve the puzzles: amino acids color-coded by biochemical characteristics could be pinned to long foam rods to make polypeptides and then fold them in space; nucleotides made DNA strands, and enzymes had active centers ready to be occupied by substrates or inhibitors. In a way, we did what students tend to do- “DO.” We were hardly listening to the explanations, as we wanted to figure out ourselves what to do with those pieces. We talked to our neighbors and put pieces together. We were like children with toys. Because, children play…and learn playing. Somehow, we forget that, students and teachers alike.
I thought immediately of the course I started teaching this week, Molecular Biology. I have studied and worked with sequences and genes for many years, but it was only when I descended into the depths of gene elements when learning bioinformatics that those strands became real for me. And many times, 2-dimensional knowledge remained hopelessly elusive until I was able to see it and touch it in 3D. I asked about the models, and it turned out they can be borrowed! Excited, I sat in a corner with my laptop and ordered the models right away. I knew they could not arrive the day of the first class, Monday, but I was restless about structures. I dug deep in the bowels of the lab and found two boxes of simple chemical models of the type to make small molecules with sticks and balls. Brought to class, they were only enough for a purine and a pyrimidine. The 2 groups of students came together and built the structures, taking more time than expected- indeed, such a stretch from the plain figures of the textbook to the spatial form! But it was…a small affair after all. Just one base pair.
But guess what waited for me today on campus! Two big suitcases, full of toys! Well, I guess we’ll play again tomorrow. We have now a whole set of tinkertoys of the molecules of life.