The Maneater

Graduate student takes science to rural communities in Missouri

Graduate student Arianna Soldati will lead Science on Wheels, a program that focuses on teaching rural Missouri communities about different MU research projects.

Graduate student Arianna Soldati has recently launched a program called Science on Wheels, which intends to bring science closer to rural Missouri communities.

Science on Wheels, created by Soldati last summer, will involve multiple MU geology graduate students sharing short speeches on a wide range of topics with crowds in areas surrounding Boone County.

Soldati said she wants Science on Wheels to break the barrier between the average person and scientists who do research.

“I want to bring the science to the people where they are,” she said.

Along with that, Soldati wants to encourage more middle and high school students to consider careers in science. She said she wants to break the stereotype of a scientist being an “elderly white man in a lab coat.”

Alan Whittington, chair of geological sciences and Soldati’s advisor, said that middle school is where most students are “turned off” by science. Due to that, Soldati has worked on other programs aimed specifically at that age group.

Additionally, being a woman in the field of science has motivated Soldati to show people that “anyone can be a scientist.”

It’s important for people in rural communities, especially young women, to have a role model, and a lack of representation in science may discourage others from pursuing a career, she said.

“You are a minority all of the time,” Soldati said.

However, at MU, Soldati said she’s felt “very lucky” because she hasn’t noticed her colleagues treating her differently based on her gender. Most of the graduate students who signed up to speak for Science on Wheels have been women, she said.

The 11 speakers that have signed up so far were trained by Graduate Studies Instructor Milbre Burch, who walked through how to best engage and capture an audience. Burch teaches the group of speakers how to best structure their speeches, what language to use and how to adjust their presentations to different audiences.

Burch also offers one-on-one coaching where she listens to their full presentations. Because Burch had coached Soldati in the past, Soldati reached out to her this summer to help lead her team of speakers.

Since the speakers have only about five to six minutes for their presentations, Burch said it is important to be able to learn how to keep the interest of the audience. Using a narrative arc is important, along with having props to engage those in the crowd.

During his five-minute presentation, graduate student Levi Storks demonstrates how lizards adjust their behavior in ways that allow them to cope with harsher conditions in different environments by bringing out his own pet lizards.

Soldati said this was a great way to teach people who might not normally be interested in the habits of lizards and direct their attention to his research.

In addition, Burch said finding ways to relate their research topics to something that may affect the everyday lives of those living in rural Missouri is just as important.

Graduate student Erica Majumder works with bacteria in soil and how it interacts with toxic materials. Her goal is to make the bacteria safer for humans or easier to remove. Specifically, she is studying how these soil bacteria transform uranium into a less toxic state at nuclear waste sites.

Burch pointed out that a lot of the rural communities that Science on Wheels will be visiting rely on power plants for employment. This requires Majumder to ensure that she acknowledges the importance of the power plants and what they provide for the communities, Burch said.

When Soldati first came up with Science on Wheels, she said a lot of MU students and staff were helpful in her getting the project off the ground.

“It’s been beautiful for me because everybody came together and started offering me help,” she said. “This was still in the very initial phases and I had some people I had met and some that I have never even met before that reached out to me. It’s been a really positive experience. I’ve really felt like part of the Mizzou community.”

In the months since she first proposed her idea, Soldati has dedicated a substantial amount of time to organizing a functioning program.

“It was almost not enough time to put something together for the end of September,” she said. “I think now we are a bit more caught up.”

Organizing Science on Wheels has required Soldati to become detail oriented, she said. For example, the events need to be “family friendly” and available for children as well as adults. This is because people might be discouraged from attending if they have to hire a babysitter for their children.

Science on Wheel’s first stop was in Fulton, Missouri, on Sept. 21, which Soldati called a “beta test.” She also said it was a learning experience for both the speakers and herself, as they were able to see firsthand how the community responded to the event.

Along with Science on Wheels, Soldati has been involved with a number of other outreach programs such as a middle school STEM Expo held at Rock Bridge High School and Geology Youth Night run by the Mizzou Geology Club.

“This is a lot compared to what most grad students do,” Whittington said.

Whittington defined outreach as explaining science, either in general or specific topics, to non-scientists. The audience typically includes middle and high schools but can also be aimed at broader communities.

Soldati noticed that, while the geology department has a lot of outreach programs, they were mostly located within Columbia. She wanted to reach out to greater Missouri and meet with and teach audiences that didn’t have the opportunity to come to town for the sole purpose of learning about science.

“For people who live nearby, there’s a ton of opportunities, but if you’re living even an hour away, after your work day you’re not going to want to drive to listen to a talk,” she said. “So I thought we could be most helpful within these communities. After all, we are a land grant university, so our mission is to serve all of the citizens of the state.”

Whittington said he has no doubt that Science on Wheels will go well, especially with the work Soldati has put in.

Whittington encourages all of his students to find projects such as the one Soldati has created. Most get the opportunity to do so, he said, and his major goal is to help students form their own projects and seek funding.

“I always think graduate students doing research always do best when they’re doing a project they helped to design,” Whittington said. “They’re very personally invested in it and it’s usually exactly what they want to be doing.”

Science on Wheel’s next stop will be in Tipton on Oct. 12, followed by Jefferson City on Nov. 9 and Fayette on Nov. 30. Soldati said she plans to reach out to more counties surrounding Columbia and will be able to schedule more events next semester.

After Soldati’s graduation this spring, Burch said she hopes the program will be able to continue without Soldati.

“I’d love to see [Science on Wheels] get such solid footing that it can go on because she’s going to finish up and we don’t want to start over,” Burch said. “We don’t want to have to start from the ground up again.”

Edited by Olivia Garrett | ogarrett@themaneater.com

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