Bringing Bench Science to the Public
Extracting giant chromosomes and testing antimicrobials—these are just a few of the activities young and adult visitors alike can do at the DeBakey Cell Lab, The Health Museum’s newest permanent exhibit. Visitors will experience a slice of life as a scientist and look the part, too—lab coat and all.
Debuting on March 27, the DeBakey Cell Lab features two duplicate labs, with seven cellular-biology based experiment stations each, targeted at visitors ages seven and up. Named after revolutionary medical pioneer, Michael E. DeBakey, M.D., the exhibit is designed to inspire an interest in science in the public and spark curiosity in young future researchers. Cell Labs exist at museums in Minnesota, Maryland and Colorado, but this $1.2 million, 2,000-square-foot exhibit is the largest and only bilingual (English/Spanish) museum lab of its kind in the country.
“Everything within the lab is hands-on and they are not designed for you to be successful in every attempt,” said Adam Benjamin, director of education at The Health Museum. “As with any scientific experiment, it’s about the scientific method. The beauty of this exhibit to me is that the visitors can be successful or [they] can fail.”
Before entering the lab, visitors can learn how to use a microscope, a key piece of lab equipment, and then apply their new skills to examining human and protozoa cells. Inexperienced patrons need not worry—the lab will have three layers of bilingual instruction. Once inside, bilingual computer-guided and text instructions walk visitors step-by-step through each experiment, with staff and volunteers on hand to assist.
Budding scientists can heat-fix and stain cells removed from their own cheeks to study cells’ inner workings at one bench and test the effectiveness of over-the-counter antimicrobials at the next. Other stations invite patrons to investigate how amylase, a digestive enzyme found in saliva, works by watching it break down packing peanuts, isolate a long and visible strand of DNA from a wheat germ, and identify unknown microbes using a chemical test, stain and microscopic examination. At the Blood Bench, visitors can peer at real sheep’s blood through a microscope, measure the proportion of red blood cells and use a simulated blood sample to determine the blood type. At one of the more advanced benches, they can use various laboratory tools to extract oversized chromosomes uniquely found in fruit flies’ salivary glands.
Depending on the age and comprehension level of the visitor, each experiment can take 10-30 minutes to complete. The exhibit’s free form and openness has a “choose your own adventure” feel that allows for a customized and distinct experience each visit.
Supplemental programs to the DeBakey Cell Lab include school field trips, which feature a pre-exhibit class organized by the DeBakey Cell Lab manager, birthday parties for students ten years and older, and a Discovery Camp in which children 11-13 years old can spend a week during the summer getting up-close-and-personal with the DeBakey Cell Lab.
“It’s the most comprehensive Cell Lab that’s out there,” said Benjamin. “There are other incarnations of it, but none of them have the supplemental activities—for example, the birthday parties, the school programs, the bilingual access.”
The DeBakey Cell Lab is The Health Museum’s first permanent exhibit in five years, providing an opportunity for prior visitors to re-engage, as well as attracting new visitors. Located in Houston’s richly diverse Museum District, The Health Museum is an interactive science learning center that aims to help families better understand their bodies, promote healthy habits and inspire awe at the intricacies of biology and medicine.
“We’re a fantastic resource here in Houston, and it’s important that the Houston community knows that The Health Museum is here and utilizes us,” said Benjamin.
Among its many offered experiences are a hands-on walk through the human body and real organ dissections. On Friday, March 27, the museum can add the DeBakey Cell Lab to this list.