Following Faraday’s Footsteps: Getting Involved in Science Outreach

Following Faraday’s Footsteps:  Getting Involved in Science Outreach

Michael J. Ryan, University of Mississippi Medical Center

Michael J. Ryan, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Physiology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) in Jackson, MS.  He received his B.S. degree in Biological Sciences from the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Cortland, and his Ph.D. degree in Physiology and Biophysics from SUNY Buffalo.   His postdoctoral training was conducted at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. His current work is focused on understanding mechanisms by which immune system activation contributes to the development of hypertension, with an emphasis on renal hemodynamic changes during autoimmune disease.  Dr. Ryan's work is funded by the American Heart Association and National Institutes of Health.  He is an active member of the APS, having served, or is serving, on the Porter Physiology Development & Minority Affairs, Animal Care & Experimentation, Chapter Advisory, and Education Committees. He is also actively engaged in science outreach, having organized numerous PhUn Week events at local schools and museums, and  is the director of "Discovery U", a UMMC School of Graduate Studies program designed to expose K-12 and undergraduate students to biomedical research and career opportunities in science.

Michael Faraday was a renowned English chemist who is widely remembered for his pioneering work to understand electromagnetism and for his development of the law of electromagnetic induction. If you are working in a laboratory that utilizes patch-clamp methods or are learning how to record nerve activity, you are especially familiar with one of his many scientific contributions, the Faraday cage.  The cage is made of conductive material and is an essential tool that blocks external electrical noise thus making it possible to record very small currents in physiological systems. Based on scientific discoveries alone, it is easy to see how Faraday’s work benefits the modern physiologist. However, Faraday was exemplary for another, perhaps lesser known, reason: his pioneering efforts to promote education and science outreach.  

Faraday and the Initiation of Outreach Programs
The major goal of outreach is to increase public awareness and understanding about science and its benefits to society. So, why is Michael Faraday associated with science outreach? In 1825, Faraday initiated the Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution in London with the intention of explaining and demonstrating scientific principles to general audiences, including children (1). This lecture series, typically credited as the first scientific outreach program, has occurred every year since with the exception of a short hiatus during World War II. The lectures are now televised in the United Kingdom and can be viewed on the Royal Institution web page so that they are accessible to large audiences. The purpose of this mentoring forum is to convey the importance of science outreach and to provide enough information that will hopefully encourage you to participate in an activity that is steeped in scientific tradition.

Why is Science Outreach Important?
 It is well known throughout the scientific community that discovery and research can yield enormous benefits to society. As an example of this, work supported by the NIH has led to improved treatments for cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and many others, all of which contribute to the increasing life expectancy and quality of life in the US (2). In addition to the human health benefits afforded, scientific research is critical to the economic health of the nation. The NIH estimates that for every $1.00 invested by the NIH in research, $2.21 is generated in local economic growth. Annually NIH funded research employs 1 million people in the US, with approximately $84 million paid out in salaries (3). While these benefits are well known to scientists, there is evidence to suggest that the public is not aware. To illustrate this, I recently blogged about the importance of science outreach at the APS’ K-12 Confab: An Archive SciEd Blog (4) and highlighted some unfortunate trends related to science in the US. These included a general decline in the public trust in science, the poor standing of STEM (science technology, engineering and math) education in the US relative to other industrial nations,  and the stagnant (effectively decreasing) NIH budget. Can we reverse the trends and improve the scientific literacy of the society? How do we encourage the next generation of physiologists that will discover ways to continually improve healthy and quality of life? Can we effectively convey to our representatives in government that investing in science is essential? The answer to these questions, at least in part, can come from effective outreach where we, as physiologists, can venture out of the laboratory to make connections with local teachers, libraries, and schools to increase the visibility of science, convey its importance to society, and demonstrate the viability and excitement that comes with scientific careers.

What Counts as Science Outreach?   
One may wonder how closely we need to follow in Faraday’s footsteps to be involved in effective science outreach. Do we need to develop our very own holiday-named lecture series as Faraday did?  Do we always have to reach large audiences? Are elaborate demonstrations and visual aids required?  Fortunately, the answer to all of these questions is “no.” Science outreach can take many different forms and occur in many forums that you have likely already encountered. For example, museums and science fairs commonly provide the opportunity for the public to participate in hands-on activities that teach about basic scientific principles. However, effective outreach can be accomplished in less elaborate ways as well. For example, a simple visit to a local elementary school classroom to talk about science, volunteering to be a judge at a school science fair, or giving a laboratory tour are common mechanisms to provide outreach to the public. Therefore, while outreach activities can become quite involved, it does not have to be a daunting task or one that takes up an enormous amount of time. Importantly, getting involved in outreach activities can be made even easier if one takes advantage of one’s professional societies.

