Category Archives: Activity

The Importance of Underrepresented Minority (URM) Representation in Physiology

In 2000 Congress voted to approve the adoption of legislation based on the recommendation of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to assist in ways to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in medicine [1]. Subsequently, the National Science Foundation (NSF), showed that the number of African Americans who held a doctorate or master’s degree increased by two-fold as of 2016 since 1996 [2]. Conversely, it was shown that black faculty representation was not reflected in the increase in minority trainees at universities such as John Hopkins University and other universities [3, 4]. This lack of representation diminishes the overall opportunity for one to see and attain mentorship at early stages of career development. The National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) released that only 5% of African Americans were meeting college readiness benchmark scores in 2012 as compared to 32% for white students [5]. These alarming findings show that from an early stage many African American students are still not on a path of upward mobility and success. The discrepancy in college readiness between African American students and their white counterparts is clearly exhibited in the underrepresentation of African Americans in mid-level science positions to national administrative positions in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Ultimately, if the majority of medical researchers are white, and illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension impact a significant number of African Americans, this creates a pressing need for African Americans to have a greater involvement in medical research. In lieu of this, there is a burgeoning need for improvement to promote the inclusion of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. In accordance, organizations like the American Physiological Society (APS), have developed several programs targeted toward minority outreach in their unremitting commitment to diminishing disparities in STEM.


From the Porter Physiology Development Fellowship to Physiological Understanding (PhUn) Week, APS has repeatedly demonstrated a collective interest in the success of underrepresented minorities. The Porter Physiology Development Fellowship prioritizes awarding successful underrepresented students who may be at institutes with limited funding and resources. In addition to financial support, APS encourages outreach in the field of physiology in its Graduate Student Ambassador Program. This program specifically functions in educating college students from distinct backgrounds and upbringings on the subject of physiological research and associated career opportunities. Likewise, PhUn week serves to introduce younger students from marginalized communities to the field of physiology. These kinds of programs are paramount in reducing the gap in representation for underrepresented groups, not only in physiology, but across STEM fields altogether.

Originally, when the idea of Physiological Understanding (PhUn) week was introduced to us by Dr. Camilla Wenceslau, a principal investigator in the field of physiology and a member of APS. We were unaware APS implemented programs as such which are directed towards community engagement. However, further research on the services entailed for the program, and its impact on the communities it represented, made us enthusiastic to be a part of an experience. We learned PhUn week is a national outreach initiative to help bring scientists to local schools, which aligns with our goal of enlightening younger underrepresented students in a crucial period of their lives. This opportunity to portray the beauty, strength, and integrity of science and physiology related career pathways for students underrepresented in STEM was a driving force for us, graduate students at the University of Toledo, to pursue PhUn week activities.


We identified a local public school with a large population of underrepresented minorities. Accordingly, we contacted the appropriate staff to set a date, but now we had to decide what activities would be done, who would help, and what kind of impact we hoped to leave on the students. We each decided to create stations and pursue activities that fit our creative and educational interest.


At the beginning of the class, we held a 10-minute introduction. For this, we discussed the goals of PhUn week, how APS influenced our professional lives and what opportunities a career in physiology could look like for students. Subsequently, a question and answer session regarding the students’ career aspiration and what they think is related to physiology started prior before performing the activities. For the activities, the students rotated through 4 stations that addressed a different theme of physiology. At the 1st station, titled Inside the Cell, students were given culture dishes, hardened clay, and clear slime (cytoplasm) and discussed the different part of the cell. Afterwards, the plate bottom and lids were parafilm closed and given as quasi-3-dimensional representation of the cell for students to keep. At the Vascular Function Station (station 2), students learned about the importance of circulatory vessel integrity and used tubes of varying diameters to represent what healthy and non-healthy blood flow looked like. At Dress like a Scientist (station 3), students dressed like what they thought a physiologist should look like and had mini-photo shoots. They were also given a little information on the path to becoming a physiologist and were able to ask additional questions. Finally, at the Heart Rate Race (station 4) students measured their heart rate before and after performing a sprint exercise via holding their wrist. The classes were concluded with distribution of PhUn week bags and a group photo.


Opportunities as such are not common in many places, and therefore, serve as potential catalyst for scientific inquiry amongst children. Although a single event, or person, or action may not completely change the course of a child, it could help orient them to new opportunities that they may not have considered. Underrepresented minority students in science are many times, not exposed to careers in science and technology and, if they are the presenter is often from an unrelatable background. Therefore, seeing African American graduate students can serve as a potential catalyst for the pursuit of careers in physiology and can more authentically portray the success and importance of representation as a means for inspiration.

