Centrifuge – smashing science into theater


What happens when an actor has to keep putting on a skull-cap, in order to look bald, over and over? Audiences howled, as his errant hairs poked out, and he began his lines imitating Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame. The fake-Jeff was just one character in a set of five science plays. Each play only 10 minutes long and all of them part of a festival known as Centrifuge.

In other plays, reluctant astronauts hunted down life on Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. Newlyweds obeyed the beeped warnings of Fitbits on their wrists predicting “argument” approaching, the way the silly robot of “Lost in space” kept saying “Aliens approaching.” A family hid in a bunker from the frightening reality of ordinary crowds of other people.

Besides a hilarious ribbing of both Bezos and space-exploration rival Elon Musk, a different dystopian play focused on overuse of the mood-enhancer ecstasy or  MDMA. Writer Wayt Gibbs holds a model of that molecule above.

Centrifuge is a week-long improvisation between volunteers of two tribes – theater and science. David Mills and his wife, Catherine Kettrick, lead this project. Full disclosure – I was one of the science writers in May 2017.

You can’t predict what will happen as the week unfolds. With close to 30 people involved, who have full-time other jobs, plenty of obstacles show up. Pets get sick, relatives call, jobs demand. Randomness drives the schedule, just as in a lab where randomness divides mice into controls or experimental subjects.

Monday: Five science writers and five playwrights are randomly assigned to each other, leave the room in minutes and spend time talking in dyads about some research the science writer has brought in.

Wednesday: Five playwrights turn in roughly six-page scripts of new plays inspired by that talk. Actors, who wait for their names to be pulled from hats, are assigned to the five plays. They begin reading the scripts out loud with a randomly assigned director. As I watched, four actors began turning names into people – adding back stories and motivation to small gestures.

Just to shorten this a bit, by Friday the five plays, including 5-minute introductions about science by each writer, debut to the public. A lot of logistics – sets, costumes, lighting, sound and pacing get expertly handled by the theater tribe.

My playwright was Jim Jewell, whose full-time day job is teaching college students composition. The play he created in 48 hours was amazingly complex with four characters from a family. It was less about the gut microbiome research I described to him Monday, and more deeply about how people resist ideas. How might people react to knowing their bodies are more microbial colonizers than “self?” See my earlier post for more about microbiome.

Unlike science, no measurements are taken after this week of mixing. We didn’t examine the audience to rate their hilarity. We didn’t measure the science writers or playwrights to give them a 2 or an 8 in “inspiration.”  But what might have changed in us?

I’m hoping Wayt, as well as Alan Boyle, Greg Scheiderer, and Elle O’Brien will tell me some of their musings on that question for a future post.





Seattle Genetics aims to put drug on front line of cancer

Seattle Genetics hides its big ambitions in a modest-looking set of beige Bothell office-park buildings, while some of its cousins in the local biotech world crowd together in the brainy-hood of Seattle’s South Lake Union. But there is nothing modest about this 18-year-old company, which is plowing forward patiently and aims to make a major splash in the cancer-drug market in 2017.Investors have driven SGEN stock up more than 50 percent this year, largely on the strength of its flagship drug known as Adcetris, which treats Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system that can spread to the lungs, liver or bone marrow. The company employs around 900 full-time staff and will add perhaps 200 next year, said CEO Clay Siegall, who co-founded Seattle Genetics in 1998. For original story https://www.seattletimes.com/business/technology/seattle-genetics-aims-to-put-drug-on-the-front-line-of-battling-cancer/

Cheerleader helps discover novel bacterium

A cheerleader volunteering for a citizen-science project helped discover a novel bacterium from a seat at a football stadium at Coronado High School in San Diego.

Members of a citizen-science group called Science Cheerleader helped gather microbe samples by swabbing the school’s stadium seats and shared the samples with a project known as MERCCURI. Scientist David Coil and his team published a paper in PeerJ on Nov. 12 that names the new yellow-orange critter Porphyrobacter Mercurialis.

“Give me a P, Give me an O, Give me…. a yellow-orange member of the Erythrobacteracae family.” For the sake of cheering, might need to shorten the bacteria’s name to Porphy. Coil told us that many new bacteria are named every month, and that Porphy is not highly unusual. The bacterium is related to marine creatures and may have wafted from the nearby ocean to the stadium.

Just to add to the fun, the novel bacteria spent some time growing on the International Space Station, as part of the project. Porphy was not a standout – not faster or slower than the others. Just middle-of-the-road.

Moly_stain13porphyero-David-CoilTransmission electron microscopy of exponential phase culture of new bacterium in lysogeny broth. Photo used with Creative Commons license from PeerJ.

Taylor Hooks is the ex-professional cheerleader, and volunteer with Science Cheerleader, who sampled seats at the stadium. “I was the only person collecting samples at the event, so it must have been a sample I collected. It makes me very happy to have contributed in some way to a discovery of this nature.  It’s really amazing,” she told us in an email interview.

Microbiologist Coil is one of the lead scientists on the project and explained that this national citizen-science project gathered candidate microbes to fly in microgravity on the ISS.  The team selected 48 “candidates” for a growth competition. More information on MERCCURI here.

Hooks has been a volunteer for SciCheer for five years. She lives in Southern California and works in the medical imaging field, but is currently studying for her masters’ in business administration.

Coil works at the University of California, Davis, in the Eisen Lab. Citizen science is a particular passion of his and of lab leader Jonathan Eisen. The lab sent members to a national conference on Citizen Science in San Jose in February.

Coil admits cheering himself when he knew the paper was being published. He chose the name “mercurialis” for two reasons. The bacteria was not easy to grow and mercurial means temperamental. But he also liked using a part of MERCCURI for the bacteria’s name to honor the program.

Another cheerleader happy about the microbe is the woman who carries the mantle of “Science Cheerleader” founder – Darlene Cavalier. She is also the founder of SciStarter, the organization that recruited thousands of people to participate in the microbe collection effort. Darlene wrote at her site, “Our goal is to spur even more people to get involved. SciStarter created partnerships with the Science Cheerleaders (an organization of 300-plus current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders with science careers) and Pop Warner Little Scholars, a nonprofit  youth football and cheer group serving more than 400,000 athletes. Both groups helped promote Project MERCCURI. Learn more at www.scistarter.com.

Editor’s note: Sally James appeared on a panel about citizen-science microbiology at the 2015 Citizen Science Association conference in San Jose. She received partial travel reimbursement from the Eisen Lab.