What Makes a Great Museum?

Anyone who knows me, understands my love for science museums. As a kid, my love for scientific research came from curiosity born outside school - in experimenting with a chemistry set that my mom gifted me, in looking at the remarkable Stonehenge on a family vacation and being excited to think about the engineering feat that an ancient people had performed to erect the site.  So, I appreciate that space that science museums create for people, of all ages and backgrounds, to learn in an out-of-classroom setting. 

In 2011, I also began volunteering at two science museums (the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Sciencenter in Ithaca) usually in the capacity of a demonstrator in concepts in Mathematics and Physics. To be on the other side a lab bench, and see the wonder in a child's, or even an adult's, face when they, for example, see the effect liquid nitrogen cooling causing the shattering of a rubber ball, is beyond gratifying. Learning does happen in these museums, and so I think they are a crucial part of a community, and as such, they should be well organized and presented to create the most impact for the community's benefit.

The science and museum communities can learn best practices about science communication from great science museums.  I have been fortunate enough to have been able to go to many museums both in the US and in Europe, two of my favorites include (due to bias I am excluding the Science Museum of Minnesota and Ithaca Sciencenter):

Kontiki Museum in Oslo, Norway (http://www.kon-tiki.no/en/)

The Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, NY, USA (http://www.cmog.org/)

What should immediately jump out is that these museums are not science museums by name! That's not to say that large science museums aren't wonderful (The Franklin Institute is a personal and lifelong favorite of mine), but to show that many aspects of our history can be, in part, explained through a scientific lens.

At the Kontiki museum - a testament to the will and scientific curiosity of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl - the museum could have just been a retelling of the saga of his voyage through the pacific. Instead, a replica of the craft was created along with a scientific explanation of why they chose the materials for it's creation. They also told of celestial navigation, of how history's human migrations likely took place, and even of how genetic studies ultimately disproved Heyerdahl's theories. 

In Corning, at first sound, a museum of glass sounds like an uninteresting tourist trap. However, once inside you are treated to not only a full museum of artistic works using glass sculpting, but demonstrations of glass blowing, a scientific presentation of fiber optics, explanations and examples of Galilean telescopes and Von Leeuwenhoek microscopes. 

What's also interesting about these spaces is that they are also not largely known as large museums; they are generally considered local attractions. On the flip side, some of the "science" museums that get a lot of name brand recognition - such as the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, are quite lackluster and, in my opinion, do not leave visitors with an experience rich in learning. In this case, the museum was just a hodgepodge of aeronautical history without a semblance of a coherent story. These museums fall into a trap of a "look at all the cool stuff we have" mentality and regretfully usually lack any type of hands-on activities.

So, in my opinion, what's important to a make a great science museum, or any museum that has a desire to look into their history through science, is not that they have huge, costly exhibits or large collections, or that they be located in NYC or DC or London, but that they have a desire to engage the community and actually teach rather than merely entertain.

Attending the Molecular Medicine Tri-Conference

I just finished a three-day conference in San Francisco as a poster presenter and student fellow at the Molecular MedTriCon. The conference focuses on, you guessed it, developments and applications of molecular medicine. It was far different than any conference I have attended before. In the past, I have been fortunate enough to attend the annual conferences for the ACS, APS, and AAAS. These conferences tend to be full of students and the focus is highly academic. In contrast, the MedTriCon seemed to be be more heavily attended by physicians, entrepreneurs, and industrial researchers, with many of the presentations focusing on  development of devices and biomarkers.

The Good: Really inspirational talks.

The two plenary speakers spoke about how advances in precision and molecular medicine were poised to revolutionize the way in which healthcare is approached. The first speaker, Stephen F. Kingsmore, reported on how his hospital, as a neonatal/pediatric intensive care unit, had significantly improved the outcomes of babies born with abnormalities from genetic diseases. In these settings, it is critical to determine what the child's inherited illness in as soon as possible to determine if there are treatment options possible. His team, working with a few key players in industry, was able to create a pipeline that went from child-mother-father blood draw to diagnosis in 26 hours via next generation sequencing.

The second speaker, Jorge Soto, CTO of a fairly new company called Miroculus, described how their device was revolutionizing the way we diagnose cancer and infectious disease. Miroculus makes use of microRNA - small, non-coding RNA molecules that are associated with gene regulation. Miroculus's major addition to this field was in creating a capture and amplification method which, in the course of an hour or so, could indicate the presence of a certain miRNA by fluorescence. Different combinations of distinct miRNAs are indicative of different cancers, infections, or even (as Jorge showed after his first Crossfit workout) muscle damage. He didn't say but I'm guessing the other function arm of Miroculus will work on the identification of miRNA biomarkers to create more expansive tests.

Other notable sessions included: a rapid, PCR-based Ebola test, several sessions I attended about the Oxford Nanopore (they are approaching 99.6% accuracy in sequencing), and on how microbiome studies have aided in studies of diseases related to the "leaky gut".

The Bad: Not set up for graduate students.

The conference seemed to be most engaging for researchers in industry. Many of the sessions I went to were sponsored by biotech companies and presented by either their own researchers or those who consult for them. This led to a recurring sense of "let me sell my product to the physicians or young P.I.'s with money". Furthermore, while the Cambridge Health Institute provided student fellowships so that people like me could afford registration, they didn't have any time set aside for student's to meet with one another or for career development. I hope in the future CHI can take a note from other larger conferences and modify their schedule to include sessions such as these.