Darren Mikael Gordon1, Jonnelle Edwards1, Abdul-Rizaq Hamoud2, Ahmed Abokor1, Camilla Ferreira Wenceslau1

1 Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, The University of Toledo College of Medicine & Life Sciences, Toledo, OH

2 Department of Neurosciences, The University of Toledo College of Medicine & Life Sciences, Toledo, OH

Darren is a 5th year MD/PhD student candidate, Jonnelle Edwards is a 3rd year PhD student, Abdul-Rizaq Hamoud and Ahmed Abokor are 2nd year PhD students at the University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences. Dr. Camilla Ferreira Wenceslau is an Assistant Professor at the University as well. All have an invested interest in outreach and believe programs like PhUn week can be paramount to forwarding the aims of progressing diversity in leadership and science.
Human Diseases Graphic Novels

Over my 23 years as an educator, I have noticed that students have an inherent student fear of written assessments, and this when combined with the procrastination and poor management typical of the teenage years, creates a perfect recipe for frustration. Students who do well in class tend to gravitate toward visual and very hands-on techniques to enhance their learning. I have been fortunate enough to create my own curriculum for my Physiology classes, and have implemented many hands-on activities into my classes. I constantly explore different options for assessments which will enable students to learn while at the same time taking responsibility for their own learning. Some examples of these assessments are the creation of heart models to study the cardiovascular system and measurement of heart rate using student-built Arduino based heart rate monitors.

Students were receptive to my innovative assessments. Yet there was a general lack of enthusiasm when it came to listening to peer presentations on common nervous system diseases. Since the material was important for them to assimilate, I tried various techniques to engage them during these presentations, including offering extra credit, but it was not as successful as I had hoped because some students stubbornly refused to pay attention.

Last year, I was selected as a Teacher Fellow and when the time for planning Phun week came around, I decided to implement the use of graphic novels in my class to solve the problem of student engagement. Accordingly, I gave students 2 weeks to research 2 diseases of any organ system in the body. The requirement was that they create graphic novels of their disease, and represent through their art, the inputs and outputs of systems leading to pathological conditions. Initially, students stared at me. What, they thought, could this crazy woman possibly be thinking? Who ever heard of graphic novels in biology? I listened to my students’ concerns, and reiterated that this assignment was replacing their unit exam on the nervous system. And that did it……

Suddenly students were chatting, brainstorming and throwing out ideas. Some asked me clarification questions, others wanted to know if their chosen diseases were acceptable. Giving students class time to complete their assignment, while I circled around asking

and answering questions, seemed to help student engagement. Everyone was on task, and their graphic novels grew and finessed.

When everyone was done, I contacted our Technical Services Supervisor and Digital

Commons Manager, who digitized student graphic novels on the digital commons.

Student graphic novels were evaluated on the basis of creativity, accuracy and connections to other organ systems. This assessment was a success because students realized that they had to take responsibility for their own learning,and therefore worked harder and faster than before. Working in groups of 3-4 also helped them discuss and finesse ideas and research.

Sowmya Anjur received her doctorate in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Iowa State University, Ames. She also has two Masters degrees in Clinical Biochemistry and Agricultural Biochemistry from Bharathiar University, India. She is currently is a Science Faculty member at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a residential school for students gifted in math and science. During her 23 years as an educator, she has developed her classes to be mostly student-centered with many hands-on activities to develop and nurture student creativity and enhance articulation. She incorporates high tech, challenging and inter-disciplinary projects such as the construction of heart models, Arduino heart rate and blood pressure monitors and other bioengineering

topics into her Physiology classes. She has been a member of the American Physiological

Society for several years and was selected as an APS Teacher Fellow in 2018.


A PhUn Week with 1st Graders That Almost Wasn’t: Tips, Lessons, and Luck!

I hesitated to participate in PhUn week, because I wasn’t sure my undergraduate and teaching skills could translate to a K-12 setting and that I could find class for the activity. Luckily, several APS colleagues with amble PhUn Week experience were relentlessly encouraging.

            Start early to identify a teacher/class partner and don’t give up. My PhUn week nearly ended before it began. In July, APS emails out the annual announcement to complete and send in the PhUn week planner for the November event. This gives teachers the opportunity to squeeze the event into a busy Fall semester. Many PhUn Week leaders work with their own child’s class. Not having children, I talked to friends with children about PhUn Week and identified five candidate teachers. I sent each an email describing PhUn Week as an annual APS-sponsored educational outreach program and the Exercise & Nutrition themes; the PhUn Week Save the Date flyer and link to the website were also included. I named and CCed the person who referred them to me, and explained the event could be held another week in November.

Five invites – not one response. By this time school had just started. Where to find a K-12 teacher? Ask friends in non-science groups, community organizations, or hobby-based groups; home-owner association and neighborhood list serves; the school down the street; the Boys & Girls Club. I have a friend married to a pastor and asked whether she knew a teacher in the congregation who might be interested in PhUn Week. “Lisa B. – here’s her email.” I edited my PhUn Week email with the Save the Date flyer attached, hit ‘Send’, and crossed my fingers. Lisa, the lead teacher for 1st grade at a school near my house, quickly accepted. She asked if I’d be willing to include Sylvia P.’s 1st grade class; they regularly team-teach the combined group of thirty-six 1st graders. So relieved and excited, I replied, “Of course!”

