Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A lesson on stem cells through Play Doh and more fun from the Bay Area Science Festival

Families learn about stem cell research at the Bay Area Science Festival
 When San Francisco Giants star Buster Posey was rounding the bases at AT&T park after hitting a grand slam home run that sent the team to the World Series against the Detroit Tigers he probably wasn't aware that I was rounding the bases close behind him. Well, close is a relative term. In this case it means about two weeks later. Nor was I alone. Hundreds of kids and quite a few other adults were following. It was all part of the Bay Area Science Festival at AT&T park, a free event celebrating and promoting science. The science was the reason we were there - running around the bases was just an extra bonus.

The Festival drew around 30,000 visitors, kids of all ages and parents, who were entertained by a non-stop program of interactive exhibits, experiments, games, and shows, celebrating everything from space travel to Mars to understanding geology and rocks on earth. The stem cell agency was part of that too, explaining our role in helping drive some of the most exciting medical research anywhere in the world today, and the incredible progress that has been made in a short space of time in our quest for therapies and cures.

While other exhibitors used robots and highly sophisticated - and very expensive looking - models to lure the kids and their parents to their exhibits we had our own secret weapon. Play Doh. No, really! It's amazing how effective it was in getting kids to stop at our booth and learn how life begins with a series of cells, then those cells divide and divide again until they turn into a blastocyst which is the source of embryonic stem cells. Now, I'm guessing a 5 year old kid doesn't really grasp the significance of stem cells, but does grasp the fun of playing with Play Doh and giant pipettes - particularly when they are being demonstrated to them by the fabulous Berkeley Student Society for Stem Cell Research. While the children were playing it gave us a chance to talk to the parents about the work of the stem cell agency and, more importantly, the vital role that the people of California are playing in helping us make the state the global epicenter of stem cell research.

Now, it may be that this was an audience that already had an interest in such things but the parents I spoke to were very supportive of stem cell research in general and CIRM in particular. One of the most commonly asked questions was "so when are we going to see cures for things like Alzheimer's?" While it would have been wonderful to be able to give a definitive answer, people were nonetheless encouraged when we talked about the progress being made across a wide variety of diseases, and how close we are to moving several of our most promising therapies into clinical trials in people. (There's more on that progress on our web site.)

Events like this are important, because they give us a chance to talk to the people who are making everything we do possible, the voters of California, and explain to them how we are using their money. We are always mindful of the trust voters placed in us when they approved Prop 71, creating the stem cell agency, and we want to show that we are doing everything we can to prove ourselves worthy of that responsibility. And if that just happens to involve Play Doh and chasing around the bases at AT&T Park, then that's a price we are willing to pay.

K.M.

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