Making an Exhibition of Yourself

We send our intrepid reporter into a Museum of Science puzzle palace designed in part by a Tufts geneticist
Elizabeth Kong and child at exhibit
“Once you’ve solved a puzzle, what’s better than to take it out and share it?” asks Elizabeth Kong. Photo: Jessica Scranton
May 30, 2014

Share

Going to the newly opened Hall of Human Life at Boston’s Museum of Science was educational for me in more than one way. Among other things, I learned that I slouch like a broken-down old man when I walk, and I’m afraid of chickens.

These were starting points for wider explorations, all in the festive spirit of the enterprise that fills 10,000 square feet of space with dozens of clever, widely branching exhibits designed to pique visitors’ curiosity about human biology and health and get them—adults and children alike—thinking anew. “Here you can move at your own pace, and then go and learn more,” says Elizabeth Kong, who received her Ph.D. in human genetics in 2010 from the Sackler School. She’s also the inaugural manager of the exhibition that debuted in mid-November.

In effect, she has moved from the laboratory to Main Street since taking the museum job last year. The transition is a natural one for Kong, who remains messianic about the value of public education regarding all things scientific. For starters, she says, she wants to get people asking more questions about the world they live in. Rather poetically, she calls this deliberate, imaginative process “lifting the needle to the next level.”

A tall, slim, naturally effusive figure, Kong escorts a visitor around the new space with a child’s delight. The hall was configured only after extensive consultations with some 130 outside scientists, health clinicians and educators. The museum supplied the platform, and then worked with partners and vendors to create engaging interactive exhibits designed to spark curiosity and reflect the latest research. Now it’s Kong’s job to be the public face of science in all its mystery, fun and enchantment.

She is qualified down to her toenails. Phil Hinds, professor and chair of the Department of Developmental, Molecular and Chemical Biology, who served as Kong’s mentor in genetics for six years, remembers how she showed up at his office in 2003 before he, new to the faculty, was unpacked and settled in at Tufts. “How did you find me?” he asked her in surprise.

After moving a virtual ball through a maze, Connor Gibbs, 5, investigates his balance. Photo: Jessica Scranton“But that was indicative of the way that Liz approaches her science and her life,” he says. “She identifies things she wants to do, and then goes after them and makes them happen.”

Always a good, reliable bench scientist, in Hinds’ estimation, Kong carries an extra talent that transcends the demands of the laboratory, where her work has concerned the molecular mechanisms of bone development and cancer. As Hinds puts it, “she was on the high end of thinking about science—always wondering what her project meant and what the next questions were. Liz leans toward thinking about the big picture of science.” Mental leaps from small to large and back again, with flashes of excitement all along the way, come naturally to Kong.

When he heard about her job prospect at the Museum of Science, Hinds says he thought immediately, “This is a perfect fit for Liz.” He urged her to pursue the opportunity, in part because it captured something he has always judged essential to a scientist’s social role. “As scientists, we need to be teaching the general public, exposing them to scientific thinking,” he says. “If we don’t communicate this information to the public, what good does it do?”

Chickens and Monkey Cousins

On this day, Kong shows me around the hall on its 10th day of operation. We approach an exhibit designed to measure the height of a visitor’s arch. “Here, I’ll hold your boots,” Kong volunteers immediately. Once in my socks, I scan myself in, and at a signal, stride the length of a runway wired to register the pressure of my feet, all while my body is projected in silhouette on a flanking screen. Then I enter some data on a keyboard and learn that my arches score in a normal range, thankfully. But that unexpected lumbering image of me with my head pitched forward and my shoulders hunched—an unflattering low camera angle, perhaps?—will stay with me for a while.

A minute later, when some kids approach Kong to tell her that the exhibit’s mechanism is not working right, she flips up a nearby cabinet lid and promptly adjusts some dials on a console to fix it. She rules this roost without a sideways glance.

For a year after completing her doctoral degree, Kong worked at a genetic testing company in Waltham, Mass., performing analyses and advising clients of the chances of their children developing various disorders, among other responsibilities. That was an isolated role, compared with this one. “I know about stem cell differentiation,” Kong says, “and I love puzzles. But once you’ve solved a puzzle, what’s better than to take it out and share it?” The puzzles lie all around the exhibit hall, waiting to be cracked and shared.

“Do you look scared?” one exhibit wanted to know. I took the bait and sat at a monitor that tracked how much my pupils changed in size—a classic sign of excitement—while images of some common animals—a dog, a cat, a lion, a porcupine, among others—flashed in sequence on a screen in front of me. With each animal, I was asked to move a dial indicating my instinctive personal response between “like” and “dislike.” At the end, a review would show me how well what I said I felt aligned with my pupils’ reflexive assessment; it also compared my responses with those of others. I thought I liked chickens just fine, but no, the eyes told a different story. Friends, I fear poultry of this sort.

There are more surprises to be found in the Hall of Life than anyone can absorb on a single visit. To my delight, one corner held an exhibit of cotton-top tamarins, monkey cousins, clambering from branch to branch behind plate glass. There was no eye dilation going on here, merely the pleasure of watching animals move. A group of kids were watching with interest when Kong turned and asked them why they thought the tamarins had such long tails, given that they weren’t using them to grab on to the branches. The kids considered the question for a moment.

“OK,” Kong said. “I want you guys all to line up in a row with me right here.” The kids did so. “Now hold your arms down to your sides, like this [showing them] and try to walk a few steps. Do you see what happens? Do you see how you want to raise your arms to keep from falling over? That’s why the tamarins have long tails. It’s for…” “Balance,” a boy said. “That’s right. It’s so they can keep their balance,” Kong responded, as the kids said, “Hey, that’s cool,” turned their attention to something new and drifted away. Kong lingered for a beat. Anyone could see that she was completely in her element, and altogether happy, lifting the needle bit by bit.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Tufts Medicine magazine.

Bruce Morgan, the editor of this magazine, can be reached at bruce.morgan@tufts.edu.