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   from the issue of November 15, 2007

$1.28M grant powers virus ed program


A new educational program based at UNL and funded by the National Institutes of Health will teach young people and their families the basics of virology.

The five-year, $1.287 million project, "World of Viruses," will bring together scientists, educators, science writers, radio producers and librarians. This will be one of the largest informal public education projects of its kind, said Judy Diamond, curator of informal science education at the University of Nebraska State Museum, and leader of the project. The grant is through the National Center for Research Resources and its Science Education Partnership Award program.

"High school and middle school youth are at an age where they're first starting to make life decisions that will influence their relationships to viruses," Diamond said. "And education about virology can make a huge difference. We also want to introduce young people to virology as a career possibility."

Diamond and her co-investigators, UNL virologist Charles Wood, director of the Nebraska Center for Virology, and Moira Rankin of Maryland-based Soundprint Media Center Inc., along with nationally recognized science writer Carl Zimmer, will create materials for 15 virology-related topics. They will produce radio programs on each topic, including interviews with prominent virologists, for distribution to stations around the country. When a local station runs a specific program, project staff will contact libraries in the region and provide them with display materials and educational activities.

"People are hearing about viruses and viral diseases all the time, but they're not given much opportunity to understand the nature of the organisms, or the nature of the diseases," Diamond said, "let alone in a context where they can start to learn the role of research in helping us understand more about viruses."

Topics will fall into several categories including viruses and bio-defense, emerging viral diseases, global infections, viruses in agriculture and viruses in the environment. Within those topic areas, programs will explore subjects ranging from HPV and HIV to influenza, the ecology of viruses, the use of viruses as bioweapons, and vaccine development.

"This project is highly translational, in the sense that it will bring recent discoveries and insights about viruses to the public, and especially to young people," said Peter Angeletti, an HPV researcher at UNL and partner in the World of Viruses project. "The thing that's so exciting is that as researchers, we get to translate that information from research through the museum and into radio programs and written media for young people. We really need to educate the public and open a conversation about what viruses mean to their lives."

Diamond was principal investigator for "Explore Evolution," a partnership between science museums and 4-H organizations, which included the work of leading evolutionary research scientists, including UNL's Wood and Sheri Fritz, professor of geosciences and biological sciences. That University of Nebraska State Museum project was established in June 2003 with a grant from the National Science Foundation's Informal Science Education Program.

On the heels of Explore Evolution, Diamond was eager to put that project's best practices to work for the topic of viruses.

"I've been wanting to do a virology project for a long time, to help translate research on virology into materials the public could find interesting and fun," she said. "There's a tremendous amount of biology to learn through an understanding of viruses and how they affect us. Viruses are a great means of teaching biology and getting kids interested in science."



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