Physiologists Engaging in Outreach
Professional societies provide numerous benefits not only through scientific meetings, journals, and funding mechanisms but also through the promotion of advocacy and outreach. The APS offers opportunities for trainees to engage in outreach, several of which are discussed below.  

Physiology Understanding (PhUn) Week
Among the programs supported by the APS, PhUn Week (5) is the most well-known and widest reaching, making it an ideal way for trainees to become involved with outreach. PhUn Week occurs in November each year. A major goal of this outreach program is to form connections between scientists and local schools (K-12) as a way to enhance the interest and understanding of the physiological sciences for both students and teachers. To help members participate, the APS asks organizers to complete an event planner that collects information about the upcoming PhUn Week event activities, the projected number of students, and how many teachers and physiologists will be involved. Based on the information in the event planners, the APS provides materials including PhUn Week t-shirts for the volunteers and promotional items like squeezy hearts, PhUn Week bags, pencils, and rulers that are popular with the students. If you have never organized a PhUn Week event before, resources that provide information on how to engage in outreach are available on the website (5). These resources include a database filled with activity ideas and, specifically, activities that have been used by other APS members during PhUn Week (6). Because of these resources, participation in PhUn Week is very easy and accessible to all career stages, although the program is ideally suited for trainees who are often creative and enthusiastic (key characteristics needed for successful outreach). This level of accessibility has facilitated the growth of the program, which now reaches over 11,000 K-12 students and 250 teachers annually, while engaging over 500 physiologists in science outreach.    

Frontiers in Physiology
The Frontiers in Physiology program is another APS-sponsored outreach endeavor that aims to provide professional development for middle and high school teachers (7). The program began in 1990 and was designed to foster collaborations between physiologists and teachers in order improve curriculum content, promote inquiry based learning, and technology use in the classroom. The success of the Frontiers in Physiology program was instrumental in the development of PhUn Week and the details of the program can be viewed at the website (7). The collaborations are initiated between the primary investigator (PI) of a laboratory and a local teacher, which seemingly limits the outreach opportunities for trainees. However, when a teacher is spending time in the laboratory, as they do through the Frontiers Research Teacher Fellowship, it is often the fellows and students who are in the laboratory running the experiments. Therefore, trainees may have a good outreach opportunity thrust upon them and need to be ready to take advantage of this.

K-12 Minority Outreach Fellowship
Another opportunity that is available through the APS is the K-12 Minority Outreach Fellowship (8). This is awarded annually to one minority graduate student or fellow with the goal of building outreach opportunities with local minority life science students at middle and high schools. The fellowship is for one year and includes activities to visit with schools, participate in teacher workshops for professional development, and the fellow is supported to attend the Experimental Biology meeting. Although this program supports one fellow per year, it is now in its ninth year of developing experts that will be critical to promoting physiology now and in the future.   

Local Science Fair
Perhaps one of simplest ways for physiologists in training to become engaged in outreach is to find out when your neighborhood elementary, middle, or high school is holding its annual science fair. Schools are often in need of volunteers who are able and willing to serve as judges. Importantly, at your request, the APS will provide a certificate and t-shirt that you can present to the top physiology-related project (9). This is a great way to increase the visibility of physiology in K-12 classrooms and can be used as a vehicle to initiate collaborations with local teachers that can ultimately segue into other outreach events like PhUn Week.  

Tips for Getting Started in Outreach
As you begin to think about and plan the outreach activity, or activities, in which you will participate, there are several important factors that you may wish to consider.

Discuss Your Outreach Interests With Your Mentor
If you are a trainee, communicating with your mentor about your interests in outreach is a critical hurdle that you will have to clear. If you have the type of mentor who is supportive of, and actively engaged in, outreach, then this step may involve nothing more than expressing your interests and starting to plan your activity. However, this is not the situation that all trainees will encounter. There are mentors who are not familiar with outreach, or may not recognize its potential value, and may even expect you to be in the lab morning and night, seven days a week. It is under these circumstances where open communication and clearly articulating why you are interested in participating in outreach is essential. Keep in mind that your mentor may be skeptical and the reasons outlined above may not mean more to your mentor than that piece of preliminary data needed for the next grant submission. Another factor to keep in mind when having this discussion is that quantitative assessments of the impact that science outreach has are somewhat limited. Given that scientists like to quantify everything, your mentor’s skepticism may be difficult to quell in the absence of hard numerical data. The bottom line is that it is important for you to keep your mentor in the loop as you begin your plans to participate in science outreach.

