O'Brien Lab

Community Outreach

The O’Brien Lab is committed to community outreach, which includes taking part in programs that encourage under-represented groups to pursue degrees and careers in STEM fields. One of the great powers of science lies in breaking down geographical, social, gender and economic barriers between people who share a love for knowledge and discovery. One of the main goals of the O’Brien Lab’s community outreach efforts is sharing this passion for learning.



Summer 2016 UBMS students pose with O’Brien Lab members Vivek Gohil (left) and Ben Fritch (front right)

Encouraging under-represented groups in STEM fields
The Upward Bound Math and Science Program (UBMS) at Penn State brings high school students from underrepresented groups to campus to do research with scientists on campus. In the summer of 2016 the O’Brien Lab hosted four UBMS students for six weeks. These students learned advanced computing and simulation techniques, how the scientific method is applied in day-to-day research, and they helped create a Biomolecular Arcade System that will be used in future community outreach efforts. This Biomolecular Arcade System looks like a 1980’s arcade system, but the games that are played are in fact simulation modules the UBMS students programmed that allow users to feel biomolecules through a haptic feedback system. Each module conveys one fundamental biophysical principle. In this way, these high-school students not only learned advanced scientific methods, they also have helped contribute to future outreach efforts in which this Arcade system will be used at community events.



World map courtesy of CIA World Fact Book

Encouraging International Science
Science provides a common framework and perspective for researchers around the world. As such, there are few barriers to early carrier scientists, such as graduate students and postdocs, to pursue educational and research opportunities outside of the US. Indeed, Ed O’Brien, who was born in the USA, pursued his post-doctoral research for several years in Great Britain. That experience broadened his perspective on multiple levels, provided him training opportunities he would not have otherwise had, and laid the groundwork for long-term collaborations that continue to this day. To encourage early career scientists to consider opportunities abroad, Ed shared his experience in a Science – In Person magazine article. Ed considers that article a success after an American post-doc recently told him that article motivated him to  take up a postdoctoral position in Germany.


The Changing Medium of Scientific Communication
Recognizing that the ease and ubiquity with which videos can be created provided an opportunity for outreach, Penn State created the Insoluble Science Challenge that uses homemade videos to encourage grade school and high school students to take part in science. The goal of this challenge is for “Students [to] work individually to create a 1-3 minute video that proposes a new, innovative solution to a current problem, and explains the STEM principles used in their proposed solution.” The O’Brien Lab has supported these outreach efforts by serving as judges on the review panel of these videos.

 2016/2015 Insoluble Science first prize for
the High School age group

Graduate student Ben Fritch is participating in the Exploration-U program in Bellefonte, PA. Exploration-U offers an easy way to give back to the community. A small group of Penn State chemistry graduate students plan multiple hands-on demonstrations for primary and secondary area scholars to learn about science. More infomation about Exploration-U events can be found here.