One night at an airport in Syracuse, New York, Arianna Soldati, a postdoctoral candidate in volcanology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, found herself waiting on a continually delayed flight. To pass the time, she opened her suitcase and fished out a bag of volcanic rocks she had collected on a recent trip. Then, she started showing them to people at her gate.
"Everyone was really excited. Most people have never seen lava before and they had a ton of questions and the delay went by faster than usual," Soldati said.
Soldati has always found joy in sharing her research with the public, which is why she created a science outreach program this fall to bring science presentations to rural towns in Missouri.
The project, called Science on Wheels, is run by a group of Mizzou graduate students, whose research areas range from earthquakes to extinct animals.
So far, they've traveled to Fulton, Tipton and Jefferson City. The last event before the end of the year will take place Nov. 30 in Fayette.
"The majority of people in Missouri do not live in Columbia, St. Louis or Kansas City. They live in the many other small communities in the state. I really wanted to do something for that part of the population that we typically do not reach," Soldati said.
The events give the public a chance to interact directly with scientists, an opportunity that's much easier to come by in cities where there are museums and universities. Soldati thinks traveling to rural areas will also help show the general public that not all scientists are older white men — and that some are young women like her.
Soldati doesn't present research at Science on Wheels; her role is largely to organize and advertise the program. But she said it's important that the speakers make the presentations as accessible and relatable as possible to their audience.
"I have to keep in mind that a third of the people who speak my scientific language are in the [geology building at Mizzou]. So I cannot go out to the general public and start going on about thermocouples, spindles and RPMs because that does not really have any meaning to them," she said. "The point of Science on Wheels is really to tell people why what we study is relevant to them.
"For me, it's volcanology. Why would a someone who is a farmer care about any of this? For example, one thing I could talk about is the fact that volcanic ash is something that fertilizes the soil," Soldati said. "It's something that contains key elements, like phosphorus, that farmers know about because they are the same ones they check for when they buy fertilizer."
Although Science on Wheels is designed to be family friendly, the events are primarily aimed at adults. That's a group that Soldati thinks are often left behind when it comes to science outreach events, which more often are aimed at children.
"After you're done with with school, if you do not go into science yourself, as an adult you may never hear about science again until you have children," she said. "So I wanted to do something that was specifically targeted at them."
Soldati expects to finish her postdoctorate degree by next spring, but she hopes that Science on Wheels continues after she graduates.
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