The University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Science Slam has become synonymous with teddy bears and other plush critters. It only made sense that pajamas would follow.
Those miniature bears, which fly much better than flowers, are normally flung by audience members to recognize moments of brilliance, humor and humanity from the slammers — the Husker students who relay their science in fun-sized performances usually lasting between five and 10 minutes.
The bears also signify the raucous spectacle of an event that was held on City Campus, and attended by upward of 100 people, each year from 2016 to 2019. The coronavirus pandemic washed out the 2020 edition and ultimately forced Jocelyn Bosley, the event’s co-founder and longtime host, to forsake that beloved in-person experience for a virtual one in 2021.
She decided to embrace the realities of the past year by turning the event into one big, remote pajama party, complete with a game of truth or dare.
“The pajama party idea was a way to capture the fun spirit of the event — and also kind of a nod to the fact that all year, we’ve been on Zoom doing things (while) wearing our pajama bottoms,” said Bosley, research impact coordinator with the Office of Research and Economic Development, during her introduction to this year’s event. “So let’s just dispense with the pretense and wear pajamas head to toe!”
Though the virtual format of the slam may have diluted some of the immediacy and intimacy of an in-person event, it also spurred Bosley to expand the audience by recruiting viewers from well beyond Lincoln.
“One of the cool things about having this in the virtual environment is that we were able to open it up beyond UNL,” Bosley said. “This is our first truly international science slam.
“Some (international attendees) are in their pajamas for good reason — not just because it’s a pajama party theme, but because it’s 5 in the morning there.”
Another first? All of the slammer finalists — three doctoral students in biological sciences and a recent doctoral graduate in mathematics — were women. That continued an emerging trend of female dominance at the Nebraska Science Slam. Following Tyler Corey’s win at the inaugural slam in 2016, women had taken each of the three successive titles.
“Because my undergraduate degree is in mathematics, I feel qualified to predict that that record will be extended to 4-to-1 after today,” Bosley said at the start. “It’s a complicated mathematical calculation — a couple partial differential equations, a boundary condition, carry the one. I won’t bore you with it.”
Instead, Bosley went on to explain the choose-your-own-adventure prompt: truth or dare. Slammers who went the truth route had to explore a hard one, busting a myth by explaining a time they hated science.
“There’s a perception, maybe … that science always comes easy for scientists — that they always love it,” Bosley said of the prompt, which was chosen by all three students in biological sciences. “But I’m reminded of a quote from a physics colleague of mine, who said, ‘It’s amazing how much you can hate something that you love.’ I think that’s really true, and I think it’s a sentiment that everybody can relate to.”
Nicole Fiore kicked off her performance with a question: “Are aliens hiding behind the Cracker Barrel in Lincoln, Nebraska?” With little ado, she squelched the possibility with a flat “No.”
“I’m very sorry if you’re disappointed, and you feel click-baited, but you’re already here, so I guess you might as well stay and listen to the rest of the talk,” Fiore joked. Besides, she said, “There is something behind Cracker Barrel, and it can help us understand extraterrestrial life, potentially.”
That something: methanogens, a type of methane-producing microorganism belonging to the domain of life called archaea. Fiore explained that methanogens are among the few organisms that might manage to live beneath the surface of Mars, whose lack of a magnetic field and atmosphere makes it a constant target for life-killing levels of solar radiation.
So Fiore had proceeded to dig up some methanogen-containing soil samples from a saline wetland behind, yes, a Cracker Barrel. Like all known life, methanogens need carbon to survive. Unfortunately, there’s little of it in Martian soil. But that soil does contain some calcium carbonate, which begs a question: Could methanogens convert that calcium carbonate into carbon well enough to feed themselves and survive in the red planet?
To answer it, Fiore and her colleagues placed the potential Martians in jars with calcium carbonate, then “just let them hang out” before analyzing the resulting DNA sequences therein. Eventually, signs of a methanogen species did emerge from that analysis. The problem? So did a bunch of other non-methanogen microbes.
“Having all these other organisms is like if I was playing a song for you, and I wanted you to write down the lyrics, and you had never heard the song before,” Fiore said. “But I also turned on five CDs at full volume, and they’re all playing different things. And your upstairs neighbors just got their kids a pogo stick and a drum set. And there’s also a plane outside trying to break the sound barrier. All while you’re trying to transcribe these lyrics for me.”
The challenge, then, was to isolate that new song — the methanogen — from the surrounding noise of other organisms in order to study its physiological responses and fate. Fiore tried everything she knew. She changed up the supply of nutrients, hoping to starve the non-methanogen microbes. She limited the number of cells that could grow, “trying to get rid of everything you don’t want in hopes that what you’re left behind with is what you did want.” She used antibiotics that were expected to eliminate bacteria but not archaea, then watched as they killed the methanogens anyway.
“Basically, I spent four years doing various combinations and computations of this process — all these things, and more — trying to isolate this methanogen,” she said. “And it doesn’t work.
“This is where I start to hate science.”
So why persist? In the face of failures, it’s all about the small successes, Fiore said.
“I still was able to learn something about these organisms,” she said, “through the trials and tribulations of trying to isolate them.”
Pallabi Kundu, a native of Kolkata, India, explained how her frustration with science helped lead her from biotechnology to arachnology.
“I was a very shy, sickly kid who mainly interacted with books, did well in school and never really failed in anything,” she said.
Kundu’s family expected her to follow in its footsteps by becoming a doctor. As she prepared to take an entrance exam, though, she realized her family’s wishes weren’t her own — and didn’t pass. She decided to pursue a graduate program in molecular biology, “thinking I would cure all diseases.”
Soon she was in a lab studying viruses, designing experiments that refused to yield the outcomes she was aiming for. That, in itself, wasn’t at all unusual, she knew.
