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NIEHS Challenge Team Brings "Scores of Spores" to the Small Screen

By Eddy Ball
March 2007

small labratory
After dreaming of an entire house for a set, what the NIEHS team finally ended up with was a small lab. (Photo courtesy of Mike Humble)

kids and Discovery crew member Path Chulada
While the kids ran their experiments, the Discovery crew filmed from the other side of the bench. NIEHS Team Member Pat Chulada, left, looked on during one of the scenes. (Photo courtesy of Mike Humble)

filming of a Discovery Channel show
Space was always at a premium during filming. Here the Discovery crew maneuvers in for a shot over the heads of the young researchers. (Photo courtesy of Mike Humble)

Petri dishes of mold
Some of the samples the kids collected were "mock mold," but thanks to Pat Chulada's New Orleans connections, the mold in these Petri dishes was very real. (Photo courtesy of Mike Humble)

parents gathered at a reception
Parents were excluded from the competition and filming, but they joined their children at a reception and banquet afterwards. (Photo courtesy of Mike Humble)

Mike Humble, Path Chulada and Salo
Humble, the team's skeletal mascot, "Bones," Chulada and Salo were eager to head back to RTP after an exhausting weekend of activities and filming. (Photo courtesy of Mike Humble)

During a lunch-time presentation on February 8, Health Science Administrator Mike Humble, Ph.D., gave his colleagues a behind-the-scenes look at how an NIEHS team played its part in the 2006 Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge (DCYSC). Filmed last October at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, highlights of the event were featured in a television special aired last month.

The NIEHS competition was called "Scores of Spores: Mold, Human Health and the Indoor Environment" and featured a welcome and introductory video of NIEHS Director David Schwartz, M.D., discussing health problems linked to exposure to molds. The "Scores of Pores" mold challenge called upon the young scientific investigators to detect evidence of mold in the indoor environment, collect samples, identify the molds and recommend effective remediation for a hypothetical school setting.

Each year since 1999, the Discovery Channel has chosen a theme for the Young Scientist Challenge and contacted a scientific organization to design age-appropriate exercises for the competition. Working with the 2006 theme, "Disease Detectives," NIEHS, along with three other institutes and the NIH Clinical Center, created hands-on health-related scientific activities linked to such global health concerns as mold, avian flu and obesity.

Working with Arts and Photography, NIEHS scientists created an introductory presentation showing the life cycle of mold, where it is found, the positive and negative aspects of mold, health concerns related to mold, ways to detect it and remediation strategies. The team created special lab books for collecting and recording data, a booklet for each team's final report, a mold identification key with color photographs of the most common indoor molds, and instruction manuals for the sample collection equipment used in the challenge. Along with collection equipment, the young people had access to high-quality microscopes and sealed Petri dish samples to help them identify the molds.

The Discovery Channel describes the Young Scientist Challenge as the nation's premier science contest for students in grades 5-8. Contestants are the 40 middle-school finalists selected from the more than 60,000 students around the United States who participate in science and engineering fairs affiliated with Science Service. Judges select the finalists based on their exceptional performance in oral, visual and written presentations.

The 40 young scientists selected in 2006 aspired to become "America's Top Young Scientist of the Year" and take home a scholarship of $20,000. Second and third place winners received $10,000 and $5,000 scholarships, and the remaining finalists got $500 scholarships for completing the competition. All finalists received an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., event shirt, $50 gift certificate, DCYSC medal and plaques. In addition, DCYSC awarded 15 additional prizes, such as a week in Space Camp or at the National Zoo, for other team and individual accomplishments.

According to Humble, the competition wasn't nearly as much about accuracy as about scientific problem solving, communication and team work. Identifying molds is a challenge even for experts, and some of the sites used "mock mold" created by NIEHS scientists. After the teams completed their challenge activities, they presented their results and recommendations to the NIEHS scientists and judges.

As much fun as the team had, Humble quickly dispelled any illusions about the glitz and glamour of working in TV. In the course of putting the NIEHS challenge together, he recalled, the team dealt with shifting expectations and false starts, while struggling to finish the project on time. Once the filming began, Humble and Laboratory of Respiratory Biology Fellow Paivi Salo, Ph.D., spent long, nerve-wracking days under hot lights in crowded working conditions.

"We were told initially that 'the sky was the limit' in the creation and construction of our challenge" Humble explained, "but in the end we found ourselves in one bay of a lab." Still, despite all the difficulties he faced throughout the process, Humble thoroughly enjoyed the experience of working with the Discovery Channel crews. "This has got to be one of the highlights of my career here," he admitted, and he speculated, only partly in jest, about moving into TV production full-time one day.

The NIEHS Challenge Team

Although Humble and Salo were the main figures at "ground zero" in Bethesda throughout filming, the Challenge Team included many people from DIR, DERT and Arts and Photography who put in a lot of time and hard work making the challenge a success.

DIR: Sam Arbes, D.D.S., Perry Blackshear, M.D., Patricia Chulada, Ph.D., Stephanie London, M.D., David Schwartz, M.D., and Daryl Zeldin, M.D.

DERT: Liam O'Fallon

Arts and Photography: Paul Cacioppo, John Maruca and Steve McCaw

In addition, many other NIEHS employees and contractors helped out when the team needed supplies, equipment and goodies for the students. When it came to making the project happen, Humble noted, "Everybody went to bat for us and helped however they could."

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