With her team, Kathy Vandiver, director of the Community Outreach and Education Program at MIT's Center for Environmental Health Sciences, creates eye-catching animations of cellular processes like meiosis, mitosis, and DNA translation and transcription, using Legos. These sophisticated simulations of what is going on in the cell are used as teaching aids for both school-aged and adult students, mainly to pique their interest in the subject matter at the beginning of a class.
Popular Science spoke to Dr. Vandiver about her Lego creations.
Above is one of Dr. Vandiver's first videos, and her personal favorite. It shows translation, which is a cellular process in which proteins are synthesized. The piece of mRNA (messenger RNA) at the bottom of the video contains genetic information for building a protein. Each codon, which is a nucleotide triplet, in the mRNA sequence codes for an amino acid, which are the building blocks of proteins. The animation was made with photos from a Nikon CoolPix Camera. 137 photos were animated at two frames per second using a demo version of Boinx software.
What first gave you the idea to make Lego animations of biological processes?
As a researcher turned public school teacher, it became obvious that cell processes were more difficult to understand than cell structures. Cell processes are particularly hard to master from the static diagrams found in books, too. So when I was designing the Lego molecules, I wanted to show how the molecules work in the cell-- what they can do.
The animations came along later, as a bit of whimsy, after I had spent quite a bit of time designing the actual Lego molecules.
Actually the first animations of Lego chromosomes during cell division (mitosis and meiosis) were created by a couple of MIT grad students included Amanda Gruhl working at the Edgerton Center. The Lego Chromosome Set like the DNA Set, was again designed to emphasize the BIG concepts. The major concept in mitosis is that this process creates genetically similar cells. This can be learned by your hands, because if the process is done right, the new cells will have the exact same Lego genes on them. The "before" and "after" looks the same. On the other hand, meiosis is the type of cell division that creates variation in the genetic makeup and the Lego bricks illustrate this process very well too.
Overall, in working with film, we learned that the animations could pique student interest. Amy Fitzgerald, the teacher at the MIT Edgerton Center, frequently uses the chromosome animation to start the class for the students on field trips. It is fun to juxtapose a real movie of a cell undergoing mitosis so that students can relate the dancing Lego structures to the living components that can also be seen dancing-- the similar dance.
How did you get involved with Lego -- is this project endorsed by the company? How are they involved?
I did get involved with Lego Education, basically because they were interested in several different models I had developed and field-tested in my school district in Massachusetts, including the turnkey features such as teacher guides and student lesson booklets. For several years, Lego Education sold the sets online and from their Lego robotics catalog under the name Lego Life Science. Recently, the company-wide decision to remove magnets from all Lego products as a safety precaution, has led to the removal of the first Lego DNA product from the market. However, there are many ways to produce the DNA product. It's under discussion.
What was the first project you did? How did the Lego animations develop into what you are doing today?The first project that really incorporates the Lego animations in a big way is actually just getting started. I obtained pilot funding from my research center, the Center for Environmental Health Sciences (CEHS) to co-develop an exhibit/classroom space with the MIT Museum, called "The Learning Lab: the Cell." The Lego DNA transcription animation is featured on a DVD player at the MIT Museum. This space has been used to teach "How DNA Makes Proteins" with the Lego molecules involved in the cell process. Specifically, the Center at MIT studies molecules that rescue cells whose DNA molecules have become damaged. These are complex interactions, but even if the public understands some of the more basic biological processes better, they can make wiser choices in regard to their own health.
What are your current and future goals for the animations?
Our current and future goals for the animations are to incorporate this media into our next project, which is being funded by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Our goal is to put all the instructions for recreating our museum exhibit's posters, interactives, animations, and instructional programs on a set of DVDs. In this way, other science centers will be able to inexpensively reproduce "the Learning Lab: the Cell. "We like to call this our 'cloning' project, particularly because the space does subtlety represent a cell, with a large table at one end of the room being the nucleus where we do our Lego DNA work, and with several smaller tables as the protein factories (ribosomes) where the mRNA goes to produce the Lego proteins.single page
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