Students volunteer at newly founded Massachusetts Academy of Sciences

By Sara Cody, Collegian Staff and Sara Cody

A bearded dragon skittered across the desk in hot pursuit of a cricket while a four-foot-long ball python slithered off the edge. Peg Riley, the founder and president of the Massachusetts Academy of Sciences (MAS), laughed as the lizard was chomping away, and invited the golden brown snake, known as Monty The Python, to entwine itself around her wrist.

Monty serves as the mascot of the newly created, nonprofit MAS organization, and is often aboard when the MAS attends such events.

Whether it is a visit to a kindergarten or the annual conference of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the goal is always to inspire and excite. “Monty helps [the MAS] engage individuals of all ages, and although we claim he is there to excite the kids, we often find the adults charmed and engaged by his presence,” Riley said.

A professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, Riley believes that creating a more intimate atmosphere is critical to inspiring interest in science, and these outreach efforts are the best way to do this.

“As much as I would love to say that my greatest love is being in front of people talking about the MAS, in fact, my passion is to have Monty twined about my neck and see some little kid who’s afraid of snakes, decide to give it a go,” she said. “All of a sudden you have this photo of them smiling with the snake wrapped around their arms.”

“Anything that I do that inspires, educates or transforms an individual I feel is my own personal mark on humanity,” continued Riley. “My goal is to touch as many people on a one-on-one basis as possible. I prefer to touch a few people in great depth and get them jazzed about something than to reach the masses and not be able to inspire as deeply or as richly.”

Riley’s first encounter with a state academy of sciences came 10 years ago when she was on sabbatical at Stanford University in California. Her good friend Professor Ward Watt served as the president of the California Academy of Sciences, which was founded in 1853.

Riley saw firsthand everything that the Cal Academy was doing, both to promote public interest in science and to support the professional scientists. Whether it was a scientist looking for a grant, a science teacher looking for a professional development seminar, or a mother wanting to take her kids on an educational day trip, the Cal Academy was there.

In September 2008, the Academy opened the doors of its brand new home. The new building has a green, eco-friendly design, and boasts an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum and a four-story jungle. The roof itself is literally green; it’s covered in native plants and turf in an ingeniously bioengineered design.

Riley was so impressed by the Cal Academy that she could not wait to return home and check out the Bay State’s equivalent.

She said she was surprised when she found no such organization existed in Massachusetts.

“I thought it was just a crazy oversight on all our parts,” Riley said.

Over the next few years, she cultivated the idea of starting an academy in Massachusetts. In 2007, she finally translated that vision into reality.

She reached out to everyone around her to see if she could garner interest in establishing an academy. To her delight, a group of people rapidly assembled to help.

“An extraordinary team just sort of fell together out of the people who I knew in my lab, friends and colleagues that I could convince to even think of this,” said Riley.

This group of volunteers joined together out of their love for science and education to create the foundation that is the Massachusetts Academy of Sciences.

Everyone involved in the project understands the importance of having an academy of sciences, and shared in Riley’s disbelief that Massachusetts was one of six states in the country that did not already have such an academy.

Gabrielle Bouton, an undergraduate working in Riley’s lab, was quick to jump on board with the project as soon as she heard about it.

“I couldn’t believe that this type of organization hadn’t been created in Massachusetts,” said Bouton, who now serves as the assistant director of outreach. “I really wanted to help make the MAS a reality so that it could become something more tangible that people could start to use as a resource for information.”

Carla Goldstone, the director of operations said, ‘It is important that we have an organization that can act as an umbrella for all the wonderful programs and opportunities that exist in the state and help the community find them.”

Riley agreed.

“We are the premier state in the nation with respect to scientific industry if you will, biotechnology, computer science, things of that nature, and one outcome of that focus is an enormous wealth of information,” said Riley. “We also host some of the greatest universities on the planet and all of this combined talent is producing massive amounts of information and tools, resources, and there is no entity that is designed to sort of collect, collate and distribute this information to the appropriate user groups.”

The MAS team has created a list of priority activities.

At the top of that list is the creation of a comprehensive and engaging website, which is the virtual home of the MAS (

“With respect to science education, scientific research, and the application of that research to industry, community and outreach, this site should be one of the most impressive websites in our nation,” said Riley.

The MAS hopes to compile as many resources, links and other information to create the place to go for such information in Massachusetts.

Among the long-term goals of the MAS is the desire for science education reform.

“Looking further down the road, issues such as teacher training, professional development, and assessing how classrooms and schools labs are equipped are all items that will need to be addressed,” said Michael Bertrand, the director of education. “An example of one important current issue is how [standardized tests] influence the way some teachers are feeling compelled to ‘teach to the test.’ One way the MAS can absolutely help in addressing these and other issues is through advocacy from a position of authority on science matters.”

Since announcing its existence at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Conference in Boston in February 2007, the MAS has made enormous strides in achieving its goals, including a meeting with Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray.

‘They see the importance of science and science education in the 21st century. The Governor’s office seems very keen to coordinate all the efforts across the state and make it more accessible to the general public,” said Goldstone. “[The MAS] hopes to help in creating an inventory of these programs and will play a coordinating role.”

The MAS has also worked to coordinate several outreach events at schools across the state. Teachers are invited to contact the MAS and make appointments for the Academy to visit and provide interactive, engaging science demonstrations for the students, free of charge.

The MAS already has an impressive list of such visits.

Bouton’s favorite event was National Astronomy Day, held in Brookline this past year.

“I got to answer questions kids had about science. Doing liquid nitrogen demonstrations with kids and explaining to them how it works is really rewarding because I know that I might have inspired a child to take interest in science,” she said.

As for Sandra Robinson, the MAS director of volunteers, her favorite event was a trip to Natick High School.

“Young adults who normally have no interest in school, let alone science, gave us their full attention and were excited about our demonstrations,” said Robinson. “To see the love of science peaked in someone makes all of our hard work worth it.”

Being a part of the MAS can create rewarding experiences for all involved.

Both Riley and Goldstone find that interacting with the people they have the opportunity to meet is the best part of the MAS.

“From the children that are inspired, to the scientists that exhibit such passion for their work, and the community members that are glad to have a resource to go to when they have questions or want to incorporate science into their family’s lives. It is always worthwhile when you feel like you are making a difference in people’s lives and making them think a little bit more,” said Goldstone.

Given all of its ambitious goals, one of the most important and emphasized efforts of the academy is coordinating a strong volunteer base. They’re tapping into the students at UMass.

“Students have such energy and passion in the things they do. It is a great way to share that with kids and the community,” said Goldstone.

By volunteering with the MAS, UMass students have the opportunity to be a role model for younger generations.

There are many reasons why students should consider volunteering for the MAS, said Bouton.

“There are so many different things to do. We need people to go to events, create podcasts and do various administrative tasks. You can do whatever it is that you find interesting,” she said.

“By getting involved in the MAS, you are helping create an atmosphere conducive to greater scientific achievement for everyone and you are definitely paving your way to more and better college and career opportunities in the sciences when others see your record of achievement in MAS activities,” Bertrand agreed.

The MAS is currently offering an exclusive internship for UMass students during the Spring 2009 semester. Members of the internship, Bio398D, will receive school credit while creating science-themed podcasts and learning the procedure of an MAS outreach visit.

Students will learn the basics of filming and film editing, planning and executing an interesting podcast while also being able to work with Monty, the ball python, and learning impressive liquid nitrogen demonstrations.

The class meets twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays in the BCRC, Morrill 4S Room 370 from 10 to 11:30 a.m.

Sara Cody can be reached at [email protected]