            Logistics and assessment of student preparedness. When? Where? Resources? What are students prepared to learn? We ask similar questions when preparing lectures or seminars for our own students. By phone and email, Lisa and I made preliminary plans. We initially selected the Friday of PhUn Week, but due to a school event we changed the date to the following Friday. Flexibility and adaptability help maintain the spirit of outreach.

            With a big extended family, I have met many 1st graders. They are pure energy. Now multiply by 36! The theme from Jaws played in my head. “We’re gonna’ need a bigger boat.” Recruit colleagues and students. My husband Mike is an APS member and exercise physiologist with a bachelor’s in physical education. “I was wondering when you’d finally ask me?!” He had been secretly developing an activity. He thought it’d be fun to teach basic integrative physiology of heart, lung and blood vessels that ensures adequate oxygen delivery to organs and muscles during at rest vs. after a meal vs. exercise. Many topics address aspects of exercise or nutrition. Select a topic you are genuinely excited about and take an approach suitable for the students. Be confident knowing that their teacher has experience and expertise to guide you.

Six weeks before the event, we met Lisa and Sylvia in their classroom where the activity would be held. We explained the activity; they explained what 1st graders were ready to learn. The 1st grade health and science curriculum incorporates The Anatomy Apron that teaches the basic anatomy of major organs (e.g., heart, lungs, gut), concept that organs work together, and importance of good exercise and nutrition habits for all ages and physical abilities1. Students work through the module in spring; PhUn Week activity and timing worked well. They encouraged us to keep terminology simple but accurate; 1st graders are smart and developing a vocabulary. They gave us a copy of The Anatomy Apron. It provided examples of grade-appropriate terminology and illustrations, which helped us tailor the activity to complement the 1st grade health and science curriculum. The classroom had a large dedicated area where the combined group of students regularly met and could easily view a big Smart Board®. Finally, we’d have 50 minutes for the activity.

            Preparing for the activity. While preparedness and organization are critical, we had to consider word choice and account for questions and interjections. You ask a 1st grader a question – they will answer – right or wrong – succinctly or extensively. We patterned the activity after an American Heart Association pre-K activity, Where does the blood go?2, which teaches students blood is pumped to first to the lungs to pick oxygen then flows back to the heart before it is pumped to the body. We elaborated on the circulatory pattern to include blood flow through different organs to ‘give’ oxygen to organs so they can ‘work’ and ‘do what they need to do’; then, through veins blood flows back to the heart and then to the lungs to pick up oxygen. We printed heart, lung, artery, and vein in different colors on individual large cards; on two additional cards we printed stomach and muscle in lower case on one side and STOMACH and MUSCLE in upper case on the other; the latter two cards would be used to indicate digestive and exercise states. In groups of 6, students would pass a red plastic ball, which represented blood would be passed heart à Lung à Heart à artery à stomach à muscle à vein à Heart. around the circuit at different speeds to represent differences in blood flow during different activity states. For the introduction, we found images of heart, lung, vascular circuit, and ChooseMyPlate from on-line sources3,4. Luckily, for their own activities Lisa and Sylvia had students work in preassigned groups of 6. Implementing the teachers’ proven practices familiar to the students, we’d work with those same 6 student groups and made a set of cards for each group. Each group needed a leader; we recruited two exercise physiology graduate students from my husband’s lab (Dylan and Hyoseon) for a total of 6 adults. We had a practice run. I sent Lisa an email with details and called her to answer any questions. We were set.

            Let the PhUn begin. We arrived at the school early, supplies in hand, and a bit nervous. No matter what happens or what is said or asked, stay on track, have fun. Students are attentive and love learning. The teacher(s) will help students maintain focus. When her class gets riled, Lisa says three words, “Class, class, class.”; to which they reply “Yes, yes, yes.” and settle back down. We began with a short definition of physiology: the study of how your body organs each work and how all organs work together to keep you moving and breathing.

            We introduced ourselves as physiologists who study exercise and kidneys. One student quietly asked, ‘You study how we pee?’ Holding back laughter, I answered, ‘That’s right!’ We projected simple anatomically correct diagrams of heart and lungs on the Smart Board® to facilitate discussion with the students about basic anatomy and function. We wanted them to tell us what they knew. They eagerly answered questions and shared what they knew about the heart, lungs, and other organs. 1st graders want the world or whoever is listening to know what they know. Many students already knew the brain ‘tells other organs what to do’! They knew that when the chest ‘gets big’ the lungs fill with air and oxygen is added to blood. One student explained ‘if food goes down your air pipe you might die, but you can do this’ as he mimicked the Heimlich maneuver; then he clarified ‘air can go down your food pipe, you’ll just burp like this (he burped), but you’ll be ok’. He was totally serious. With straight faces we validated him, and got back to the script.