“But what I noticed about myself is that I did not want to do it anymore,” she said. “I did not want to be in the lab all the time.
“For a while, I thought that I had to stick to it, because failure is not an option. My motivation dwindled, and as I felt myself give up with each passing day, I thought I hated science.”
Still, she was taking some solace, and some interest, in reading research papers that had nothing to do with viruses or molecular biology. Her mind, meanwhile, kept drifting back to an undergraduate internship that had her studying mites and how they interacted with plants. It had yielded a research paper and a sense of satisfaction that she hadn’t really felt since.
“Then I did something very hard for graduate students to do,” Kundu said, “but it is kind of a no-brainer, which is: I asked for help.”
After considering her options, she eventually joined the lab of Husker arachnologist Eileen Hebets, where she’s now studying how and why arachnids use specialized hairs to perceive the vibrations of nearby air particles. She’s also loving the freedom that comes with building her own experimental setups out of whatever happens to do the job: Plexiglas, sponges, acrylic paint.
“I think it is OK to choose to just be happy and fulfill your curiosity and itch to learn, without (always) thinking of what you will do for the greater good.
“I’m here by trial and error. And I’m here to enjoy what I’m doing,” she said, adding, “Don’t be afraid to make unconventional choices for yourself.”
If Kundu’s path was unconventional, Crystal Uminski had found herself traveling one familiar to so many undergraduate biology majors: memorizing minute details and the equivalent of “trivia facts” for the sake of acing a test, then reformatting her short-term memory in anticipation of the next.
“I found myself entering this cycle of learning and forgetting and learning and forgetting,” she said.
To hammer home the point, Uminski pulled up a test question posted to the web by a biology student desperate for an answer: “How many carbons does the metabolite alpha-ketoglutarate have?” It’s exactly the sort of fine-grain question, she said, that she might once have known the answer to but, having no real reason to remember it, no longer does.
That ingrained pattern of learn-and-forget proved especially problematic when Uminski began teaching high school biology. Rather than pulling together big-picture lessons from her memory bank, she admitted having to sometimes relearn material the night before she would teach it to students who themselves probably forgot it as soon as they had finished a test.
“‘I’m just perpetuating this cycle,’” she recalled thinking. “And that’s not something I really want to do.”
Uminski arrived at Nebraska with an eye on breaking that cycle by studying what she’d come to hate for the sake of improving it. She’s now working with doctoral adviser Brian Couch to examine and evaluate alternatives to those standard biology tests — alternatives that formulate questions focused more on the conceptual and holistic than “these little, tiny, itty-bitty details.”
“We really want to ask students to engage in science — to think of it as a verb” by developing hypotheses and constructing arguments and interpreting data, she said, then assess their ability to do exactly that.
Getting there will mean giving instructors the sorts of incentives, professional development opportunities and even time to grade that they currently lack, she said. And it will entail asking both instructors and students to rethink the purposes of assessments and, in the process, recalibrate their expectations.
But if that path leads students to think more critically, develop higher-order skills and spend less time bogged down in the muck and mire of minutiae, she said, it’s one well worth treading.
“When we think about what we’re training up a STEM workforce to do, we don’t want to end up with a bunch of people … who enter a career and are like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’” she said. “Changing how we think about our tests is one way to really change (the trajectories) for our future scientists.”
Rather than telling the truth about a time she hated science, Juliana Bukoski instead dared to express her love for mathematics.
One aspect she especially loves? “The idea that you can have one mathematical idea or structure that’s underneath a lot of different applications or situations in the real world,” she said.
Bukoski started with an application that seemingly upends the concept of addition: a clock. In standard mathematical terms, 10+10=20. But on a clock, 10+10 instead equals 8 (o’clock).
“What we’ve done is change the underlying mathematical system from the natural numbers, where you add up to infinity, to what’s called the integers modulo 12 — where you get to 11, and then you add one more, and you’re back to zero,” she said.
There’s even a mathematical concept — the root of unity — that adheres to this system of modular arithmetic, Bukoski explained. A root of unity is any number that can be multiplied by itself a certain number of times in order to get a product of 1. A fourth root of unity is multiplied by itself four times to get a product of 1, whereas a seventh root is multiplied seven times, and so on.
Nodding back to the clock, Bukoski presented a list of the 12th roots of unity. Both 1 and -1 fall into the category, as do 10 so-called complex numbers. Then she revealed a trick: If you take the first of those complex numbers and label it “w,” each of the other 12th roots can be calculated and written in terms of that “w” — w0, w2 (squared), then w3 (cubed), all the way up to w11.
And when “w” is taken to the power of 12? Rather than producing a new root of unity, it swings back around to the start in the same way as a clock, resulting in the same root as “w” to the power of 0. Bukoski demonstrated the similarity by visually mapping the 12th roots to the circular arrangement of a clock face, with w0 in place of the 12, w6 at the 6, and so on.
“So we see the same pattern here in a more advanced mathematical topic,” she said, “just like you see every day on the clock.”
Bukoski wasn’t done. Similar to a clock, she said, a musical octave contains 12 notes (including sharps or flats). Just as the hour hand eventually circles from 12 back to 12, an octave starts at C, ends at B, and begins again at C in the next, higher octave.
Again she illustrated by mapping 12 musical chords to a clock face. This time, though, she also picked up a ukulele and strummed through each chord while singing self-written lyrics inspired, like so many songs, by her one true (mathematical) love: the roots of unity.
Bukoski’s love song won the hearts of the virtual audience, which voted her the winner of the fifth annual event. Bosley signed off by expressing her gratitude with a musical reference of her own.
“I loved hearing all of your stories and getting to know all of you,” she said. “I told the slammers, when we met a few days ago, that being part of the science slam community is like checking in to the Hotel California: You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. You’re always part of (this) community.”