Look for Existing Outreach Activities
If you have never been involved with an outreach event or activity before, it can seem like an onerous task. To make your life easier, be sure to look for and take advantage of existing programs. As described above, the APS supports a number of outreach opportunities and provides the resources to help you plan a successful event. However, you can also look outside of your professional society. Many institutions have an Office of Science Outreach that can become a good resource or contact. In addition, institutions have Offices of Postdoctoral Studies and Associated Student Body Organizations that often engage in outreach. If you are new to the process it can be extraordinarily helpful to simply volunteer for existing outreach events. Once you have the experience and confidence, you can move on to organize your own.

Understand the Needs of Your Audience
When you are getting ready to engage in outreach activities, particularly at local schools, it may be important to become familiar with the curriculum being taught to the age group that you will visit. This information can easily be found on the web pages of state education departments.Alternatively, you can have a dialogue with the teachers to find out when topics will be covered in their classrooms. This approach may also provide better insight as to the dynamics that might exist within your audience and an idea of the knowledge they may already possess. Tailoring your activities to complement, or meet, curriculum goals within a school will increase your chances of getting your foot in the door and sustaining a partnership with that school. Sustainable partnerships are important to K-12 educators. If you can develop an outreach program that meets the needs of a teacher and can reliably take place every year, the impact of the outreach will be improved.

Clear Communication is Essential
The ability to communicate with the lay public about the importance of science should not be taken for granted. As scientists, it is easy for us to fall into a pattern of using scientific jargon that would utterly baffle a non-scientist. Therefore, it is important that you spend some time practicing communicating with non-science audiences. Fortunately for us (perhaps unfortunately for them), families and friends often make for great practice partners. This is because families and friends will often be curious to know what it is that you do on a daily basis. Use these opportunities as a way to develop clear and concise messages about what type of science you are performing and why it is important.  

Following Faraday

The Christmas Lectures initiated by Michael Faraday may be the first science outreach program, an impressive and widely regarded series that continues today. However, the opportunities for science outreach have greatly expanded since then allowing scientists to convey the importance of their work to the public. The APS has been, and continues to be, instrumental in championing outreach to increase the profile of physiology and improve science literacy overall. Because of these programs and resources, we as physiologists, have a clear path towards continuing the tradition begun by Faraday.

1. The Royal Institution. Christmas Lectures.
2.  National Institutes of Health. Our Health.
3.  National Institutes of Health. Our Economy.
4.  Ryan, MJ. 2013.  Are we having PhUn yet? The value of outreach in science and education.  The APS,  K-12 Confab:  An Archive SciEd Blog.
5.  APS. Physiology Understanding (PhUn) Week.
6.  APS. Life Science Teaching Resources Communit.,
7.  APS. Frontiers in Physiology.
8.  APS K-12 Minority Outreach Fellowships,
9.  APS. Local and Regional Science Fair Awards.

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Thank you, Dr. Ryan, for this insightful and pragmatic perspective on science outreach.  Few things are as rewarding as outreach to and mentorship of the young.  A common misconception is that one must be "experienced" or established in his or her career in order to make a difference in the lives of others, but this is absolutely not the case.  There will always be those who are younger than we are who can benefit from our guidance, our mentorship, and our passion for science and service.
Peter Mittwede
University of Mississippi 

Wonderfully written Mike! I find this very timely too. I always want to participate in PhUn Week but always miss the deadline because the fall semester is so hectic. I’ve got it on my calendar now! 
Michelle Gumz
University of Florida

Thanks for the comments, Michelle.   Your first point raises a great issue related to the timing of PhUn Week activities.  Although PhUn Week takes place annually in November, APS members have organized PhUn events throughout the year.  Sometimes a different time of year is needed in order to best coordinate not only with the schedules of the Physiologist leader but also with the host teacher and the school curricula.  Therefore, if you know your event will be better suited for a different time of the year, you can easily just put the alternate date on the PhUN Week request form as long as you get the form to APS by the submission deadline in order to be sure that you can take advantage of the great PhUn Week resources provided by the APS. 
Mike Ryan

Thank you for elucidating the important contributions of Michael Faraday to outreach; I was totally unaware of these.  I especially appreciated your point that even a seemingly small effort (e.g., visit to a local school) can be quite important.  You simply do not know whether a child that you interact with for even an hour will be inspired to go on to become a scientist, an APS member, or even a Nobel Laureate (hopefully, all three!).  I want to reiterate that APS makes it easy to participate through PhUn Week and the APS Local and Regional Science Fair Award Program, and I would urge APS members to consider participating.  One point I would like to add:  science outreach is so very personally rewarding.  Every time I talk with K-12 students, whether through APS PhUn Week activities or through the Army Educational Outreach Programs, I come away enthused, excited and with a smile on my face.  A final thought:  Even if each kid you reach does not go on to become a scientist, they will all be taxpayers, voters and citizens at some point.  It therefore behooves all of us to encourage positive feelings about science!
Kathy Ryan
US Army Institute of Surgical Research