            1st graders know the body needs oxygen, the lung brings in oxygen, and the heart pumps blood around the body. I was not that smart in 1st grade. Mike held up a red ball to represent blood and introduced a new concept: first the heart pumps blood to lungs where it picks up oxygen, then blood returns to the heart, and then the heart pumps the blood to organs – muscle and stomach – then blood flows through veins back to the heart. He tracked the circuit: Heart à Lung à Heart à artery à stomach à muscle à vein à Heart. He told them we’d be learning how the heart, lung and blood work to make sure your organs get enough oxygen whether you’re resting or eating or exercising. He asked them to get into their work groups, as the teachers guided them. For each group of 6 students, 5 sat with cards labeled Heart, artery, stomach, muscle, and vein to form a circle around the 6th student who held the Lung card; each group had an adult leader. Mike asked the class, “What happens when you sit quietly, listening to Ms. B. and Ms. P.?” With stomach and muscle in small font, students slowly passed the red ball around the circuit as the individual group leader directed and explained oxygen loading and delivery. Next, “After lunch, do your muscles or stomach and intestines need more blood?” Students answered “Stomach and intestines!” They flipped the stomach to STOMACH to represent greater blood flow and calmly pass the ball through the circuit again. Next, “What happens when you exercise? Does your heart beat slow or fast? How slow or fast do you breathe when you exercise?”, Why?” “Now which needs more blood – your stomach or muscle?” They flipped stomach card back to lower case, flipped muscle to MUSCLE, and passed the ball through the circuit at a faster, louder pace.

The take home message. With students still sitting in groups, we reminded them how important daily exercise and good nutrition are to heart, lung and overall health and asked them to name different types of exercise. We encouraged non-competitive exercise and daily exercise with family and friends. Finally, students grouped themselves based on organ and lifted their cards as they shouted out their organ in the correct circulatory order: “Heart! Lung! Heart! Artery! Stomach! Muscle! Vein! Back to the Heart”!

We’ve worked with these phenomenal teachers for two consecutive years. They have patiently helped tailor the PhUn activity to their students each year        . We ask for feedback and tweek accordingly. The activity runs smoothly, even when it doesn’t. The first year just after Mike asked about changes during exercise, there was a fire drill. What happened next was nothing short of amazing. The students quietly set the cards and balls down and formed two lines; we followed suit. The teachers escorted us out to the main parking lot where all other students and staff were lined up. Everyone was perfectly quiet. Once we got the all clear, the teachers lead us in single file back to the classroom where we finished the activity. “Keep calm, and carry on.” Trust your teacher, trust yourself and have PhUn.



1) The Anatomy Apron No. 2534M, written by J. Bryson and L. Vessuto with illustrations by J. Nunamaker and J. Zeigler, ©1986 Educational Insights

2) FortheClassroom/ElementaryLessonPlans/Elementary-Lesson-Plans_UCM_001258_Article.jsp#.XKRJQIX9qL3



Alice Villalobos received her biology from Loyola Marymount University and her Ph.D. in comparative physiology from the University of Arizona-College of

Medicine. After teaching Anatomy & Physiology II and Introduction to Human Nutrition in the Department of Biology at Blinn College guest lectures at Texas A& M University on the topics of brain barrier physiology and the heavy metal for the last 5 years, she has moved recently to Texas Tech University. There she will join the Department of Kinesiology & Sports Management and teach Physiological Nutrition for Exercise.
Teaching Kidney Physiology in Inner City Elementary Schools is PhUn!!

Children growing up in historically marginalized communities lack access to many resources that they need to thrive, and in many instances, these circumstances predict the opportunities that they will have in life. Some of the statistics that support these observations: “16 million children in the US live below the poverty line”, “Children of color are more than 2 times more likely to be born into poverty than white children” and “Only about 14% of children growing up in poverty will graduate from college”. These are some of the many reasons that experts believe to be behind the low diversity in the STEM field. I believe that early exposure to good role models could change this dreadful statistics.

When I was given the opportunity to start organizing science outreach efforts in the university department where I work, I wanted to marry two of my passions: physiology and reaching to underserved children. I work at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), which is located in downtown Birmingham. Most of the students at inner city schools here come from low-income families, and the majority of the students are African American or Hispanic. Many of them have no idea how a scientist looks like and do not realize that science is a possibility in their future.

I partnered with the Birmingham chapter of Teach for America, a national organization that is committed to ending educational inequality in the United States. They put me in contact with teachers at 3 inner city schools near UAB, and I worked with them to start coordinating our visits. The teachers jumped at the opportunity of having physiologists visiting their classrooms, as their students rarely have ever met a scientist in person. We started small, with 1 or 2 classrooms per school, but as we did these visits every year for the last 5 years, the rest of the teachers of that grade would also be interested in our visits. The result is that we now visit 5 classrooms per school, for a total of 3 schools, which means that we reach around 300 students every year. To make this possible, I recruit volunteers among postdocs, grad students, junior faculty members, research assistants and even administrative staff at our department.

On the day of the visit, I divide the volunteers into groups (as many as the classrooms that we will be visiting in the school). Each group has a leader scientist and 3-4 helper scientists that go into each classroom. We start our activities with a short PowerPoint presentation, where we talk about what scientists are, what their role in society is, and we highlight the fact that scientists are regular people, not different from the students in the class. We also briefly review the scientific method, and then, we tell the students about how the kidneys work. The students are divided into small groups (4-5 students/group) and start the hands-on activities. Our activities are focused on kidney damage because that is the focus of our department and our research.

