Environmental Factor, August 2009, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Wilcox Wows the Crowd at Science Café
By Laura Hall
Speaking at the Broad Street Café in Durham, N.C. on July 14, NIEHS epidemiologist Allen Wilcox, M.D., Ph.D., gave an informal talk on human fertility to a capacity audience made up largely of non-scientists. The talk was one of the Science Café's "Periodic Tables" events organized by the Museum of Life and Science in Durham.
Science Café is a venue that brings together people from all walks of life to discuss a broad range of current issues related to science, engineering and mathematics. The program called "Periodic Tables (http://www.ncmls.org/periodictables) " schedules monthly talks by some of the area's most accomplished professionals and provides a great opportunity for curious adults from the community to learn new things and exchange ideas in a relaxed atmosphere.
In his talk, Wilcox (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/atniehs/labs/epi/reproductive/index.cfm), who is the head of the Reproductive Epidemiology Group at NIEHS, explained the structure of the human reproductive systems. He began the talk by polling the audience about their knowledge of reproductive biology and observed that a number of discoveries about human fertility emerged from epidemiology studies.
Wilcox discussed newer technologies such as intracellular sperm injection, where a single sperm is injected into an egg in the laboratory. He also pointed to some of the "downright weird" aspects of reproduction, such as ectopic pregnancies and human chimeras. A human chimera results when the developing eggs and DNA of fraternal twins merge to form one individual.
The audience's attention was riveted as Wilcox demonstrated how an egg transits from the ovary to the oviduct. Standing on a chair, he used his body to simulate the female uterus with his arms as oviducts and his fingers as fimbriae, a fringe of tissue surrounding the opening of the oviduct. To the delight of the audience and with a little help from two volunteers who held up the soccer balls that represented ovaries, he demonstrated how the oviduct "notices" the egg when it leaves the ovary and "scoops up the egg" into the oviduct.
Commenting afterwards about Wilcox's animated presentation, Brad Herring, director of Nanoscale Informal Science Education at the Museum of Life and Science (http://www.ncmls.org/about-us) , said, "I've never seen so many people stand up to snap cell phone pics or so many camera flashes going off at a Science Café." He noted that the crowd's enthusiastic response to Wilcox was an "indication of how creative and funny and lively the talk was." Herring called Wilcox's presentation an example of the "engaging speakers" and "lively discussions" the museum strives to bring to the "lifelong learning" program.
A slidecast (http://www.lifeandscience.org/periodictables#July) of the talk is posted on the group's Web site, and speaker nominations can be made at the top left hand side of the webpage. The presentation is also available on the slideshare.net Web site (http://www.slideshare.net/PeriodicTables/uncovering-the-mysteries-of-human-fertility-on-sex-fertile-days-and-why-the-rabbit-dies-1744373) .
(Laura Hall is a biologist in the NIEHS Laboratory of Pharmacology currently on detail as a writer for the Environmental Factor.)