Environmental Factor, July 2011, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
NIEHS trainee wows Science Café audience
By Eddy Ball
In a note afterwards to Stumpf, above, event organizer Katey Ahmann, of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), wrote, "You did a great job and I have received many comments on how much people enjoyed your presentation and the café in general." (Photo courtesy of Alan Neifeld)
This audience member holds a microphone as he waits his turn to ask Stumpf a question. DENR technicians record the Science Café talks, which are available afterwards online as podcasts and, by special request, in transcripts. (Photo courtesy of Alan Neifeld)
Postdoctoral fellow Jeffrey Stumpf, Ph.D., presented an engaging introduction to DNA before a capacity audience at Raleigh's latest Science Café on June 22.
Stumpf spoke without slides or notes to some 100 attendees, ranging from a contingent of fellow NIEHS scientists to people with limited backgrounds in science and even some of their children, gathered in an informal venue at Raleigh's Irregardless Café to satisfy their appetites for good food and new information about science. The enthusiastic audience gave Stumpf several rounds of applause, enjoyed his humor, and took full advantage of an extended question-and-answer session at the end.
Communicating science to the community
Stumpf is a member of the NIEHS Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group in the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics (LMG) headed by Principal Investigator and LMG Acting Chief Bill Copeland, Ph.D. Along with his scientific research, Stumpf is involved in career development activities, including communicating science to more general audiences through outreach activities in schools and community settings, and writing about science for the Environmental Factor newsletter (see story (https://factor.niehs.nih.gov/2011/july/science-copeland/)).
As he began his talk, Stumpf remarked on the burgeoning interest among journalists and the general public about DNA research. "It's something that's really hitting all the non-scientists out there," he said. "It's very important that, as scientists, we get the information out to the public about what we are doing, and how we're trying to improve medical science and human health."
Stumpf used several down-to-earth metaphors and humorous analogies to hook his audience, and he took full advantage of the sensational statistics about DNA function and replication to keep his listener's attention. He described the double helix as twisted railroad tracks, compared repairing DNA breaks to coping with the stress response from an overbearing and demanding mother in law, and amazed the audience with the sheer magnitude of the genome.
"There are 3.3 billion base pairs in every one of your cells," Stumpf explained. "With most of us having 10 to the 13th [10 trillion] cells in our bodies, that means that if you strung every piece of DNA one by one, you'd be able to do 67 round trip travels to the sun from the earth." Turning to DNA replication, he added more fuel to his presentation. "The DNA polymerase makes about one mistake per 100,000 base pairs, and that's pretty impressive, except that there's about 3.3 billion base pairs in a genome. So you're looking at about 30,000 mistakes in replication."
Stumpf also talked briefly about the advantages of bacteria and yeast models for studying genetics, as well as some mouse models of mitochondrial DNA mutations involved in aging and disease. But with a sense of his audience's interests in how genetics research will impact their lives, toward the end of his talk, he moved away from his expertise and out of his comfort zone of basic genetic research and microbiology, into the potential for translation of research findings into drug development, personalized medicine, and targeted therapies, which sparked even more audience interest and raised a few questions that Stumpf had to concede that he just couldn't answer.
Founded in 2006, Raleigh's Science Café series is sponsored by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences(http://naturalsciences.org/) and the scientific research society Sigma Xi for communicating science to the public. The series, which is part of a national movement in the U.S., features monthly talks by scientists of nearly every specialty to give citizens access to scientific developments and face-to-face contact with scientists at the community level in informal settings, such as restaurants, coffee shops, and taverns.