A description of each of the 2 activities follows:

Activity 1: Purpose: to determine which glomerulus is damaged

Materials (per group of students): 2 plastic cups (one labeled “blood” and the other labeled “tubule”), 3 filters with different pore diameter (small, medium and big pores; these are the “glomeruli”), a bag of beads of 2 sizes (small beads are “protein” and big beads are “glucose”; note: the small beads need to be small enough to pass through the medium sized filter but big enough to not go through the small-pore sized filter; similarly, the big beads need to be big enough to go through the big pores of the biggest filter), paper tablecloth and paper towels.

Methods: One of the volunteers fills the cup labeled “blood” with some water and the students are instructed to place the beads into the water. Then, the students place one of the filters on top of the cup labeled “tubule” and then pour the water + beads over the filter. The students are instructed to write down what size of beads passes through that given glomerulus. They repeat the same process with the other 2 glomeruli/filters.










Discussion: Once they are done, the leader explains that normal urine does not contain any protein and that the glomerulus/filter that did not let any bead pass through is a normal glomerulus. Then we explain that when there are small beads in the water, that means that the glomerulus is damaged and that the patient has protein in the urine (we call this acute kidney damage). We also tell them that in a diabetic patient you would find both protein (small beads) and glucose (big beads) in the urine; thus, the filter with big pores is the diabetic glomerulus.

Activity 2: Purpose: Diagnose the kidney disease – Fake urine! The students have to determine which patient is normal, has acute kidney injury or is diabetic.

Materials: 3 small cups with covers labeled “patient 1”, “patient 2” and “patient 3” (we use small histology cups), protein and glucose urinalysis dipsticks (3/group of students), key color chart, Diet Cola soda, albumin, glucose or sugar. Not necessary, but PhUn: gloves and masks.


Teaching Kidney Physiology in Inner City Elementary Schools is PhUn!!

To prepare the fake urine (this can be done in advance and kept in the fridge until you take it to the school): For the normal urine – mix water and enough diet Cola to give a urine-like color; for the acute kidney injury urine – mix water, diet Cola for color and albumin; for the diabetic urine – mix water, diet Cola for color, albumin and glucose/sugar. Make each of the urines in big batches and then distribute in the appropriate cups.

Methods: The volunteer helpers distribute 3 cups filled with urine to each group of students, together with 3 dipsticks and a key color chart. The leader tells the students a story about having an MD friend that works at the hospital. The MD is extremely busy and has asked the leader for help to diagnose the patients. The leader tells the students that the urine is from patients at the hospital (there will be a huge “Eeeewwww” coming from the students at this moment). The leader tells the students that they need to wear the gloves and masks because they are doctors for the day and they are working with “human urine”. Instruct the students to dip the dipsticks in the cups one at a time, count to 10 and look at how they change color; with the help of the volunteers, the students write down their diagnosis.



Discussion: When all the groups are done, the leader summarizes the results for each patient and talks a little bit about how to keep healthy kidneys. Do not forget to tell the students at the end of the activity that the urine was fake!!!

We have found that this activity sparks a lot of interest in the students, since many of them know of somebody with kidney disease due to hypertension or diabetes. Students deeply engage in the activities and ask millions of questions, not only about the kidney and how it functions, but also about our path to science and how a regular day in the laboratory is. Our volunteers are a very diverse group, many of them minorities and from many different countries, so these visits also provide the students with diverse role models in the STEM field.





Carmen De Miguel, PhD, is an Instructor of Medicine in the Division of Nephrology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She is a basic scientist originally from Madrid, Spain. Carmen completed her B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. She then moved to the U.S. to pursue a Master’s degree in Cell and Molecular Biology at St. Cloud State University, MN. Her experiences at St Cloud State led to a deep interest in physiology, and she decided to pursue doctoral studies in this discipline by joining the Department of Physiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, WI. Her Ph.D. research, under Dr. David L. Mattson’s mentorship, focused on the role that renal T cell infiltration plays in the development of salt-sensitive hypertension and associated kidney damage. Dr. De Miguel is currently working in Dr. Jennifer Pollock’s lab at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she continues to investigate molecular pathways that lead to kidney damage during hypertensive and diabetic conditions. Carmen is very active in APS, having been member of the APS Education and Communications Committees and trainee leader in the Water and Electrolytes Homeostasis section. She is also very involved in science outreach activities and she has been an organizer and volunteer for PhUn week since 2011. In addition, she volunteers as mentor for the NEXT Program of the New York Academy of Sciences, supporting girls from minority backgrounds to stay in the STEM field.
PhUn week activities to a larger multi-level group after Hurricane Maria

A year ago Puerto Rico went through one of the most difficult and devastating events in our modern history, Hurricane Maria, after this category 5 hurricane hit our island we were left without water, electricity, communications and without other basic needs. The schools and universities suffered great damage and because of the slow recovery, the return to normalcy was an upstream battle. However, hope and desire to fight inspired a group of Puerto Ricans scientists, members of the American Physiology Society (APS) Chapter of Puerto Rico, to power through the devastation and personal issues and make sure that PhUn Week took place.

