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Exhibits showcase U. research, scientific innovation

Demonstrations and lectures give attendees interactive understanding of biology, neuroscience and technology

From biology to physics, robotics to design, Sidney Frank Hall for Life Sciences to Prince Engineering Laboratory, the sciences at Brown threw open their doors this weekend and welcomed visitors of all ages, backgrounds and interests into the vast array of experiences that science at Brown offers. With over a dozen events highlighting University research, participants were able to walk away with an idea of the range of research that occurs both on and off campus.

Eve Ornstedt, executive director of the Office of the 250th anniversary and director of career and admission programs for the Office of Alumni Relations, said “We wanted the broad spectrum of the academic arena to be represented over the weekend.”

Ornstedt said having members of different science divisions on the steering committee  broadened the types of science events that could be included in the weekend’s program.

While some departments put on pre-established programs that they often give to the public, others “took the initiative” to create their own demonstrations specifically for the 250th celebration, such as the “Mini-Museum” hosted by the Brown Institute for Brain Science, Ornstedt said.

The intersection between old and new was a prominent theme this weekend, she added. “We are absolutely trying to convey from where we started to where we are today.”

The main goal for the sciences this weekend was to “excite people about the work that is being done here,” she said, adding that many people walk by buildings like Sidney Frank Hall without realizing what goes on inside.


A touchy-feely weekend

Many of the weekend’s events allowed participants to touch and interact with scientific demonstrations.

In the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, participants had the chance to explore the Rhode Island Museum of Science and Art’s hands-on display, which featured activities that melded arts and sciences.

Our mission is to “kindle curiosity and encourage experimentation,” said President of the RIMOSA Board Bonnie Epstein ’94. “I think that’s the root of both science and art.”

Epstein said the items placed around the room were there for people to “simply experiment” within a less structured setting. Some of the activities included a flight tube where people could observe the aerodynamics of different objects such as ribbons and paper helicopters as they flew up and out of the tube. There was also a zoetrope where attendees could draw their own animation strips and watch them come to life through the spinning slots. Paper kites adorned the glass walls of the room, ready to be written on.

In tune with the theme of imagination and possibilities, RIMOSA coordinators invited people to “write their hopes and dreams on one of the kites,” Epstein said. This summer, all 250 kites will be strung together and flown at the Newport kite festival.

Across the street in Sidney Frank Hall, anniversary celebrants examined magnetic resonance imaging technology during tours of the University MRI Research Facility. MRI researchers and technicians demonstrated the types of images the machines can produce and the information that can be derived from the images. Guided in groups of up to ten, the tours were interactive and allowed participants to ask questions and get an up-close view of the technology.

Upstairs, people explored BIBS’ interactive “mini-museum.”  One exhibit demonstrated the effects of alcohol on the brain by looking at the effect of alcohol on fruit flies. Researchers gave one group of drosophila flies alcohol and another group water. The inebriated flies initially acted excited but then gradually lost their ability to fly and walk correctly. After their uncoordinated dancing, the flies slowed down and eventually died.

Attendees also had the opportunity to try out technology used in Brown labs, such as a robotic arm used to aid people with paralysis, a mobile eye tracker and a system called near-infrared spectroscopy that measures activity in the brain through sensors on a headband.

Researchers at the event explained the hidden mechanisms of the technology, while the participants experimented with the equipment.

Some researchers, like Professor of Engineering Kenneth Breuer ’82 P’14 P’16, who studies bats in the Prince Engineering Laboratory, invited participants directly into their labs.

Tacked up in between bits of machinery in the lab, different posters and computer monitors described the myriad facets of bat flight that the lab studies, from muscle tension to echolocation. Videos and high speed cameras were on display to demonstrate how information on the bats is gathered. For the more tactile learners, different models of bat wings and bones were laid out for observation.

“We study everything from live animals to robots to biomechanics,” Breuer said. “We’ve just been explaining all the features.”

Though the lab experienced a lull in activity in the early afternoon, Breuer said the demonstrations attracted visitors of all age ranges throughout the entire day.  “We’ve had a lot of kids coming through so we’re showing them different things for them to play with,” he added.

Though live animals could not be included in the day’s demonstration, attendees of “Bats in Flight” still walked away with a more complete picture of what happens in the lab, Breuer said.


In conversation 

Multiple professors also gave talks throughout the weekend, describing their research using readily accessible language, opening their work up to people of all levels of scientific expertise.

Eric Morrow, assistant professor of biology, discussed recent developments in methods used to research autism in children Saturday afternoon. Morrow’s work strives to improve treatment and diagnosis of autism by manipulating genes and stem cells. Technological breakthroughs in the past few decades have rapidly advanced the methods used to conduct autism research, Morrow said. For example, when the Human Genome Project began in 1990, sequencing a person’s genome required 10 years and $3 billion — today it takes only a week and $3,000.

Using videos of her son, Dima Amso, assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, demonstrated the large amount of information that children absorb during their first years of life in her talk on brain and cognitive development.

“The environment writes on the developing brain,” she said, referring to the human brain as “a brain that builds itself.”

Age-based theories are not adequate to understand cognitive development because they do not take into account the effects that factors such as socioeconomic status have on a child’s growth, she said.

To show the variation in development that different environments can produce, Amso used the example of children who grow up in orphanages and receive very little parenting. In these situations, some children can be classified “orchids,” as their environments greatly impact their cognitive development, while other children are “dandelions” because they show little effect from their surroundings and are able to thrive in any conditions.


- With additional reporting from Isobel Heck


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