UNL earns NIH grant for 'Biology of Human' education project

Recent biomedical research has transformed scientific understanding of human biology. But many of these advances haven't filtered into public awareness, hindering our ability to make the best health-related decisions.

A new educational program -- Biology of Human -- will help the public, particularly young people, better understand advances in biomedical research. University of Nebraska State Museum, the Nebraska Center for Virology and UNL sociologists are teaming with children, science writers and multimedia developers to create educational materials for use nationwide. The project is funded by a five-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health's Science Education Partnership Award program, known as SEPA.

"Current research in biomedicine has really changed the ways scientists think about the causes of disease, their treatments and our relationships with other organisms," said project leader Judy Diamond, the museum's curator of informal science education. "These new perspectives have not yet filtered down to common understanding by the public. So this project is specifically oriented at mediating between cutting-edge scientific research in biomedicine and accessible public understanding about how our bodies work."

Diamond and her co-investigators, Charles Wood, professor of biological sciences and director of the Nebraska Center for Virology; and Julia McQuillan, professor and chair of UNL's Department of Sociology, will work with nationally recognized science writer Carl Zimmer and others to develop the materials, such as comics, essays, interactive apps, a website and other activities.

"We hope that by creating materials that people want to read because they're clever, fun and age-appropriate, we will improve their basic understanding," Diamond said. "People are going to be better informed when it comes time to make decisions about treatment or healthcare."

The team will focus on four themes: the biology of human cells and their transformations, such as cancers; the diversity of organisms living inside human bodies and their associations with disease; how health and disease relate to evolutionary history; and potential medicines available through global biodiversity.

Wood said he hopes the project encourages more young people to choose science careers.

"As scientists, we know the facts and the science, but we don't necessarily know how to dispense it to children in a fun way," he said, adding that the team is a perfect combination of scientists and educators to make science interesting.

Research will inform material development. McQuillan brings sociological insights to help produce materials that change attitudes and behaviors.

"My primary focus will be on discovering which approaches to conveying the exciting Biology of Human information are most effective," McQuillan said. "Coming up with measures to capture changes in attitudes, knowledge and behaviors after very brief interventions is challenging and exciting." She said she is particularly interested in understanding how to engage underrepresented groups in science, such as teens from low-income families.

This project builds on the successful approach and partnerships developed for "World of Viruses," an earlier NIH-funded project that Diamond led in partnership with Wood and others.

"New research is really changing the paradigms of how we think about health and disease, and it takes a long time for those perspectives to filter down into educational systems," Diamond said. "We're not trying to dictate what kids should do, we're trying to educate them to make good decisions on their own."

- Gillian Klucas, Office of Research and Economic Development