Astrobotany Outreach at UW Science Expeditions

Today, I headed over with members of the Gilroy Lab to the UW Health Sciences Learning Center to participate in Science Expeditions 2017. Science Expeditions is a public event where different researchers around the University present their work. Our focus for the day was plant cell biology and microscopy, but we talked about astrobotany research as well.

astrobotany uw health sciences learning center
Folks gather around to learn about UW’s scientific research

We drove over from the Botany building and started setting up around 9:40 am. We brought 2 microscopes, 2 handheld microscopes, 2 monitors, some vegetables, slides, a replica of the VEGGIE plant growth system, a model of a SpaceX Falcon rocket, and some M&Ms. We also brought a passion for science.

expeditions 2017 astrobotany uw hslc
The Gilroy Lab’s station at Science Expeditions 2017

There was a great turnout and lots of people stopped to peruse our station. We had cross-sections of celery available for viewing under the microscope; their vascular bundles and collenchyma were very clear. One kid asked me, “Have you grown celery in space?” I looked at Simon (our PI) uncertainly and said “You know, I don’t think so.” Simon also shook his head skeptically, “No, I don’t think so. No, we haven’t. You see, the thing with eating celery is you burn more calories chewing than you actually retain from it so it’s not very good for feeding astronauts.” Very cool. Then the boy asked me, “Have you been in space?” I laughed.  “No I actually haven’t. How about you? Do you want to go to space?” “No,” he replied, “I think it’s too dangerous.” That could very well be.

It was a good time talking to people about our research and explaining aspects of plant biology. It is absolutely true that teaching something helps you learn it. The gaps in my knowledge became so apparent when someone came up with a good question I did not know the answer to.

I walked around for a bit and visited Björn from the Biotron laboratory, because his station was relevant to astrobotany. He had a clinostat and a ground control plant growth module from the Space Shuttle Columbia Launch STS-73. Read about these below:

astrobotany uw clinostat biotron
This plant clinostat rotates every 20 minutes. You can see compared to the control (NO ROTATION) that it is growing perfectly sideways. If you were to look at its roots they would also be parallel to the ground. Clinostats are used to mimic microgravity.
STS-73 Columbia Plant Growth Module Astrobotany
This plant growth module was the ground control for STS-73 Columbia in 1995. This module did not actually go to space, but was the control for an exact copy that flew on that mission.

All in all, it was great seeing so many families and children enthusiastic about science research. They’d all make good astrobotanists, I think.

Let’s grow plants in space.

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