Theater of the polymers

How much science could our audience absorb from 10 experts with only 6 minutes each? That was the experiment in science communication that played out at the Neptune Theater, a run-down but beloved ex-movie-house near the University of Washington campus in Seattle.

More than 100 people showed up to hear “Short Takes on Plastic” in February as part of a partnership between the Burke Museum and Seattle Theater Group, related to the exhibit Plastics Unwrapped at the Burke. The experiment is about bringing research out into the community in new ways.

During the rapid-fire presentations – we heard about the project to build composting latrines out of water bottles (via melting) and then re-form them using 3D printers. “Think of it (printer) as a computer controlled hot glue gun,” said Matt Rogge, the ex-Peace Corp volunteer who dreamed up the bottles-into-latrines model that somehow reminds one of weapons-into-plowshares.

We heard about Agilyx, a Portland, OR, company that is turning 10 tons of plastic every day into oil. Yes, crude oil. (Plastic comes from oil in the first place, frequently.)

Kim Holmes, another Portland expert, explained that designing for the environment in the first place might reduce how much plastic we use and therefore how much we have to recycle or transform.

Other experts explained the pre-plastic lives of Victorians, and the sans-plastic life that a Burke staffer attempted for one month. “I carried a lot of glass jars around with me in my backpack,” explained Samantha Porter.

Chemical engineer AJ Boydston spends much of his research time trying to create “better” plastics that will biodegrade and will not persist in the environment for 450 years.

Ironically, for a communication experiment audience, it turns out that communication is a key ingredient in recycling. Jack Johnson said people on campus can’t seem to distinguish between the coffee-cup lids that are compostable and those that are recyclable. Johnson helped create a Garbology project on campus, where student volunteers sort and catalog campus garbage.

UW sends the mass equivalent of 667 elephants to the landfill every year. If the lid confusion were fixed, some of those metaphorical elephants could be saved. When an archive becomes available for Short Takes, we will post it here.

Pipettes in lab giveaway

There are people in Seattle who organized a lab-supply giveaway, no kidding, just for the sake of getting those beakers and pipettes to a better home.

One small gesture, on one January afternoon, but it is emblematic of Seattle science. My scientist friends tell me this is not universal. When I interviewed Lee Hartwell, before he retired from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, he said, “this city is different.”

When I interviewed Clay Siegall from Seattle Genetics, he praised the science climate of Seattle. I’ve heard similar things from a dozen of the leaders in life sciences – that this region nourishes a culture (pardon the pun) where collaboration is prized.

I would never accuse Lee Hood, the founder of the Institute for Systems Biology, of lacking a competitive spirit. But he won the National Medal of Science recently from  President Barack Obama and Lee definitely has nourished a posse of colleagues and biotech spinoffs from his own work in systems biology.

Do you want other examples? What about the crowdfunding site – Microryza? They help scientists post “wish lists” for research funds.

What I hope to do at this blog is celebrate intersections and overlaps and shares and crowdfunding and seeding and inspiration. Some of that inspiration may come from patients themselves and not researchers.

When I was reporting a story on malaria research, a source told me that the U.S. Army granted some research money for human clinical trials here because “we are known for having a willing public” that will sign up for such trials.

I’ve met some of those patients, and I’ve met many many scientists. I hope to bring you more stories from this Seattle science zone.