A ‘citizen science’ approach to transforming scientific research and education


by Lydia Grmai

The 2023 Viktor Hamburger Outstanding Educator Prize was presented this year to two phenomenal scientists and educators, Alana O’Reilly and Dara Ruiz-Whalen. Sponsored by the Society for Developmental Biology (SDB), this award was created to honor individuals who have made outstanding and innovative contributions to teaching and learning. O’Reilly and Ruiz-Whalen have each demonstrated a career-long commitment to transforming the way science education is approached altogether. The initiatives that resulted from this collaboration are the result of passion, boldness, and hard work expertly combined.

How they got started

Ruiz-Whalen and O’Reilly, both based in Philadelphia, PA, are a powerhouse duo. Ruiz-Whalen is a science educator and the Chief Learning Officer and Executive Director of the eCLOSE Institute. O’Reilly is an associate professor at the Fox Chase Cancer Center (FCCC) and Chief Scientific Officer and Executive Director of the eCLOSE Institute. Over the years, they have built robust educational frameworks at the nexus of their professional skills and passions.

One of the seeds of this work was planted when O’Reilly was a graduate student at Harvard Medical School. She reflected on the transformative experience of mentoring high school students, largely from historically excluded backgrounds in STEM, through a program called Project Success. This experience reinforced her understanding that “if someone just takes the time to teach creative, charismatic, and committed students, they will be able to move mountains,” she said. O’Reilly vowed to herself that once she became a professor, she would create opportunities like these for more students.

In 2007, Ruiz-Whalen joined O’Reilly’s research group at FCCC. Ruiz-Whalen, who had initially studied to teach secondary education science, noticed that she kept gravitating to hands-on laboratory research. O’Reilly and Ruiz-Whalen each reflected on their early conversations about a dream “institute” in which they could merge their passion for science education and research.

Several years after opening her lab, O’Reilly secured funding to launch a summer research experience for high school students called the Immersion Science Program (ISP), initially co-facilitated with a few postdoctoral scientists. The impact was even greater than they could hope for. Ruiz-Whalen said at the end of the summer, several parents expressed gratitude that they had “created a safe space for their kids to express their own ideas in scientific research and have them validated by professionals in the field.” At that moment, they knew they had done something really special.

The demand for their program quickly exceeded their capacity – over 100 students would apply annually for just 15 summer slots. When they realized they would have to make tough decisions on which students to invite to the lab, they recruited graduate students and postdocs to serve on their “study section”. Not only did this aid in the selection process, it was also an opportunity for academic trainees to get firsthand insight into the review process that governs their grant and fellowship funding decisions.

ISP quickly became successful and highly sought after, and Ruiz-Whalen and O’Reilly generated ever more ideas about how to expand the program. They realized that by training teachers to adopt research-based teaching methods, they could reach even more students. They launched a Teacher Training Program through which they could train biology and chemistry teachers to bring immersion science into their classrooms. Additionally, because of age restrictions on who can conduct research at the cancer center, they developed a science camp that brought science research and education to middle school students. This program also established an early pipeline through which students can learn about research opportunities like ISP and potentially participate when they are older.

Soon, Ruiz-Whalen and O’Reilly were organizing annual research symposia for over 100 students. They realized quickly that they would need to secure additional resources in order to accommodate their rapidly growing program. In 2019, they entered the Milken-Penn Business Plan Competition and won 2nd place. Following this win, they acquired non-profit status for a new expansion of their work, the eCLOSE Institute.

Launching the eCLOSE Institute

The eCLOSE Institute aims to use a citizen science approach to ask and answer novel questions in biomedical research. Through the institute, middle and high school students learn how to design and execute experiments around their unique curiosities. The premise behind this, in O’Reilly’s words, “What if we could get students excited about research through their own ideas, not other people’s?”

Through programs like ISP and eCLOSE, students learn how to use fruit flies to study the impact of diet on human health. For example, students have been asked to reflect on their own community and the health challenges that disparately affect them. Instructors then assist them in identifying the genetic driver(s) of these specific challenges, such as cancer or diabetes. From this information, they can create novel, tailored genetic screens using appropriate fly mutant lines.

O’Reilly explained: “We’re not asking students [to form a] scientific hypothesis about something high-level. We’re asking – who are your people? What’s a challenge your people are facing? It brings them into research in a way that’s important to them and makes them feel connected to the work.”

Ruiz-Whalen and O’Reilly were nearly ready to launch, when the COVID-19 pandemic began. This required a rapid shift in the program’s execution. Ruiz-Whalen, who is certified in the development of hybrid and virtual online learning systems for science, was equipped to adapt the program to the circumstances. Because colleges couldn’t bring students in physically, eCLOSE assembled “fly kits” and shipped them out to various institutions across the United States. Not only were Ruiz-Whalen and O’Reilly able to adapt the program for their local students, this adaptation made it possible to bring the eCLOSE curriculum to virtually any educational space in the country.

Program impact

The impact of Ruiz-Whalen’s and O’Reilly’s science education work is almost impossible to distill. Their students – now numbered at over 1,000 – walk away with more than just a research experience (very likely their first). They inherit a scientific network that consists of expert researchers, educators, and fellow young scientists that may become their future colleagues and collaborators. Importantly, many of these students have limited access to research and education opportunities. Programs like ISP and eCLOSE can be transformative for an individual student’s trajectory, changing the course of a family or even an entire community.

O’Reilly and Ruiz-Whalen each had numerous anecdotes to share about the far-reaching impact of ISP and eCLOSE, both on their students and the communities in which they reside. Many of their students grew up in low-income communities that vary in their levels of scientific literacy. Ruiz-Whalen described the awe she felt when she listened to a student share at the end of a summer experience that she took data they collected during the summer program to her grandmother to demonstrate why it was so important that she stop smoking cigarettes. A teacher through the eCLOSE Institute shared with them the significance of teaching about the effects of diet on human health in a community that is disproportionately affected by diseases like diabetes. Ruiz-Whalen said, “when you see how our 'regular' workdays are leading students…to change their community, you realize that this is what you’re supposed to be doing.”

The eCLOSE Institute and its founders have received numerous accolades as well as grants in support of their mission, including the Elizabeth W. Jones Award for Excellence in Education from the Genetics Society of America and three SDB Education Grants (2016-2018). These recognitions are critical both for securing the necessary funds to maintain and expand their initiative and for spreading awareness of this program to potential participants and collaborators. Ruiz-Whalen reflected on the impact of support from scientific societies such as SDB, one of the first science communities she entered as an educator. She expressed gratitude at the opportunity to showcase the work she and O’Reilly have done.

The eCLOSE Institute is just getting started. In the years to come, they plan to expand to even more students and schools. Among their list of future goals include official teacher accreditation, international collaborators, and increased opportunities for science educators to network and share their work with scientists in conference settings. Wherever they take this program, at its core will remain a commitment to diversifying the research and science education landscape. Not only is this beneficial to the participants, but to the scientific research enterprise at large. As Ruiz-Whalen put it: “If you do not change who is at the lab bench, the questions will not change.”

Last Updated 06/26/2023