Past BIG IDEAS @ScienceStowers

BIG IDEAS @ScienceStowers is a lecture series exploring how science informs and inspires our communities. Aiming to bring cutting-edge and provocative scientific ideas in an engaging and accessible way to the greater Kansas City community, the series is designed to inspire a thirst for scientific knowledge and illustrate the roles that scientific discoveries play in our lives and communities.

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Nature’s Palette: The Biological Significance of Color

In nature, animals vary tremendously in their color and color pattern.  But why? And how?

Whether it’s the brilliant blue wings of a butterfly, the charismatic stripes of a zebra, or the camouflaging fur of a rodent scurrying in the underbrush, animals display color in vastly different ways. And color can serve many purposes – to conceal, warn, intimidate or attract.

For the last two decades, Hoekstra has been tackling the question of how and why animals vary in color with experiments both in the laboratory and in the field, using as a model what she refers to as charismatic mini-fauna (mice). But much of what she has learned in mice can be applied to other mammals, including humans. Hoekstra will discuss the many ways that color is made, used and perceived by animals – and how this diversity testifies to the power, elegance and ingenuity of natural selection.

About the Speaker

Hopi Hoekstra is the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard University, jointly appointed in the Departments of Molecular & Cellular Biology and Organismic & Evolutionary Biology, and an Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She is also the Curator of Mammals in the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Hoekstra is an evolutionary geneticist who studies wild mouse populations using experiments both in the field and the lab. She has been called a “Modern Darwin” by National Geographic as her work employs genetics to understand both how and why organisms evolve via natural selection. Her work spans the fields of ecology, evolution, behavior, genetics, genomics, and development.

Hoekstra has been awarded several prizes for her research, including the Ernst Mayr Prize from the Society for Systematic Biologists, the Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Naturalists, an Arnold and Mabel Beckman Young investigator Award, and most recently the Richard Lounsbery Award from the National Academy of Sciences. She is the former President of the Society for the Study of Evolution. In 2016, she was elected into the National Academy of Sciences, in 2017 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2018 to the American Philosophical Society.Hoekstra has been recognized for her contributions to teaching by being awarded a Fannie Cox Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Sciences and, most recently, a five-year Harvard College Professorship. She is also passionate about science communication aimed at the broader science community and the public.

Supporting Content From Linda Hall Library and MRI Global

For this BIG IDEAS @ScienceStowers event we worked with our neighboring Kansas City Institutions, Linda Hall Library and MRI Global, to provide additional content to enhance Dr. Hopi Hoekstra’s BIG IDEAS and amplify science in this corridor of Kansas City.




Tiny Conspiracies: Cell-to-Cell Communication in Bacteria

Bacteria are remarkable tiny ancient organisms. They are everywhere and yet can’t be seen with the naked eye. Their lives may seem far-removed and inconsequential to us, but make no mistake: their impact on our environment and our lives is enormous. While some play vital roles in keeping humans, animals, and plants alive, others can kill us.

How do bacteria carry out such big jobs? They work in groups: they communicate, count their numbers, and act as collectives. Determining exactly how they carry out these tasks helps us better understand the biology and behavior of bacteria, and provides clues to modern medicine as to how to interfere in these processes to combat health conditions such as bacterial infections and multidrug resistance

About the Speaker

Dr. Bonnie Bassler is the Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology and Chair of the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University. She is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. Her research on chemical communication between bacteria, known as quorum sensing, is paving the way for development of anti-microbial drug therapies that combat bacteria through the disruption of this chemical intercellular communication.
Bassler has received numerous awards for her research, including the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences (2009), the Richard Lounsbery Award (2011), the L’Oreal-UNESCO award (2012), a MacArthur Fellowship (2002), and the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize (2016). She is a former president of the American Society for Microbiology, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a former six-year member of the National Science Board.
Bassler has published more than 150 scholarly papers in scientific journals. She also serves on the editorial board of several journals. She is a passionate advocate for diversity in the sciences and she is actively involved in and committed to educating lay people in science.




Finding Your Inner Fish

If you think that humans have nothing in common with fish, think twice!

Neil Shubin, PhD, tells us about the most important discovery of his career: fossils that bridge an evolutionary gap between fish using their fins to swim, and animals using their arms, legs, fingers, and toes to walk on land, just like us. Drawing from the fields of paleontology, comparative anatomy, embryology, and molecular genetics, Shubin shows that this evolutionary event from 375 million years ago is embedded within our own bodies and that studying it helps us better understand our connection to the rest of life on this planet.