This mentoring column not only outlines the importance of science outreach, but it also provides a wonderful overview of resources to aid individuals interested in science outreach opportunities and also highlights the importance that the APS places on these types of activities. Communication of science to the public is often a challenge. Many graduate programs now encourage these types of activities to not only facilitate education of the general public in regards to the importance of scientific research but to also develop well-rounded professional scientists by providing opportunities for students to gain teaching skills and gain confidence in their ability communicate science.
Barbara Alexander
University of Mississippi

Dr. Ryan’s energy and enthusiasm for science outreach can be heard throughout this article.  Many of us with careers in science can point to a special event or teacher that really solidified our desire to pursue science as a career.  This article provides many suggestions on ways that each of us can give back to young students or the general public to increase understanding and benefits of scientific research.  I have found that partnering with graduate students is an excellent way to engage in outreach.  Graduate students often do not have connections to local schools or science fairs since many do not have school aged children, but welcome working with faculty to judge science fairs or run PhUn Week activities.  Graduate students are also excellent lab tour guides since their enthusiasm for their projects are hard to contain. This article will be a wonderful resource for scientists of all stages looking for ideas and opportunities to engage with the community.  I look forward to using the APS resources in the upcoming school year.
Melinda Dwinell
Medical College of Wisconsin

While Dr. Ryan mentioned the importance of clear communication, it is a concept that must be reinforced daily- especially when getting involved in outreach projects. One of my mentors taught me to start writing grant proposals as if I were writing an informed consent document. It seemed like a simple and silly exercise, but my writing began to take off after that. I apply that concept to everything from press releases to manuscripts. It has come in handy when giving presentations to an audience with mixed backgrounds in the sciences.
Maria Urso
Arteriocyte, Inc.  

Mike, this is a very nice source of information. I didn’t know about Faraday’s contribution to outreach. I did know about PhUn Week and this year I will be involved for the first time in a PhUn Week activity by joining another physiologist who regularly participates. I have found it challenging to get the approval from some schools, but maybe I did not target the right ones. What would you be looking in those schools, how do you select them, randomly, connections, private/public?

I have also noticed that NIH is funding outreach programs that include minority students. I think outreach programs are critical in fostering the career development of potential scientists, including physiologists, especially for minorities. It takes some experience and some mentoring to get them motivated but also to make them confident and open a door that they thought it was closed to them. Museums do a great job for outreach in a very engaging way with visual effects and sounds, but PhUn Week goes one step ahead, sometimes bringing a science laboratory experience for a couple of days to kids that otherwise would have never had a hands-on experience.

Thank you for writing about such an important topic for the future of science.
Maria Lourdes Alarcon Fortepiani
Rosenberg School of Optometry, University of the Incarnate Word

The ease/difficulty of gaining approval from individual schools or districts for PhUn Week activities can be quite varied and fostering a relationship with schools may take some time and effort.  One of the best ways to get your foot in the door is to make personal contact with a teacher.  This connection can certainly be facilitated if one’s own children or relatives are enrolled in a school; however, this is not the only way.  One possibility is to find out when the school science fair takes place and volunteer to be a judge (the APS can even provide an award for you to give - see  This will allow the school to become familiar with you and allow you to meet the teachers and administrators.  Ultimately, this can be used to start a dialogue that will allow you to tailor an event that will better meet the needs of the school, thus increasing your chances of gaining approval.   Also, thank you for your comment on the importance of fostering the career development of scientists, especially underrepresented minorities. As you point out, there are many funding opportunities to support research experiences for minorities, and the APS has been a leader in this area as well (  
Mike Ryan


What do you think about the use of social media in science outreach? I joined Twitter in part for this very purpose, but I have found it more challenging than I expected.
Michelle L. Gumz
University of Florida

Thank you for this wonderful article about science outreach!  One great benefit of being an APS member is the opportunity to take advantage of a host of resources that are available for engaging in science outreach.  In addition to hands on, in-person activities (which are excellent and essential), can you also comment on your views of online science outreach?  For example, do you see benefits to using blogs, podcasts, or Facebook/Twitter and other social media as vehicles for science outreach?  
Angela Grippo
Northern Illinois University

Before I address this common question regarding social media, please understand that I am far from an expert with social media.  However,  I do think there is an important place for social media to promote science to the public, and others have written about considerations for scientists as they try to employ social media methods (  The APS as well as several APS members have effectively included this approach through Facebook, twitter, and blogs to promote physiology.  These have all contributed to enhancing communication with APS members and can certainly be used to promote science outreach activities to the public. Everyone gets their information through different means and social media can be a great tool to help with communication for outreach related activities.  The use of social media in general has been discussed in a previous mentoring forum ( as well as at an Experimental Biology Symposium that can be viewed online:, and these resources may help as you establish your online presence.   
Mike Ryan

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