New Lessons from an Ancient Disease
When you hear the word “plague,” you probably think of the disease that changed European history in the Middle Ages, not cutting-edge research and threats of bioterrorism. But as we learned at our April 5, 2013 Open Minds Café in Raleigh, NC, the plague is far from dead, both in terms of being a viable medical research topic and being eradicated from today’s population. Dr. Bill Goldman, Professor and Chair of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studies the pathogenesis of infectious respiratory diseases, including pneumonic plague, which is caused by the microorganism Yersinia pestis. Y. pestis causes all three types of plague, and Dr. Goldman taught teens about the life cycles of the microorganism and how it causes the more commonly known bubonic plague as well as the highly contagious pneumonic plague. He also talked about recent outbreaks of the plague and why scientists are concerned about its potential as a bioterrorism agent. He was prepared to talk about his own research on Y. pestis until the teens started asking questions. Once the questions started, they didn’t stop, and Dr. Goldman and the teens were having such a great interaction and the questions were so good that we let them take up the remaining 40 minutes and didn’t bother doing the activity we had developed for the talk.
Café gave us the most difficulty with coming up with a hands-on activity, since Dr. Goldman works with microscopic, highly pathogenic organisms in a lab setting. We brainstormed a few ideas about games simulating bacterial conjugation or the spread of disease and ran them by Dr. Goldman. But we could never quite get it to fit the evolution or life cycle model of the plague bacterium and we didn’t want to just model a general bacterium and confuse the information for the teens. Finally, one of our staff came up with a workable model using different colored notecards to represent different parts of the Y. pestis pathway, outlined in the directions written by Kathryn Fromson. Since we didn’t get a chance to try this activity due to the great discussion that started up, we don’t know how well this would work in a large group, but it allows the teens to apply concepts they learned and engage in group discussion. Based on the positive feedback we got from the youth leaders after the Café, we learned that we had made the right choice in allowing the Q&A to take over, so this taught us the important lesson of flexibility.
Video of Dr. Goldman’s Open Minds Cafe – Livestream video produced by the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, with all presentation slides by Dr. Bill Goldman
Plague Activity – developed by Kathryn Fromson at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences
Note: These resources are intended to inspire others presenting a Teen Science Café. Please contact the creators of the resources if you have any questions about their appropriate uses.