Nature Research Center brings science to the people

dmenconi@newsobserver.comApril 15, 2012 

For the past few years, Duke University’s Julie Horvath has been working with Robert Dunn at N.C. State on the “Belly Button Biodiversity Project.” It’s exactly what it sounds like, sequencing microbes and genes swabbed from people’s bellies. It has begat a followup, too – the “Armpit Biodiversity Project,” which explores how odors associated with microbes living in armpits determine people’s choice of mate.

“That’s the fun factor,” Horvath said with a laugh. “Yes, it’s sort of gross. But also intriguing.”

It’s also exactly the sort of thing you’ll see a lot of at the Nature Research Center, where Horvath will continue her work after this week’s grand opening. As one of its four scientific directors, she’ll oversee the microbiology and genomics lab at the center, a place where making science approachable and relatable is job one.

The NRC is the expansion wing of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, and the project is an 80,000-square-foot marvel that’s been in the works for more than a decade in downtown Raleigh. It cost a pretty penny to build – $56 million worth of pretty pennies, in fact – and it’s expected to add another 200,000 visitors to the 700,000 that already visit the museum every year.

While plenty of wonky research will be going on at the center, the emphasis will be a little different. Its mission isn’t just to do science, but to explain science in terms we can all understand. To that end, projects centered on belly button lint and armpit odor help to make science relatable (if also a tad icky).

A pedestrian bridge over Salisbury Street, named in honor of Betsy Bennett, connects the NRC to the old building. That’s fitting, because Bennett is the science museum’s director who shepherded the NRC into being. It’s a bold undertaking, especially in a recession.

Alan Friedman, a New York-based consultant in museum development and science communication, has seen plenty of ambitious museum projects over the past 30 years. But he’s never seen anything quite as audacious as the Nature Research Center.

“If North Carolina pulls this off, it will put them in the ranks of the most innovative natural-history museums in the world,” Friedman said. “Combining research with educating the public about research tools is very difficult to do, and many have tried. We can explain what we found, but explaining how we found it and knew it was right is far more challenging. The North Carolina museum is tackling that head-on.”

Living up to its price

“You see it on the stage” is something you hear when a fancy theatrical production spends a lot of money and spends it well. You could say something similar about the NRC, which is state of the art in every way. Its three floors boast a number of spectacular exhibits, including the iconic SECU “Daily Planet” multimedia sphere (also the most iconic feature from outside); the “Patterns of Nature” ribbon that plunges through the atrium in the shape of a water slide; and the articulated skeleton of Stumpy, the legendary right whale who died in a 2004 ship strike off the North Carolina coast.

The center was built with environmental sustainability in mind and keen attention to detail. The sidewalks are permeable, with water-recovery systems to minimize rainwater runoff. Solar collectors generate a significant chunk of the electricity needed to run the place, and 30 parking spaces in the garage are fitted with electric-car charging stations. Tinted windows cut down on heat while allowing as much ambient natural lighting inside as possible. The bathrooms are green, of course. And the granite staircase in the main lobby appears to fly through the air without visible support, like something you’d see at the “Harry Potter” wizard academy Hogwarts.

If all you want to do is partake of the exhibits and displays, there’s plenty to see and do. But if you want to interact with scientists as they work, or perhaps even do some science yourself, that will be an option. That’s an aspect that Lindsay Zanno, director of the center’s paleontology and geology lab, looks forward to.

“I’ve always been looking for a venue that would allow me to do a lot of public outreach,” she said. “Get creative about bringing the public into the research process. This is the perfect opportunity. The NRC won’t just hand out the line, ‘This is what we know about the natural world.’ It will help people understand that we don’t know everything, and the processes we use to find out.”

A humble beginning

The first N.C. Museum of Natural Science opened in 1879 on Fayetteville Street, and it was a modest institution for its first century or so. That began to change with Bennett’s arrival as director in 1990.

She bolstered the museum’s permanent collection in the late 1990s by acquiring the dinosaur skull that has become its visual icon, with $3 million contributed from an anonymous donor. Then in 2000, the museum opened its impressive current building on Jones Street.

That building hadn’t been open long when Bennett charged ahead with plans to open a bigger, better and more unusual research wing. The communication fostered by the NRC will be scientist to scientist as well as scientist to citizen. The museum’s model calls for global town hall meetings involving scientists from far-off places. It will also have the capacity to beam information and presentations to classrooms across the state.

“Most museums don’t normally have scientists on the floor talking to visitors,” said NRC director Margaret Lowman. “We’ll have a huge emphasis on cutting-edge technology to appeal to the younger generation, too. So visitors can access science virtually, watch it on a 40-foot-high screen in the Daily Planet, meet scientists and even work in labs collecting data for a project that might affect their own daily lives. A lot of institutions offer one or the other part, but the NRC is transformative in combining all of them.”

To that end, “citizen science” will be a big part of the NRC’s agenda. Roland Kays, director of the center’s earth observation and biodiversity lab, is already helping people run “camera traps” that record photos and video footage of animals that walk in front of it.

“People bring the data back and we’ll register it in the database,” Kays said. “Which animals live where and how they behave in these clips. It’s fun to set a camera, go back a week later and see what you’ve got.”

Public participation

There are a lot of good reasons to get the public more directly involved in the scientific process. For one thing, more people recording data on things like bird migrations will yield more accurate and detailed information than scientists can compile on their own. For another, the gap between science and the public has widened in recent years over issues including climate change and evolution.

“There needs to be a culture change in the scientific community,” said Dan Solomon, dean of N.C. State’s College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. “My generation of scientists demeaned people like Carl Sagan for getting out there and appearing in public media. Scientists were just supposed to talk to other scientists. We have to change that. We can’t complain that the public and legislators don’t understand climate change, evolution, vaccines or anything else if we’re not out there communicating about it to the general public. It seems like a simple idea, but it’s absolutely radical.”

Lowman said it’s up to the scientific community to present data about such issues in an understandable way, to create a more scientifically literate population. Making the case for science used to be regarded as unnecessary, but Lowman thinks it’s no longer optional.

“We certainly need to respect and consider economic arguments about science, too,” she said. “Science has not been making good economic arguments for the economic importance of, say, forests – which save trillions by cleansing water, providing building materials, storing carbon, producing oxygen and controlling climate. It’s on us to make that known, and it’s what the next generation of researchers are focused on. The language of science is changing, becoming clearer and more relevant. The NRC is going to be a big part of that.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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