Marine microbes are everywhere in the ocean. They come in different sizes and shapes and are a (mostly) beneficial and crucial part of the ecosystem. These were the main points the Rappé Lab wanted to deliver at the Fall in Love with Science Discovery Day on March 11th, which took place at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. This is a cool event, which I would highly recommend parents and caretakers bring their future scientists to, as over 40 organizations from across the islands were represented with booths explaining diverse topics in layman’s terms accompanied by fun projects and crafts for the kids. The Rappé Lab represented the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) alongside Dr. Eva Majerová from the coral ecology lab of Ruth Gates.
Sandwiched between a booth with live cave fish and another with tiny shells kids could take home, we knew that we would have to be creative to get kids and parents interested in a display on microbes. Most children had no idea that the microbial world in the ocean was so vast, and most parents associated marine microbes with illness or harmful algal blooms. In order to demonstrate how abundant and diverse microbes in the ocean are, we tested out two interactive displays.
Our first activity involved building on a “Microbe Personality Quiz” borrowed from University of Hawaii’s Center for Microbial Oceanography. During the quiz, kids answer simple questions relating to physical and behavioral traits of 20 different microbes. Once they finish the quiz, they were given trading cards with an image of the microbe that best matched their personality to take home. The microbe most similar to my personality was Thalassiosira weissflogii, a cylindrical diatom, because I like a clean bedroom, similar to how it organizes its cellular components into organelles leaving a tidy interior.
For our second display we really had a chance to get crafty. Borrowing an idea from one of our graduate classes, we wanted to create a visual representation of the relative size and abundance of the different microbes that would exist in a drop of seawater. We settled on using different sized beads to represent cyanobacteria, picoeukaryotes, and bacteria, Styrofoam balls to represent diatoms, and glitter to represent the countless number of viruses that would be present in that tiny drop. After stringing everything up inside a cube we constructed from PVC, the “marine microbe cube” turned out to be an excellent attention-grabber for the kids passing by and opened the door for discussions on what each different object represented and why they were important. Unfortunately, our relatively to scale copepod (aka whale pool float) was not ready in time for this display but may make an appearance at our next event.
Our final activity demonstrated the tie between marine microbes and coral health, revealing how reef health can be affected by climate change. The Gates Lab provided model corals that change from red (healthy coral) to white (bleached coral) when moved from cool water to hot. This color change represents how corals expel their photosynthetic zooxanthellae when exposed to environmental stressors such as increased ocean temperatures, essentially starving the coral. Much like in real corals, not all of these model coral will “bleach”, opening up for discussion the potential resilience in certain species or individuals to changes in the environment.
Overall, the Fall in Love with Science event went well, as kids left our booth with an enhanced awareness of the microbial world, some might have been inspired with new career aspirations, and a few kids ended up unconvinced of these invisible organisms. As marine microbiologists who think about the microscopic world, it’s easy to forget that not everyone is familiar with the world of tiny organisms in our ocean, invisible to the human eye and incredibly diverse and abundant. It is important to spread awareness of this environment to create interest in groundbreaking research and new discoveries. The 2019 Fall in Love with Science Discovery Day has yet to be announced, but keep your weekends free next March and an eye out for an enhanced version of our marine microbe cube.
Contributed by Elizabeth Monaghan, a graduate student in the M.S. program at in the Marine Biology department of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.