The APS Chapter of Puerto Rico usually develops PhUn week on the campus of several primary and secondary schools creating several activities throughout the week relating to the topic of that year. This activity always resulted in a great positive energy and amazing feedback from the participating students. This PhUn week came to be expected from the students in the participating schools and students would anxiously and excitedly wait for it to happen. Hurricane Maria instigated a change this year, due to the devastation and the damage that occurred to various participating schools. So, we decided to carry out PhUn Week in the laboratories and halls of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico Ponce Campus with the purpose of being able to provide and exciting introduction to physiology simultaneously to a larger number of students from different grade levels (elementary, intermediate and higher levels for a total of 102 students).

A university environment gave us the ability to present the different sections of PhUn Week in both the classroom and a proper research laboratory environment, which provided a unique experience to the students. For PhUn Week, the theme of Neuroscience was selected, two sessions were prepared, one with an introductory information in a mini lecture format and a discussion session at the end of the activity to listen to the opinions of the students and provide information that summarized what was learned. In addition, five hands-on activities were held between these two sessions, which were: anatomy, histology, optical illusions, hippocampal function and cerebellum function. To properly work with the large number of students invited; different hands-on activities sessions were created to divide the students into small groups and therefore establishing an environment with more accessibility to the information being given.

We wanted the students to be able to see, listen and have a hands-on relationship with the chosen neuroscience topic. In order to facilitate their learning experience there was an emphasis on the varied hands-on activities. In the anatomy section students explored a human brain, the brain areas, and its function. The histology section, students learned how to use a microscope and viewed fluorescent staining of rat brain cells, such as neurons, astrocytes, and others. The third section showed Optical Illusions, which are images that appear to differ from the reality; in this case the brain captures the information and interprets it depending what had been stored. The next section activity explained the importance of the hippocampus in the process of learning and memory, in this activity, students saw a complex picture for ten seconds, then they were shown a second picture, and asked to explain the picture that makes the complex picture. Finally, in the cerebellum activity, important for motor function and coordination; we asked students to put on goggles with a prism effect and try to throw the balls into box 6 feet away, after about 20 attempts, the students were asked to remove the goggles and quickly throw more balls.

At the end of the activites we observed that the students were very excited, with a positive attitude towards physiology even though they recently went through a negative experience of the Hurricane. Changing students from an everyday school environment to an educational environment in a university campus, with laboratory areas and with different activities provided them with the joy and hope that everything could change in the future. Our goal as a group was for the students to have a day where the Hurricane would not be discussed, and to maintain a series of activities where everything would be normal and without the problems from Maria. In addition to bringing them happiness, we achieved a growth of interest in the areas of study of the university and laboratories, they asked about the facilities and what was done in each laboratory and its instruments. At the end of this activity, we observed that with great effort a bit of hope was achieved. The hurricane negatively impacted all who participated, Professors, researchers, graduate students and yet everyone helped make PhUn week a reality and a positive experience for the students.

We wish to thank all the people who organized this activity from Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico, Ponce Health Sciences, and University of Puerto Rico Ponce Campus and special thanks to Dr. Gladys Chompre, Myrella Cruz, Dr. Dinah Ramos Ortolaza, Dr. Caroline Appleyard, Agnes González Charles, and Samuel Bronfen Quinones. Thanks to this post-hurricane Maria PhUn week we discovered that as a university community, when we come together, we make a difference and this activity will be one that will continue, no matter the events, we will offer education and happiness to the whole community.

Christine D. Rodriguez-Flores graduate student of the Biology Department at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico (PUCPR). In addition to doing research, I am interested in providing scientific knowledge to the next generation of K-12 students. This is why I helped coordinate the Physiological Understanding Week in 2018. Even with the disaster of Hurricane Maria last year, we followed the plan of bringing the Phun week activity to our students giving them knowledge and hope. The data collected was presented at EB Conference 2018: Translation of Physiology Understanding (PhUn) Week Activities to a Larger Multi-Level Group of Students in a Scientific Environment following Hurricane Maria in the PhUn week and in the Teaching of Physiology sections. In the future, I am still interested in bringing to the students an experience with science in a simple manner and make them enjoy the full spectrum of scientific learning.



We’ve come a long way, but K-12 students still need exposure to physiology

   You know you are old when the elementary school part of your K-12 science education would likely disqualify a teacher if he/she tried the approach today. At the start of the week, my 8th grade teacher wrote about 10 science factoids on the blackboard.  On Friday morning, the blackboard was erased and we were given a quiz to see what we “learned” by reading these weekly science tidbits. Science was very boring, although I do recall one funny experience learning about the scientific process. We were asked to interpret some “data,” using inductive reasoning to discern a pattern, make a generalization, and come up with an explanation. We were told the following: “A man drank gin and tonic water and got drunk. He then drank vodka and tonic water and got drunk. And finally he drank rum and tonic water and again he got drunk.” The class enthusiastically and unanimously concluded that tonic water causes you to get drunk.

