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January 2011

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NIEHS scientists join tour of Morehead Planetarium

By Sophie Bolick
January 2011

Harriet Kinyamu, Ph.D.

"The Planetarium offers unique opportunities for scientists to become better communicators," says Harriet Kinyamu, Ph.D., staff scientist with the Chromatin and Gene Expression Group( in the Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Intramural Research Training Award Fellow Kelly Mercier, Ph.D.

Mercier is a postdoctoral fellow with the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Group( in the Laboratory of Structural Biology, and she currently serves as President of Rho Tau. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Denise Young, director of Education Programs at Morehead Planetarium

"Visitors love interacting directly with scientists." Young continues, "These interactions leave people with a more realistic impression about what science is and why it's so fun and important." (Photo courtesy of UNC( Exit NIEHS)

NIEHS women scientists joined their colleagues for a special behind-the-scenes tour of the Morehead Planetarium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Nov. 17. Organized by Rho Tau, the local chapter of Graduate Women in Science (GWIS), the tour gave Morehead staff members an opportunity to showcase the science outreach resources available for scientists at NIEHS and elsewhere in the Triangle.

Logo: UNC Morehead Planetarium and Science Center

Among the NIEHS scientists in attendance were Staff Scientist Harriet Kinyamu, Ph.D., and Intramural Research Training Award Fellow Kelly Mercier, Ph.D. Mercier is one of the founders of the Rho Tau chapter of GWIS, an interdisciplinary society of scientists who encourage and support women through outreach and networking activities to enter and achieve success in science. Membership includes women in scientific roles ranging from graduate students and full professors to pharmaceutical company executives.

An active comprehensive science center

Morehead Planetarium( Exit NIEHS is an active comprehensive science center, with activities for all ages. Live shows in the GlaxoSmithKline Fulldome Theater are the centerpiece of a wealth of resources available to the citizens of North Carolina. Demonstrating the successful merger of cutting-edge technology and science, Morehead staff enthusiastically previewed one of their new digital planetarium shows.

While there are plenty of hands-on activities on site, Morehead staff takes science to students around the state through the DESTINY (Delivering Edge-cutting Science Technology and Internet across North Carolina for Years to come) program. In "Brand Name Genes," one of the DESTINY modules available to North Carolina educators, students learn about biotechnology by using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to detect the BRCA mutation in breast cancer - a marker of risk discovered in 1994 by NIEHS researchers in collaboration with a scientist at the University of Utah. This real-life scenario builds the scientific skills of students, while also teaching critical thinking skills.

Scientists' involvement is pivotal to success

"Scientists are critical to the success of Morehead's programs," says Denise Young, director of Education Programs at Morehead Planetarium.  "Behind the scenes, they provide content expertise and review for scientific accuracy."

However, the greatest benefit for both scientists and the public are the opportunities for interaction Morehead offers.  "Many scientists are reinvigorated by explaining what they do and why it's so cool."  Young continued, "One scientist actually told us that by explaining his research to our multimedia folks, he grew to understand his research in a new way."

While Rho Tau provides many networking events for local women scientists, this is the first educational event sponsored by the organization. According to Mercier, "It has always been the desire of the Rho Tau chapter to not only provide the means for women scientists to network, but also expose our members to different types of science."  She and Young tailored the evening to benefit the visiting scientists. "We came up with a program that would not only show our members how their facility is managed, but also how we can help as experts in the community," stated Mercier.

(Sophie Bolick, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow with the Molecular and Genetic Epidemiology Group in the Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis.)

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