About the Speaker

Dr. Neil Shubin is the Robert R. Bensley Distinguished Service Professor of Anatomy at the University of Chicago. He leads fossil expeditions around the world and runs a molecular biology laboratory studying the great transitions in the history of life. His team is widely known for the discovery of Tiktaalik roseae, an ancient fish right at the cusp of the transition to land 375 million years ago.

Shubin is a Senior Advisor to the President of the University on the affiliation with the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He is the author of two bestsellers, Your Inner Fish (Vintage Press 2009) and The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People (Vintage Press 2011). He served as presenter and scientific advisor for the Emmy Award-winning three-part PBS miniseries Your Inner Fish derived from his book of the same title.

Among his awards, he has received the Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers and the Science Communication Award from the National Academy of Sciences. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the California Academy of Sciences in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Sciences.




Too Creative for Science?

If people were asked to identify a creative person, most of them would describe an artist. Why not a scientist? Pablo Picasso once said: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain one once we grow up.”

At a time when fostering creativity has waned in education and standardized tests have received increasing attention, Ahna Skop, who is both a genetics professor and an artist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, refuses to accept this trend. Through her experience and work, she demonstrates that creativity is a driving force in art as well as science, and that empowering creativity in the classroom proves to be beneficial to students, particularly those who struggle with standard approaches to learning.

About the Speaker

Dr. Ahna Skop is a professor in the Department of Genetics at University of Wisconsin-Madison where she runs a lab that investigates the molecules and mechanisms that control how cells divide during embryonic development. Her team studies these fundamental aspects of cell division using the research organism C. elegans, a free-living nematode. 

Recognizing that scientists’ curiosity often originates in observing the beauty of nature, she curates art exhibits that promote the beauty of science. Her unique background inspires her to think differently and maintain an open mind as she brings together scientists and artists around the topic of creativity.

Skop has also established several successful recruitment and retention programs for underrepresented students and has served as the Chair of Equity and Diversity in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UW-Madison. She has received the Chancellor’s Inclusive Excellence Award for her outreach and inclusive teaching efforts, and Sloan Foundation support for the STEM Diversity Network to connect students with campus advocates. She has served as a board member for SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science) and was recently elected to the ASCB (American Society for Cell Biology) Minority Affairs Committee. 

A winner of the prestigious Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) and the 2018 ASCB Prize for Excellence in Inclusivity, she has had her science and art featured by Apple, The Scientist, USA Today, Smithsonian,, NPR, and Science.



Magnifying Curiosity Worldwide

Science faces an accessibility challenge. Although information and knowledge are fast becoming available to everyone around the world, the experience of science is significantly limited.

One approach to solving this challenge is to democratize access to scientific tools. We believe this can be achieved via “frugal science” – a philosophy that inspires design, development, and deployment of ultra-affordable yet powerful scientific tools. Using some examples from my own work (Foldscope, a one-dollar origami microscope, and Paperfuge, a twenty-cent high-speed centrifuge), I will briefly describe the process of identifying challenges, designing solutions, and deploying these tools to enable open-ended scientific curiosity and inquiries in communities around the world.

By connecting the dots between science education, biodiversity mapping, environmental monitoring, and global health, I will explore the role of “simple” tools in advancing access to science and better human health in a resource-limited world.

About the Speaker

Dr. Manu Prakash is an assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering at Stanford University where he runs a curiosity-driven research group in the field of Physical Biology. His work brings together experimental and theoretical techniques from physics, computation, and fabrication to elucidate physical design principles in biology at organismic, cellular and molecular scales.

Born in Meerut, India, Prakash earned a BTech in computer science and engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology before completing his masters and PhD at the Media Lab’s Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT. From 2008 to 2011 he was a Harvard Junior Fellow. In 2011, Prakash joined Stanford University.

Prakash has been distinguished as a Frederick E. Terman Fellow (2011-2013), a Pew Scholar (2013-2017), a top innovator under 35 by MIT Technology Review (2014), a Brilliant 10 by Popular Science (2014), a National Geographic Emerging Explorer (2015), a MacArthur Fellow (Genius Award) 2016 and Wired Magazine’s Next List (2017). His work is funded by a variety of organizations including the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation, National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, USAID, HHMI-Gates, Vodafone, and the Keck, Baxter, Gates, Woods and Coulter Foundations.