Monday, March 8, 2021

Atlanta Science Festival: Life is looking up with science!

This year's festival is a hybrid of more than 80 events, including virtual activities and those held in the outdoors.

By Carol Clark

The Atlanta Science Festival returns March 13-27 stronger than ever. This year’s hybrid of more than 80 events includes virtual activities and those held in safe, socially-distanced environments, aimed to educate, engage and entertain all ages. 

The 2021 festival theme — “Science Always Prevails!” — celebrates the metro area as a powerhouse of scientific research, scholarship, service and innovation, from battling the COVID-19 pandemic to protecting the unique natural resources of Georgia. 

“The pandemic has heightened public awareness of the value of science,” says Meisa Salaita, executive co-director of Science ATL, the non-profit organization that produces the Atlanta Science Festival. “All of our partners, including Emory, have come together to keep the festival going strong, despite the challenges. Everyone is inspired by the knowledge that our mission of service to the community is more important than ever.” 

The Atlanta Science Festival, now in its eighth year, was co-founded by Emory, Georgia Tech and the Metro Atlanta Chamber. 

“We’ll not only continue our celebration of science,” says executive co-director Jordan Rose, “but use it as an opportunity to share knowledge that inspires and empowers others to make the world a better place.” 

Bringing more science to more people

On Friday, March 12, one day before the festival launch, an event called “Imagining the Future” will help set the tone. Local STEM professionals, including many Emory faculty and students, will participate in virtual visits to 100 metro Atlanta K-12 classrooms to give students a sense of how science is done, talk about some major questions that remain unanswered in science, and inspire students to imagine themselves shaping the future as STEM-literate professionals of tomorrow. 

“One of the benefits of having virtual events is that we are able to bring more science, and more science-learning opportunities, to more people,” Salaita says. 

Some of this year’s festival highlights include: 

  • “Atlanta 40,” a celebration of 40 notable organisms of the region explained by videos created by experts and luminaries and mini conservation challenges that the public can complete. 
  • “Discovery Walks,” four family-friendly, self-guided walks through neighborhoods and parks in Atlanta, featuring free maps with cool science facts about each location. 
  • “City Science Quest,” an app-based game that allows participants to use a mobile device to uncover Atlanta’s science contributions and STEM careers by earning prizes through completing interactive “missions,” including many that involve exciting scientific research ongoing at Emory. 

Emory event highlights

While not ignoring the current reality, the tone of this year’s festival is hopeful and encouraging, Salaita says. Emory experts will headline events that showcase how scientists at Emory and around the world came together to produce effective, safe vaccines for the novel coronavirus in record time, and to address concerns of communities that have been especially hard hit by COVID-19. 

Another Emory highlight will be a hands-on, outdoor event to learn how to collect data on Georgia’s air quality. And, not to be missed, Emory chemistry students will engage families in a “Drive-In Demo Show” of dramatic displays of chemistry in action. 

Following is a roundup of some of the festival highlights featuring the Emory community. 

Community scientists and amateur sleuths are invited to a family friendly “Air Quality Scavenger Hunt,” on Saturday, March 13, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Atlanta’s Historic Fourth Ward Park. Participants will be provided hand-held air sensors and learn to measure the amount of particulate matter, or pollutants, in the air. Their mission will be to use clues to locate different areas around the park to collect air quality data for Eri Saikawa, associate professor of Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences, and students in her lab. The COVID-19 safety measures for the outdoor event require participants to wear masks and to sign up in advance for half-hour time slots to pick up and return the air sensors. “This event is for anyone who enjoys solving puzzles and wants to be part of the solution when it comes to pollution,” Saikawa says. 

A related at-home or in-class competition led by Saikawa and her students is the “Georgia Air Quality Challenge” for grades 6 to 12. Grade school students will partner with Air Emory, an Emory student-led initiative that began to monitor air quality on campus and is now expanding statewide through a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency and the support of Science ATL and Education Enhanced. Registered grade school students will receive access to lessons and videos to learn about sources of pollution, current data for Georgia, and how air sensors can measure air quality. They will then be challenged to submit a proposal for where air sensors should be placed in local communities in order to fill the gap in air quality data for Georgia. The winners will be invited to present their proposals to an upcoming Georgia STEM day. 

“We want young people to understand the importance of monitoring air quality,” Saikawa says. “We also hope they learn more about sources of air pollution, who may be more vulnerable, and think about ways we might mitigate pollution.” 

Emory physicians will be featured in a series of virtual talks on COVID-19 vaccines.

Emory physician Zanthia Wiley, assistant professor in the School of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases, will give a virtual talk on Saturday, March 13, at 10 a.m., entitled “COVID-19 Vaccines and Disparities in Black Communities: What You Need to Know.” Dr. Wiley, who is also the director of Antimicrobial Stewardship at Emory University Hospital Midtown, will discuss the importance of COVID-19 vaccination and the disproportionate effect that COVID-19 is having in minority communities. She will also take questions submitted directly by those attending the virtual talk. Wiley is a member of the Emory Department of Medicine’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council and the Emory Collaborative Community Outreach and Health Disparities Research Initiative. 

A virtual talk on Tuesday, March 16, at 6 p.m., “COVID-19 Vaccines and Disparities in Latinx Communities: What You Need to Know,” features Emory physician Valeria Cantos, assistant professor in the School of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases and an attending physician at Grady Memorial Hospital and the Grady Infectious Disease Clinic. She will give a bi-lingual talk, in Spanish and English, on vaccine truths, myths and the importance of vaccination. She will also take questions submitted by the audience. Dr. Santos is a lead co-investigator in a study looking at the efficacy of remdesivir in the treatment of hospitalized patients with COVID-19. She is also a co-investigator for the Moderna and Noravax vaccine clinical trials. 

“Vaccine Real Talk,” a virtual panel discussion, is is set for Thursday, March 18, at 7 p.m. The panel will be moderated by Maryn McKenna, a leading infectious disease journalist and a senior fellow in Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health. The event will take on the topic of how COVID-19 vaccines work and how to best combat misinformation around them. Panelists will include Colleen Kraft, associate professor in Emory School of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases and the director of Emory’s Clinical Virology Research Laboratory. 

At noon on March 18, Deboleena Roy, Emory senior sssociate dean of faculty, will lead a virtual panel discussion about scientists and their social responsibility titled “Citizen Nobel: The Pressure and Power of Winning the Ultimate Scientific Prize.” Roy is professor of neuroscience and behavioral biology with a joint appointment in women’s, gender and sexuality studies. The discussion will be based on the film “Citoyen Nobel,” which will be available free for registrants during the week of March 13 to 20. 

Book your free spot in advance and load your “pod” into the family vehicle for the “Drive-In Demo Show” on Saturday, March 20, at 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m., in the parking lot of the First Christian Church in Decatur. Instead of a movie, this drive-in will feature live performances by Emory chemistry students, led by Doug Mulford, senior lecturer of chemistry, whose motto is “teaching with a pyrotechnic flair.” Viewers will remain safe in their cars as the masked, socially distanced Emory chemists make sparks fly. They will wrestle with polymers that grow as large as eels, turn gummy bears into flaming dragons, and make a liquid nitrogen cloud. The finale, of course, will feature a safe, but fiery, explosion! 

The Atlanta Science Festival is produced by more than 50 community partners, with major support from founders Emory, Georgia Tech and the Metro Atlanta Chamber, and sponsors UPS, International Paper, Georgia Power, Cox Enterprises, Mercer University and others.

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