A Simple Question—Why Science Outreach

This is a reprint from the St. Jude e-Insider, an internal publication, that I wanted to share. Enjoy!!

00160356-005Postdoctoral Research Associate Michael Johnson, PhD, Immunology, shares the attributes of asking “why.”

I have two daughters: Michaela is 6, and Camille is 3. Right now, Camille is in her “why” phase.

“Because we need to clean up our toys.”
“So we don’t trip over them. Also, stepping on Legos hurts.”

Surely she knows that tripping over something is bad, or that stepping on something hurts, but it is almost a reflex to keep asking why. Interestingly, there is not a big what phase, or a how phase, or a where phase, so why is there a why phase. More importantly, how is that related to scientific outreach?

Many organizations are built with everyone knowing what they do, without knowing the how or the why. At St. Jude, we know the overall mission; we know the why. As a matter of fact, many people outside of St. Jude know the why too. The why makes St. Jude successful because the why is inspiring. As author Simon Sinek has pointed out, the why is at our core of emotion. Why leads us to the how and the what, not the other way around.

By doing scientific outreach, I get to share why I do science. I share the joy and satisfaction I get from helping people and inspire them to go out and do the same no matter what discipline they choose. I get to change their mindset of what an inner-city, Chicago-born, single-parent raised and public-school taught black male can achieve after having heard them and their parents say, “I didn’t know a scientist could look like you.” I get to invest in their futures.

“So what does a scientist look like?”

This is one of the questions I asked students at Bellevue Middle School—the St. Jude Adopt-A-School—where we provide resources like tutoring, a podcast, science experiment days (like DNA Day, which will be April 16 of this year)–and, where employees discuss their occupations for the Career Connections program. The “what does a scientist look like” question got a variety of responses from “someone with crazy hair” to “wears a lab coat” to “has huge glasses.” Inevitably, one kid would chime in and say “you” or “they could look like anyone.” From there we continue the conversation on why I do what I do and why I love science. I tell them what it feels like to be the first person in the world to know a new scientific fact, the Eureka! moment. I tell them about the people who are helped by the research that scientists like me do on a daily basis.

Once they understand the why behind it all, they want to know more about the “what.” Their curiosity is primed. The students engage in a scientific discussion. We talk about what I do as a scientist, about homework and we even compare scientific principles to superhero powers—by far, my favorite discussion.

With all the science misinformation, it is important for the next generation to be able to ask why, for them to be able to dig deeper and find the real sources of information. It is important to inspire them early and often and show them what could be, instead of what misconceptions tell them.

So, what do I get out of it?  It is my opportunity to give back for what has been invested into me. It is essential to the why of my scientific journey.


Pi Day Podcast and Meeting the Mayor

First things first, IT IS PI DAY!!!! That means another podcast released as close to Pi time as I could in my time zone. In this episode, I interview Dr. Amber Smith, a faculty member microphone-21at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In the theme of Pi day, Dr. Smith is a BioMathematician. The title of the episode is “Knocking Infections Off the Catwalk with Models.” Dr. Smith provided some GREAT slides to go along with the interview so I think you will really learn a lot. Here is a sample of the episode. For the whole episode, click here or follow the link at the top of the page to sign up. And if you are on twitter, be sure to use #SSBPodcast to talk about the Science Sound Bites Podcast.

Next, I did a STEM expo at Whitehaven Elementary School on Thursday. It was a lot of fun as I was an honored guest along with a member of the FAA and the MAYOR! Along with have a St. Jude room to talk about our research and about what St. Jude does to help people, I got to give a talk to the school STEM students. I thought it would be best to talk about music and baseball, because, why not?? I’ll link the talk once I have it and some of the pictures. The kids were great, very engaging and most had done a science fair project. The principal of 4 years has done some wonderful things that that inner city public school, from failing to exceeding. Kudos to him!! I’ll talk about that in my next blog post. I also did a guest piece in the St. Jude insider. I’ll post that one later too.

Cheers and go get some Pi…I mean pie,



The Juggling Scientist: Tips for not Letting Things Fall

February was a good month! In the month of February, my podcast went live and I got, not one, but two papers published from my first postdoc (oh if only I could keep that pace up). There is a third and fourth out for review, and one more in the cue to get out the door. This is occurring while trying to adjust in a new laboratory. It is my second postdoc, in immunology this time. There are many exciting projects I am trying to get off the ground. Then there is also applying/waiting to hear from now funding (Ford Fellowship, UNCF/MERCK, NIH supplement) and later funding (K awards). Plus, I am starting to do a heavy job search, as I would love to start an academia faculty position by next fall. Did I mention that I also would like to see my family and sleep?

juggleScientifically, I am very fortunate. I can’t complain at all. ‘Tis better to have something to write about/work on/work towards then to have nothing at all. But, yes, this is overwhelming, very overwhelming. I feel like I have three jobs, get old papers out, get new projects working, and look for a job. With that, I just wanted to share three things I do to keep things out in front of me.

1. Creating the Project Master – Keep track of your projects, new and old.

In my first postdoc, I kept a list of every project I had in the lab. Try it! Make a list of all the distinct things that you are working on right now. By distinct, I mean what would make a paper on its own. Keep that document planted on your desktop. Here are some rules for doing it, but feel free to experiment to see what works for you.

a. Don’t delete anything off this list! You need to see what you have done in the past. If it didn’t work, then cross it out, but don’t delete it.

b. Add to it. This one is pretty self-explanatory. New project or paper theme, new bullet point.

c. Reword. This is to be more consistent with where things are going with the projects. The focus of a paper can change, and so should the title heading if needed.

d. Reorder. Prioritize which project is on the front burner and the back burner.

e. Combine/separate. Ideas merge and diverge. List accordingly!

I would look at your project master every month or so to help focus you. It can also serve as a nice cheat sheet to show the boss when they wonder what you have been doing in lab. Next, look at themes. Are there certain types of projects there that you enjoy more? That work better? That are b-b-bad projects.

2. Expand on the projects that are working and then diagram the paper.

Write down bullet points on what you have, and what you think you need. Write down the end game or what you think you will get from the line of experiments. It isn’t written in stone, the data is the data of course, but at least you will have a direction. Then, put all the data into PowerPoint. If you don’t have the data, then make a “to be added later” slide. This will make making talks and lab meeting easier too.

3. PubMed alerts. I have roughly 30 PubMed alerts on prominent scientist in the field, topics, journals, and even one on an entire university. I find these alerts serve as headlines to keep easy tabs of what is going on in the scientific community. Try to make a few and see how it works out.

Hopefully these tips will help you as much has they have helped me.



Also, if you are interested in the STEM podcast for middle and high schoolers please click here and fill out the form. We have a special pi day podcast coming up.


image credit http://scienceofjuggling.com/howtojuggle.html#