Drugs From Dirt: Science Saturday Recap

Last weekend Brad and I hosted a booth at Rockefeller’s Science Saturday event. The event is a really fantastic openhouse that involved transforming the Rockefeller campus into an interactive science museum for the day. The event targets kids aged 4-12 and drew ~1000 participants. After seeing last year’s event from afar, I decided, along with another Postdoc, Brad Hover, to represent the Brady Lab. Brad and I put together a booth that was devoted to the basic idea of isolating microbes from the environment and using them to find new antibacterial compounds. But how should we organize our booth? What concepts should we cover? What were we going to do? A pure show-and-tell? Could we do something a bit more interactive? After a bit of discussion we hit upon a few central ideas we wanted to convey and then organized the booth with the idea of making the kids participate in a bit of “detective” story where they had to help us find these new compounds. I wanted to pencil out the main ideas and say a few things about what worked.

Our booth had five stations, four of which were part of our story followed by our “cabinet of curiosities” - a bunch of microbes plated out and having a bizarre appearance, or in one case, the smell of the forest. At Station 1 we introduced our booth, assessed if the kids were interested enough to do the entire table, and then we gave them a clipboard and dry erase marker. If they looked to be on the fence we could chat with them a bit and send them on to other things.

  • Station 1: What soil am I? In this station we had soil from three different environments in jars and had a laminated sheet with pictures of the different environments. The kids had to help match up the samples on their sheet. This was a very simple Station but was surprisingly effective - the kids immediately saw the soils and it gave the younger kids something that they could succeed quickly in.
  • Station2: What organism am I? We had plated out four different visually distinct bacterial species on agar plates and had descriptions of the organisms on a laminated sheet. We told the kids we had isolated a number of the organisms from soil after showing them a watery slurry of the soils they had just identified and indicating how we could plate this slurry out and find bacterial species that grow on it. This was pretty good. We chose things that were colorful and quite distinct and the kids very quickly assessed which organisms was which and drew the connections on their clipboards.
  • Station 3: Extractions. This stations was a quick lecture that could go slow or fast depending on the audience. What we wanted to cover was the basic idea that bacteria can be grown in a flask and that from this broth, we could extract bioactive compounds. Some of the brighter kids (there were a few really sharp ones!) asked some great questions and we showed them the phase separation between the watery and organic phases, allowed the to see the bottom of a glass tube of dried down extract. They seemed to understand that you could separate active components and concentrate them.

  • Station 4: Identify This Antibiotic! The culmination of isolating organisms and extracting compounds from them was to test their bioactivity. Station 4 was a set of overlay plates demonstrating a disk assay. This was the real hit of the booth and we would give the kids (or their parents) a plate and ask them if they noticed anything unusual about one of the disks. They would hold the plate up to the light or down on the table and invariably their eyes would light up when they could make out the halo. We would them explain how the halo was a demonstration of the antibiotic’s ability to kill the test strain. The goal of the Station was to look at three different test strains being assayed against three different antibiotics and to see if they could figure out which antibiotic was which based on its killing profile. Some kids took to this - immediately grasping the concept, filling out the grid, and identifying the antibiotics. To most, however, the station was sufficient simply to demonstrate the bactericidal effects of antibiotics. At the end we would recap the main idea - that we could start from a soil - isolate bacterial, isolate compounds, and assess their bioactivity. We thanked them for helping us and then pointed them to the last station. (the images below are not great examples of bacterial overlay assays - for some better results check the web)

  • Station 5: Show and Tell. Wh had plated out a number of organisms on plates for people to look at. We also kept a confluent plate of Streptomyces Albus which we used to allow people to smell the smell of “earth”. In my experience, this is one of the more remarkable demonstrations that can be done since many people know the smell of the forest and have strong associations with it. And here, in the absence of forest and the absence of dirt, is the most earthy-foresty smell you can imagine. It really hits home the idea that bacterial life is all around us and participating in our ecosystem in ways we often do not appreciate.


It was a lot of fun to participate and the success of the event was a testament to the incredible planning of the Science Outreach departments and the Parents-in-Science initiative. Lots of people came by to ask us questions and they loved simply seeing the microbes. Howe did we do? I believe we a successfully conveyed the general arc of how one goes about finding new antibiotics and witnessed a few “brain-click” moments where kids or adults came to a new realization. I think we successfully dealt with a wide range of ages and scientific expertise - in part by having enough visual/tactile things that we could let someone get exposed for a fem minutes while also having enough data/props to take a “deeper-dive” if someone was so inclined. There were two kids in particular that kept at it for longer than I would have thought - asking insightful questions about how isolation works and about microbial behavior.One individual gave us a bit of a hard time that we were showing culture based approaches - I guess he knows Sean and Sean’s advocacy of metagenomic approaches (i.e. NOT culturing) and he goofed on us a bit. So the response we got was all positive.

As a first time booth, the experience went well and I think we offered a halfway decent set of experience-ideas. However, we were up against some serious booth competition. There were multiple Heads-of-Labs that were manning interactive rooms where there were science-themed experiences. There were also some very high-tech and very cool booths including the iDISCO (interactive hi-def brain exploration), and the frog room with many species focusing on developmental biology. It would be cool to think about ways to bring about a more tactile or memorable chemistry/microbiology experience. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to think of a larger microbial-world experience in which antibiotics are only one part of it. The growth of sequencing has, to some extent, upstaged the real living breathing capabilities of microbes and their role in our ecosystem. So to have a few different booths thematically linked - perhaps a set of microscopes and lifecycle focused features would be nice. We can think about it some more and perhaps build off of our current booth for next year’s event.