BAR HARBOR — In the summer of 1976, NASA’s unmanned probe Viking 1 made history by landing on Mars. But while many children were looking up into the cosmos that summer, 12-year-old Robert L. Morris was looking down into the marvelous ecosystems that inhabit the tide pools near Thunder Hole in Acadia National Park. His experience with that intertidal life on Mount Desert Island played a large role in inspiring him to become a scientist.
But perhaps more influential than tide pools was his experience at the family science night that summer at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL) in Salisbury Cove.
“I remember a scientist with their model organism talking about discoveries they were making for the first time right there, sharing ideas that no had ever thought of,” he said. “I left with my eyes as big as saucers.”
In what turned out to be a very prescient statement, his mother said, “You know, Bobby, if you really like it here, maybe you could be a scientist here one day.”
Fast forward to today, some 34 years later, and Morris has proved his mother’s prediction true. He returned to the MDIBL with colleague John Henson to study how cells grow, using sea urchin embryos as a model.
Along with being director of the Visiting Science Program and professor of biology at Wheaton College, Morris now leads the annual family science night.
“Family science night is about activities, what can you do with guests, what can they do to show some of the fun of participating in this process, this scientific discovery.
“It may not seem like you could make studies of mutation visible by using modeling clay or that you can use pipe cleaners to illustrate cell communication, but you can, and students at the family science night have done that to great effect.”
Undergraduate students help facilitate the activities and also give presentations on their research, Morris explained. “I encourage the undergrads to talk about the fun they’re having, because if you enjoy your work, it’s not work, it’s all play. It’s play with a purpose and with a benefit to the wider world, and we pass that on to our audience.”
Inspiring young minds is the goal, Morris said. “I hope they leave excited about science. That’s my number one goal, to have people realize that science is an exciting and forward-moving process.”
Morris’ dedication to communicating science goes well beyond the classroom as he now regularly appears on the WABI television segment “Science That Matters.” Accompanied by other scientists from the MDIBL, they help explain, in broader context, the lab’s research projects and the importance in advancing human health. “The opportunity I have with WABI is teaching me a lot about how to effectively communicate interesting lessons in a short time visually,” Morris said.
Morris is a true believer in the power of curiosity and discovery to inspire and teach. “There are always new ideas, there are always new questions that are raised by the answers you find and by discovering how the natural world works.”
The scientific process is not just something to be employed in a laboratory, Morris said. “I am a firm believer that everyone is a scientist. When it comes down to it, science is a way of thinking of an idea, learning about that idea, gathering information to test that idea and then reformulating the idea.
“I think that all entrepreneurs are scientists because they have an idea of what might sell or what business they might start, and they go and gather information to test that idea, and they finally try the experiment, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but as long as they’re learning, they are making progress.”
This year’s family science night is scheduled for Thursday, July 13, at 5 p.m.