Despite these beginnings to my science experience, I chose to major in biology in college and learned about physiology thanks to a vertebrate physiology class I took my senior year. On my last day of college, I sat on the floor of the incredible instructor of this course and said, “What can you do with a degree in biology if you don’t want to go to medical school?” He quickly responded, “You seem to really like physiology, so you should get a PhD in physiology.” I blindly followed his advice even though I was clueless what this would entail, but I learned quickly and managed to get accepted into a graduate program where my passion for physiology grew, especially regarding neural control of the cardiovascular system.

The administration of several US Presidents since the late 1950’s has acknowledged that K-12 schools need to do more to educate our population in STEM fields by providing opportunities to ensure that tomorrow’s leaders have the skills needed to be innovative and to maintain a competitive economy. The acronym STEM was popularized in the 1990’s.  This is also the era when some national organizations developed opportunities to include exposure to science outside of the classroom and into public arenas. For example, in 1996 The Dana Foundation spearheaded the development of Brain Awareness Week to “to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research.” It has evolved into a global education initiative with more than 5,600 partners in 120 countries. When I was on the APS Council in 2005, the APS Education Committee promoted an event that would rely on APS members to reach out to their communities to help increase awareness about physiology. This was the beginnings of Physiology Understanding (PhUn) Week, an aptly named event since it was intended to show the public that physiology is fun. We were so lucky that APS Leadership saw a need and was willing to invest a relatively small amount of money (in recent years about $40,000 annually) to stimulate interest in physiology in what has become thousands of young children and hundreds of K-12 teachers each November.

Although I was an early advocate of the program (voting in favor of APS support for the event), my first time to be an active participant in a PhUn Week event was 2009. A teacher at a Jackson MI high school (Nancy Lefere, Lumen Christi High School) contacted APS after reading a notice about the program in a teacher’s magazine. She asked APS how she could find a physiologist who could come to her classroom to participate in PhUn Week, and APS contacted me, and I then reached out to Nancy.  I was surprised to learn that she actually teaches a high school physiology course! My colleague Stephanie Watts and I have been going to Lumen Christi High School every year since then. I may be biased, but I think everyone enjoys learning about things that control your blood pressure and heart rate, so we use that as the theme for our PhUn Week activity.

The activity we use at Lumen Christi High School is designed with three goals in mind. One, the students will learn some basic cardiovascular physiology. Two, the students will engage in experimental design. Three, the hands-on activity will educate the students about the cardiovascular effects of drinking caffeinated beverages and aerobic exercise, especially combining the two. Provided one has access to automatic blood pressure and heart rate monitors, the hands-on activity can be done with minimal investment of money (purchase of beverages), and it can be completed in a typical class period.

In the week leading up to the visit by Stephanie and me, Nancy uses the K-W-L- approach to learning as students make lists of things that they Know and Wonder about blood pressure and heart rate. The Learn items are shared with us after our visit to the classroom at the end of the week. Our visit provides students with a valuable opportunity to learn more about blood pressure and heart rate by a Power Point® presentation and the hands-on activity. Some examples of K-W-L items we have gathered over the years are shown in the accompanied K-W-L Chart.

For the hands-on activity, students work in pairs, one being a “researcher” (collects the data) and one is the “subject”. Students receive instructions on the proper way to take their blood pressure using automatic blood pressure cuffs (proper placement of the cuff, arm resting close to heart level, feet flat on floor, relaxed, breathe normally, no talking, etc.). The researchers take and record the blood pressure and heart rate of the subjects on a chart we have prepared in advance. Measurements are made three times: at rest, about 30 minutes after drinking a beverage, and immediately after doing 3-minutes of aerobic exercise (e.g., running, jumping jacks, push-ups). We routinely bring a graduate student with us, giving him/her an opportunity to get engaged in a lively outreach event. And the more hands on deck, the more organized we can be to make sure the students are making the blood pressure and heart arte measurements correctly.

Because the teacher submits the Know and Wonder items in advance of our classroom visit, the presentation can include answers to many of the questions the students posed. The presentation also engages the students by gathering their responses to a variety of questions about blood pressure and heart rate. We used iClicker® technology to gather responses, but if clickers are not available one can do a manual tally of responses to the questions. Typical questions include “Do you know anyone diagnosed with hypertension?”; “Which of the following has the highest blood pressure (or heart rate): a hypertensive man, blue whale, giraffe, or bird?”; “Do you know anyone who had a stroke (or heart attack)?”; “What effect does caffeine (or exercise) have on blood pressure (or heart rate)?”; “Do you think your blood pressure is higher when you are standing, sitting, lying down, or it makes no difference?”

We also talk about the components of experimental design: formulating a hypothesis, developing methods to test a hypothesis, identifying the controls and variables, collecting and recording data, and making a conclusion based on the experimental results. We ask the students what they expect to happen to their blood pressure and heart rate if they consume caffeine and if they exercise. Usually most of the students say that “Drinking caffeinated beverages and exercise will increase my blood pressure and heart rate.”

