Georgia Oppenheim, graduate student in the Department of Anthropology, teaches the evolution of teeth structure in hominin species at the Museum of Natural History Sunday afternoon. Keith Melong/Daily. Buy this photo.

Located at the Museum of Natural History, students from the molecular, cellular and developmental (MCDB) biology department and the School of Music, Theatre, & Dance (SMTD) collaborated to present the performance art piece “Movement Under the Microscope.” The event was part of the Science Communications Fellows program and included a Scientist Spotlight Day in an effort to increase public outreach of ongoing research. The Scientist Spotlight offers Michigan researchers a chance to share their work with museum visitors and increase accessibility for K-12 students. 

The museum’s Scientist Spotlight Day featured researchers and students from a diverse array of science backgrounds in hopes of increasing engagement and awareness of the University research community. This event is a continuous museum initiative and requires its Science Communications Fellows to participate in hosting hands-on activities and games for visitors of all ages and interests. Research topics ranged from measuring relationships between mental health and climate change, as well as the psychology behind COVID-19. 

Rackham student Claudia Mak presented on how photosynthetic cyanobacteria can rid the atmosphere of excess carbon dioxide. Mak also added that the pandemic revealed a personal need for science communication.

“I’m really interested in science communication in general, in speaking to the public and really helping bridge that gap between public understanding and knowledge of science and how science is actually conducted because I feel like, especially we’ve seen with the pandemic, there’s a lot of fear around what science actually is,” Mak said. “I want to help people understand what (researchers) actually do.”

After the first half of the event, visitors gathered in the west atrium of the museum for the “Movement Under the Microscope” science theater production. This performance showcased the process of cell movement and cytoskeleton functions through human choreography. MCDB assistant professor Morgan DeSantas and Tzveta Kassabova, SMTD associate professor of theater and drama, combined their respective classes to create the performance. 

DeSantas said she received a grant from the National Science Foundation for the event, and that the event was important to promote public outreach and share value of accessible science communication with students.

“The goal was really to develop something that would make content for the museum, that would teach something about the cytoskeleton in a way that’s accessible for a broad audience and also to give the STEM students experience conveying abstract ideas in a more simplified way and give the movement students experience in themes of science,” DeSantas said.

Kassabova said there are similarities between MCDB and theater, including a focus on movement, which made the collaboration possible.

“In a way, both classes are working from movement in the different capacities, so it was fun to take ideas from biology and science and to see how we can interpret them with the movement,” Kassabova said. “The scale is very different, but it was fun to observe what’s happening in the cell on a very different level and … to make it visible for the human eye.”

Jade Marks, science communications manager for the museum, served as a liaison between the museum and the classes throughout the planning of the performance. Marks said the involvement of SMTD students was an integral part of making science accessible. 

“Science is really for everyone, and should be for everyone,” Marks said. “It can be fun. It can be beautiful. It can be inspirational. And so I hope that this performance is that for all of those (SMTD) students, and they continue to seek out these kinds of collaborations that push them outside of their comfort zones as they go on in their professional careers.”

Kassabova said the performance helped STEM students gain a new appreciation for physical intelligence and movement. LSA senior Vaishnavi Krishnan, a member of the MCDB class involved in the performance, said she had no prior art or performing experience. However, she said she appreciated the openness of the event and that it taught her new ways to visualize biological concepts, such as polymerization.

“I think that, especially in science classes, sometimes it’s really hard to be able to visualize some of the processes going on because it’s on such a small scale, and it can be so abstract at times,” Krishnan said. “I think this class was a great way for me to see you can actually represent these things and in really easy ways.”

During the event, the museum was also visited by various eighth-grade classes from local Michigan schools. Marks said middle and high school students are being asked to decide on professional paths and career choices at increasingly earlier ages and said she hopes students do not see the arts and sciences at odds with one another, but rather as complementary fields of study. 

“It doesn’t have to be science or the arts or the humanities versus technology or however we try to parse out and divide up our world,” Marks said. “It’s okay to love science and love art, and it’s okay to work at the intersection of these disciplines. It’s a meaningful and fulfilling place to be.”

Daily News Reporter Sirianna Blanck can be reached at sirianna@umich.edu.