In the Bag

Science Bag professors share life-long love of biology

[Image] In the Bag

A young girl watches her great-grandmother work in the garden.  Heather Owen is amazed when the older woman pulls up a green plant to reveal a carrot on the end.   

“I used to get in trouble, but I’d pull everything up, thinking there would be carrots on the end,” Owen said.

The experience with her grandmother’s garden helped Owen become interested in plants and science.

A fifth grade student is working with microscopes in class, spending time on the microscope any chance he gets. A teacher tells young Doug Steeber that he should go into science, and it stuck.

Owen and Steeber are now adult biology professors running April’s edition of the Science Bag. More than 100 people attended Friday night’s Science Bag show at UW-Milwaukee that focused on the immune system. The show also featured a scanning electron microscope that was purchased with National Science Foundation grants and costs $25,000 a year to maintain.

National Science Foundation grants are funded by taxpayer dollars. The grants require educational outreach after the equipment is purchased. Besides outreach to high schools and colleges, community outreach is also important, according to Steeber.   

“Science bag fits in well with something like this,” he said.

The Show

Owen and Steeber used interactive activities and props to grab the attention of the Science Bag audience. Steeber started the show pretending to be a doctor checking Owen for allergies, and pulled out a gigantic syringe that had the whole audience laughing. Later in the show, child volunteers stuffed a giant nose with foam mucus.

“We heard that the younger members in the audience liked the eww factor and slime, mucus, runny nose. It just seemed like it would be fun,” Owen said.

Amy Rymaszewski, 24, a recent UWM graduate, said the shows are great for young people.

“The Science Bag helps get them interested in science, we need more scientists,” Rymaszewski said.

Steeber said the Science Bag is an outreach to the community and that people are interested in science in general.

“There’s not that many opportunities besides cable shows or something on TV that you really can go and hear and see science going on,” Steeber said.

The Microscopes

UWM’s Lapham Hall houses the Hitachi S4800 scanning electron microscope (SEM) and the Hitachi H600 transmission electron microscope (TEM).  The SEM was purchased as part of almost $604,000 in grants in 2008 and the TEM was purchased in 1986. In addition to the $25,000 a year needed to maintain the SEM, the TEM’s maintenance runs $18,000 a year.      

Owen said it requires a manufacturer’s service contract to keep the microscopes running properly with service contracts making up less than ten percent of the cost.

 “We’re hoping to get a good long life out of the instruments by having them getting taken care of like this,” Owen said.

The Scientists

Before coming to UWM, Owen earned degrees at the University of Akron and Miami University in Ohio. She worked at the University of Western Kentucky, but came to UWM because Western Kentucky couldn’t afford the kind of equipment she needed. Owen’s current research focuses on the genes that affect how pollen develops. 

Steeber started his college career at UW Center in Manitowoc to save money then transferred to UW-Madison. He did his postdoctoral fellowship at the Duke University Medical Center before joining UWM. His current research involves the study of inflammatory disorders.

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