Thursday, March 23, 2023

Witte Museum visitors get interactive lessons in microbiology from UTSA scientists

Witte Museum visitors get interactive lessons in microbiology from UTSA scientists

From left to right, Karl Klose, Mylea Echazarreta and Cameron Lloyd pose with Rowdy sporting his lab coat at Saturdays with a Scientist at the Witte Museum.

NOVEMBER 2, 2021 — The UTSA Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology (MMI) is bringing a uniquely interactive experience to one of the latest events at the Witte Museum. Saturdays with a Scientist is a laboratory display offering an entertaining look at the world of microbiology. It’s part of the Secret Inside You exhibit underway at the Witte Museum, which explores the human microbiome and offers new perspectives on bacteria, viruses, and other microbes that call our bodies home.

A team of MMI scientists greet people when they enter the UTSA area. Three laboratory stations show some of the fun things possible when working with microbes. One demonstration highlights fermentation, another focuses on bioluminescence (bacteria making light), and a third on a technique called gram staining, which is a method to distinguish and classify bacterial species into two large groups: gram-positive bacteria and gram-negative bacteria.

“Our exhibit is designed so that people can touch and see real microbiology, rather than simulated microbiology in a museum exhibit.”

UTSA doctoral student Mylea Echazarreta shows off the university's bioluminescence display at the Witte Museum.

Karl Klose, Robert J. Kleberg Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg College of Sciences Professor, organized Saturdays with a Scientist, along with Sara Shields-Menard, coordinator of the UTSA microbiology labs. Klose thinks this is an excellent opportunity for UTSA to connect with a captive audience.

“This is designed to be very different than having someone lecture about microbes. Our exhibit is designed so that people can touch and see real microbiology, rather than simulated microbiology in a museum exhibit,” Klose explained. “They can actually see when a bacterium makes light. What does it look like when bacteria ferment? What do microbes look like under a microscope? As scientists, we want to give everyone who passes through a different perspective on science. There’s a lot of interesting things you can do in a lab, and we want to demonstrate that to those who haven’t had this kind of experience before.”

Connecting scientists with students made an impression on Mylea Echazarreta, a Ph.D. student in Klose’s laboratory. In elementary school, Echazarreta scored well in a science assessment test and that piqued her curiosity in the subject. She recalls participating in experiments from a mobile lab that visited her high school and it inspired Echazarreta to pursue biology for an education and career.

Through Saturdays with a Scientist, she’s sharing her passion for microbiology with a younger generation. At the bioluminescence display, Echazarreta helps participants take a sample of bacteria and trace the UTSA or Big Rowdy logo in a petri dish. She then places it in a black box with a peephole to allow the patrons to see the bacteria glow.

“I explain that bioluminescent bacteria make light, and pony fish use these particular bacteria to camouflage or hide from predators, which is referred to as counter-illumination,” Echazarreta said. “So, it really helps to simplify things to get a better understanding, and when they can see the bacteria glowing, they become excited.”

Klose wants visitors to know this section of the exhibit is a UTSA program. All the microbiologists wear UTSA-branded lab coats. A life-size Rowdy wearing a lab coat is available for photo opportunities. The MMI team promotes Saturdays with a Scientist by offering prizes to patrons who share their picture with Rowdy on social media and tag @UTSAmmi and #microUTSA.

“This is community outreach—trying to get kids interested in science and specifically microbiology,” Klose said. “Part of the goal here is to get young people thinking this is a cool area to go into and to connect this experience with UTSA.”

Cameron Lloyd is a MMI Ph.D. student who explains what visitors see when looking through microscopes. He talks about the differences between gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria and why this is important for antibiotic treatment of infections. Another microscope magnifies the various microbes that live in river water.

“I love science communication. When I was describing to a first-grader the difference between his own skin cells and the bacteria that live on them, I could see he was really into it,” Lloyd recalled. “I don't know if he's going to become a scientist, but if our effort encourages him then that makes this worth it.”

UTSA’s MMI faculty members and research students will be at the Saturdays with a Scientist lab station at the Witte every Saturday through April 2022.

Bruce Forey

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