Highway to the Science Zone
By GeekGirlCon Copy Writer Erin Doherty
When my fellow copy writers and I decided that I—as a non-sciency person*—would be the one to cover the DIY Science Zone at GeekGirlCon ‘13, I had no idea how much fun I would have. I figured I’d check out a few of the experiments, talk to a few scientists and a few participants, and be done in less than an hour.
Two hours later, I’d made liquids change color with the power of my breath, I created some Gak-like goo using common household items, and I got up close and personal with the DNA of some strawberries, to name just a few of the experiments I conducted with the guidance and encouragement from the friendly scientists on hand.
First up was the goo, with Raychelle Burks, aka Dr. Rubidium, aka the driving force behind the DIY Science Zone! Joining me for the sliminess were two awesome girls, friends Dana and Chloe. Their enthusiasm was contagious as we poured substances like Borax, food coloring, and glue into plastic baggies and squished and squished and squished. Eventually, the familiar substance began forming and we were able to take it out of the baggie and play with it. It had the sort of wet, squishy texture of Gak, but way less stinky. Dr. Burks did a great job explaining the science behind the substance’s properties, but I was having too much fun to take notes. Oops!
I said good-bye to my science buddies and moved on to making craters with Dr. Matthew Francis. I used rubber balls, marbles, and cake-sized tins full of cocoa powder to create mini-craters. When meteorites crash into the
cocoa earth, and create craters, they leave behind traces that help us work backward and recreate geological history. But the coolest part was when he showed off a tiny piece of the famous meteor that crashed down in Russia last winter.
I couldn’t resist stopping at the table promising a CSI-like experience. Professional chemist Chemjobber led me through the process that uses the molecule ninhydrin to reveal fingerprints. Fingerprints are colorless, and ninhydrin (suspended in acetone) is colorless, but when you heat it up (we used a clothing iron), it speeds up a chemical reaction that results in the fingerprints turning a purplish color. I had an “a-ha” moment when he started explaining that ninhydrin’s molecular structure is similar to that of indigo dye: I’d never before thought about how molecular structure plays a big part in color!
Next up, Dr. Charity Lovitt (who teaches chemistry at Seattle University) helped me remember some of that long-forgotten high school science: acids and bases. Basically (she punned), red cabbage juice is a base and the CO2 in your breath (or club soda) acts as an acid. We started with a pale purple cabbage juice (science is stinky!), which I blew into using a straw. After a minute or so, the color changed noticeably to a darker purple. A few squirts of lemon juice —citric acid—rendered the liquid suddenly pink! Getting back to basics (okay, that pun was mine), we added baking soda to the mixture and ended up with a blue-green concoction. If memory serves, she said that what we were doing was adding and subtracting hydrogen ions, which resulted in all these color changes. Again: molecules and color in close relationship.
Moving on, I met Dr. Stephen Granade—a physicist by trade, he was helping out today in the field of genetics. Two delightful co-experimenters joined me this time: Moire and her mom Holly. We covered some basics of genetics (DNA makes up genes which make up chromosomes), and he used an analogy that captured my mind: if DNA are letters, then genes are a sentence. And alleles are the different kind of sentences you can have.
To illustrate, we tested one gene (out of over 20,000 that humans have) by placing small paper strips on our tongues for a few seconds. Immediately, Moire and Holly (related biologically) made noises of disgust and spit out the paper. They said it kind of tasted like earwax, bitter and icky. I was puzzled because I didn’t taste anything whatsoever. It turns out that the strips were loaded with phenylthiocarbaminde (PTC). Being able to taste PTC is a dominant trait, which explains why mother and daughter both picked up the taste. Because I could not taste it, that means both my birth father and my birth mother also could not taste it. As an adoptee, I tend to find things like genetics especially fascinating—I had no idea when I woke up this morning that I would be making a discovery about my biological family!
Finally, I landed at the strawberry table. Lali DeRosier, member of the rad Curly Hair Mafia and high school biology teacher, came all the way from Florida to show GeekGirlCon attendees how to extract DNA from strawberries. First, we smashed the strawberries inside a baggie to help the wall around the DNA come down. Next we added detergent to get rid of the membrane. Why detergent? Well, membranes are made of lipids. Lipids are oil and grease. And what does detergent do? Cuts through oil and grease! Bam! We then poured the extraction into a test tube and added alcohol. And suddenly, there was DNA. Cloudy, stringy DNA, visible to the naked eye. We were able to pull strands of it out of the test tube using a small stick. I was totally fascinated by this process, and DeRosier was an excellent teacher, encouraging my tablemates and I to think about what we already knew and apply it to what we were doing.
I can honestly say that this was the unexpected highlight of my first GeekGirlCon, and I hope it becomes a regular fixture for years to come. More than one adult I talked to said that they wished something like this had existed when they were younger but were so glad to have it now to encourage kids’ (especially girls) interest in science. The opportunity to get hands-on and to meet actual scientists of all genders and ethnicities and disciplines was more than just educational—it was inspiring and heartwarming.
All the scientists were so friendly and down-to-earth; any fears I had about being intimidated by the science were completely quelled as we chatted. They all talked about the importance of introducing folks to science, and, as Dr. Granade said, taking science down off the pedestal and making it accessible to everyone. If the consistently packed DIY Science Zone and the laughs and looks of wonder of the participants of all ages are any indication, they succeeded and then some. They’ll still be going strong until mid-afternoon on Sunday, the last day of GeekGirlCon, so while you’re checking out all the merch options on Level 3, stop in at the Zone!
*Please note that any scientific errors here are my own and feel free to correct me in the comments if needed!