UW group talks cranberry science at huge D.C. science fest

cranberryteamA group from CALS offered up a taste of the science of cranberries at one of the world’s largest science, technology and math festivals last April in Washington D.C.

Cranberries are more than a side dish for researchers in Juan Zalapa’s lab—they are the main course of daily studies. Zalapa’s Cranberry Genetics and Genomics Lab (part of the USDA-ARS Vegetable Crops Research Unit) combines molecular genetic tools with classical breeding to improve the fruit yield and other qualities of cranberries.

The goal is to making the little red super fruits  part of a healthy diet while helping Wisconsin producers grow more in increasingly sustainable ways to ensure that Wisconsin continues to lead the nation in production (Wisconsin produces 60 percent of the nation’s cranberries).

The Zalapa group is actively involved in making their cranberry research available to the public through outreach events, reaching more than 4,000 people at nine events over the past year. That’s why Zalapa’s lab was sponsored by the National Science Foundation as an exhibitor at the four-day USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. one of the world’s largest science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) festivals, featuring more than 325,000 attendees and 3,000 hands-on exhibits.

The roster of participants at the festival include a who’s who of STEM disciplines, including TV icons Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage from Mythbusters, Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and renowned scientists such as Michio Kaku, author of “The Future of the Mind,” and William Phillips, Nobel Prize-winning physicist.

Participants from the Zalapa included lab technician Eric Wiesman and grad students Brandon Schlautman and Eduardo Covarrubias.

The festival brought science out of the lab to educate a large, diverse audience, from professionals to novices, from science enthusiasts to the merely curious. In many cases, the hands-on experiences presented at the festival can be best described as “magic,” but the science and engineering concepts acquired by the attendees are actually the best way for them to learn how science impacts almost every part of our daily lives, from the simplest to most complex tasks. Whether interested in learning the fundamentals of science or wanting to become a scientist or engineer, the festival allowed the public to learn or re-invigorate their interest in science while inspiring the next generation of STEM professionals. Thousands of young minds were fascinated by the STEM exhibits and enjoyed the opportunity to meet real scientists at the festival. Parents were not left out of the festival fun.

Some parents wondered how they can get their children interested in science without being an expert themselves. Events like this are a great way to introduce science to people who may not get the chance to experience it.

Visitors of the Zalapa lab’s display learned how the cranberry was crowned jewel of the bog. Multiple experimental stations such as “Sink or Swim” and “Cranberry’s Colorful Acidity” allowed the public to observe some of the unique adaptations which have allowed cranberry to thrive in an otherwise foreboding place, the bogs of North America. Audiences learned how unique cranberry physiology allows them to float, which helps them disperse seeds in their native environments and helps farmers grow and harvest cranberries today.

cranberryIn addition, we taught attendees how a variety of phytochemicals can show a range of colors in nature depending on the pH of the fruit and other chemical cell properties. These chemicals, including anthocyanins, are responsible for many health benefits that consumers experience by eating cranberries. Finally, many people also took the opportunity to take a picture of themselves harvesting cranberries from a Wisconsin cranberry bed. Attendees really enjoyed learning about cranberries, as described by one of the attendees, Jackie Giraldo-Smith: “Great exhibitors! I love how the cranberries are harvested. This was a fun and informative booth at the USA Science & Engineering Festival.”

We hope this great exposure on a national stage will help the cranberry, “the most American of all fruits”, expand its role as a Thanksgiving staple to become an iconic and uniquely American fruit worth eating and talking about all year long! We are proud to be living our “American Dream” as members of the USDA-ARS VCRU Cranberry Genetics and Genomics Lab heeding the advice President Obama gave us at the USA Science & Engineering Festival, “Make the discoveries that will allow us to live longer, healthier lives; that’s not just the power of science, that’s the promise of America.” In the meantime, we will continue to help increase public awareness of the importance of science in our everyday lives and contribute to a strong educational foundation for the next generation of STEM leaders through science outreach!