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Science in the House: Genomicists Reach Out to Public at Annual Event in Seattle

Posted by struscott | February 9, 2010

When horticultural genomicist Amit Dhingra and members of his lab participated in the annual Life Sciences Research Weekend in Seattle last November, they hoped to change and expand the public perception of their genomics research.

Amit Dhingra

Amit Dhingra is a horticultural genomicist at Washington State University. Learn more about his research by visiting genomics.wsu.edu.

And they did. But as they interacted with members of the public, the scientists from WSU found they were being changed as well.

“Interacting with the public always engages me to think more carefully about how to explain our work,” said Dhingra. “Talking with the public causes me to think differently – and I love that aspect of the creative process of science.”

Dhingra and his colleagues participated in the weekend with a presentation called “Fruit of the Future.” The team of scientists, composed of faculty members as well as graduate and undergraduate students, sought to show how understanding the gene-based functioning of plants will enable efficient improvements in the flavor and nutrition of some of our favorite fruits, including apples, pears and grapes.

“Not too many people were familiar with fruit genomics and the research surrounding it,” Dhingra said. “But people were intrigued. We heard a lot of things like ‘I didn’t know that’ and ‘that is so cool.’”

“We had a constant stream of participants and their interest seemed genuine,” said graduate student Scott Schaeffer. “The kids, too, were really curious. They loved the pixie grape plant we had there to show them.”

Pixie grape is a dwarf grape vine that flowers and produces fruit in a fraction of the time of the standard varieties found in vineyards.

Tyler Armour, a WSU undergraduate and researcher in Amit Dhingra’s genomics lab, explains the life cycle of the grapevine using the dwarf variety, Pixie.

Tyler Armour, a WSU undergraduate and researcher in Amit Dhingra’s genomics lab, explains the life cycle of the grapevine using the dwarf variety, Pixie.
Photo courtesy Life Sciences Weekend organizers.

“That was a really important concept to get across to people,” said undergraduate researcher Tyler Armour. “It takes a long time to develop new varieties of fruit. But, with tools like Pixie to work with, we can speed that process up tremendously. And, for the public, that means better food sooner and it comes with a smaller research price tag.”

For parents and teachers, too, the Life Sciences Research Weekend was a success.

“It was important,” one teacher said, “to hear from actual scientists and engineers to see what their particular jobs are like.”

Numerous visitors remarked that they appreciated the enthusiasm of the scientists they met. “The explanations were clear,” said one parent. “We weren’t just staring at stuff. They explained is in ways both adults and kids could understand.”

“We love science,” said Dhingra, “and that comes through when we interact with the public.”

The event was the third annual Life Sciences Research Weekend. Co-organized by the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research and the Pacific Science Center, the primary sponsor was the Boeing Company with support from Battelle.

One hundred ninety-eight researchers and volunteers staffed 25 activity tables presented by life sciences research institutions, departments and companies from around the state. As well as the fruit genomics table staffed by members of Dhingra’s lab, presentations range from ones on nanotechnology and medical drug development to computer-human interface design and neurobiology.