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Talking Science: The Process of Scientific Discovery

By Lizzie Krisch

When we think of science, do we think of: DIY projects, lab "hacks" and crafting? Usually not. But, why? The process to scientific discovery can be difficult, atypical and even...crafty.

I had already begun naming them. The smaller Tupperware housed a small colony of Lasius Niger ants, and the larger Tupperware held sizable population of Aphaenogaster picea ants. I marveled at them. Nothing in their enclosure had been purchased from an “ant” outlet (if such a thing even existed!), nor had any large sum of money been invested into their habitats. Rather, everything had been “hacked”.

But, let me back up.

Earlier this year, Dr. Jeanne Garbarino, Director at RockEDU Science Outreach, introduced Talking Science; a longstanding Rockefeller University tradition—dating back to 1959—and an excellent example of science outreach. This annual and free event is made available to high school students and teachers across the boroughs of New York City in an effort to expose passionate and driven students to science via lectures and interactive scientific activities.

This year, the featured speaker, Dr. Daniel Kronauer, Head of Laboratory of Social Evolution and Behavior, delivered two lectures relating to his work on social behaviors in captive and wild populations of ants.

As Jeanne introduced the history of Rockefeller—its scientists with their achievements, failures and iterations—the integrity of that process was made evident.

Science is more than just the end-product. In fact, the end product rarely encapsulates the entirety of the effort. The people. The trial-and-error. The changes in methodology. This is the science.

Often, as individuals not physically in the lab, we develop an impression of science, either based on media or our own preconceptions. We may hear about a high-tech piece of equipment, or, a ground-breaking discovery—both of which are relevant, significant and exciting!—, but, we rarely hear much beyond that. When we skip to the end of the story, and focus on the “last chapter” we lose the layers of creativity and the dynamic individuals and processes that birthed the discovery.

The truth is, that “end-product” that you’re hearing about, likely originated from numerous iterations. At times, these discoveries involve sophisticated equipment, and other times they result from “hacks”.

This could involve a variety of methods—all of which occur within our Rockefeller community—ranging from using Iphones to take photos on a microscope and applying glitter for experimental mosquito group identification to employing “Duplos” in the Novel Object Recognition test in mice.

This could also involve ants.

In Dr. Daniel Kronauer’s laboratory, scientists use similar low-budget and effective “hacks” to foster ant colonies. Tupperware containers serve as their enclosure, within which, a petri-dish filled with plaster comprises their nest. Outside of their petri dish, ants are able to collect food (protein and sugar) and water. Their water is placed in a horizontally-laid conical tube that is stuffed with a cotton ball. The position of the cotton ball allows for ants to touch the source for water, but avoids “flooding” the enclosure. These items are secured in place with silly putty!

As I am transported back to my current moment, I continue to marvel at the design of my two ant enclosures. Every move calculated. Every behavior accounted for. I touch the sides of the Tupperware and notice that a “slippery” substance has been painted onto all four walls to avoid climbing.

And, I am reminded of the scientists—people, like you and me!—who have crafted this masterpiece. I imagine scientists like Leonora Olivos-Cisneros testing out different containers, light levels and dietary options. I imagine the frustration when a colony collapses and it’s difficult to pinpoint why or how. I imagine the excitement when a colony of the brink of collapse suddenly recovers because of change driven by a scientist!

I chuckle. I think back to my childhood, where I firmly believed that all individuals were, “either creative or scientific”. As if there was one choice. As I look around Rockefeller, I see creativity and “hacks” in science, daily. I see invention. And, I marvel at them all. But, perhaps most critically, I remain awestruck by the process.

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