All students had been asked to refrain from consuming caffeinated beverages for at least 24 hours prior to class. Students are asked in advance if they are sensitive to caffeine and if so, they would not be asked to drink a caffeinated beverage. Parental consent is required to be a subject. Students are divided into groups based on the caffeine-content of the beverage they drink. At a minimum, the study can be done with two beverages: a caffeine-free (0 mg/oz) soft drink and a caffeinated energy drink. We have used either NOS® (10 mg caffeine/oz.) or Rockstar® (15 mg/oz.) energy drink. If possible, all of the beverages used should have the same sugar content so that variation in sugar level is not a factor in the results of the experiment. Also, all students should drink the same volume. It is convenient to use 12-oz as this is the amount in most soft drink cans. The temperature of all of the beverages should also be the same; we use beverages at room temperature.

An almost uniform response is that students who had consumed the energy drink comment that they felt their heart racing after 3-min of exercise. The Figure to the left shows the combined results from our last two visits in which we were able to analyze results from 11 students that drank the caffeinated soft drink and 13 students that drank an energy drink. Systolic pressure (SBP) and heart rate (HR) are both significantly increased after exercise compared to baseline levels in both groups of students. Perhaps surprisingly the results were not significantly greater in those drinking the caffeine-free (CF) beverage versus the caffeinated (C) beverage. One caveat is that blood pressure in these young kids probably begin to correct fairly quickly after they stop exercising. By the time they get back to their seats and settle down to get their pressure and heart rate taken again, it might begin to fall. Students often say they learn not to drink a caffeinated drink before exercising!

In summary, this week-long experience of studying blood pressure and heart rate is a form of active, discovery learning that uses the K-W-L approach in conjunction with a hands-on activity. This format is well-suited to peak the students’ interest in physiology and research because they see for themselves the results of their own study. It mattered more that the students got to be involved in experimental design and conducting the experiments than in the actual results of the experiment.  All participants – teachers and students – have PhUn!

The Future of PhUn Week

Many of the APS members who participate in PhUn Week events of other K-12 activities were disheartened to learn that the current APS Council has voted to halt the use of APS funds to support PhUn Week events beginning in 2019. I urge those interested to contact APS Council members to encourage them to reconsider this decision.  These events could likely continue with about $20,000 each year. We can bypass the distribution of PhUn Week T-shirts for the APS members and teachers participating in the event and the sports bags given to the students. The trading cards and squeezy hearts could continue to be given as reminders to the kids of the “PhUn” they had on that day in November when a physiologist visited their school. Another option for support of this event is getting dedicated individuals or groups who would be willing to endow the program. Maybe this blog can be used to find APS members willing to help regain support for PhUn Week.

Sue Barman received her PhD in physiology from Loyola University School of Medicine in Maywood, Illinois. Afterward she went to Michigan State University (MSU) where she is currently a Professor in the Department of Pharmacology/Toxicology and the Neuroscience Program. She has had a career-long interest in neural control of cardiorespiratory function with an emphasis on the characterization and origin of the naturally occurring discharges of sympathetic and phrenic nerves. She is also a Fellow of the APS and served as its 85th President. She has also served as a Councilor of APS and Chair of the Women in Physiology and Section Advisory Committees of the APS. She is active in the Michigan Physiological Society, a chapter of the APS. She established a jeopardy-style Michigan Physiology Quiz in which teams of undergraduate students compete in answering questions about physiology. Students that participate say it is a great way to study for the MCATs. Sue has had a passion for mentoring young physiologists. She is also a recipient of an MSU Outstanding University Woman Faculty Award, a Distinguished Faculty Award, and a Distinguished Service Award from the Association of Chairs of Departments of Physiology.
A Team Approach for a PhUn Experience that Applies Curriculum-Based Concepts

In the beginning:

From the time my children were in primary school, I visited K1-12 classes and engaged students in various science activities ranging from demonstrations to hands-on activities. In addition to presenting science demonstrations and explaining scientific principles, I wanted to share the discovery process with them and usually concluded my visit by talking about diversity of science careers and explaining how “the lesson” related to subjects they learned everyday in their classrooms.  My science “outreach” continued with sporadic visits to schools, either by myself or with colleagues.  Sometimes, they were in response to requests for faculty to speak to various groups or to help with a science fair.  It was enjoyable to share my interests while working with a wider educational community, hoping to increase awareness of science and what physiology encompasses.  The enthusiasm of the students and teachers made my outreach experiences fulfilling and fun!  As PhUn Week came into existence, it was a natural extension to my classroom activities.  It opened new vistas by providing a network of people, classroom lessons, educational resources and supportive information to increase awareness of physiology careers.


New vistas:

In addition to finding teachers and administrators that welcomed PhUn Week, it was essential to first meet with the teachers to develop a physiology-oriented activity. One of my goals was to work in parallel with the classroom teacher to get students to apply science and math they were being taught to the physiology that was presented.  I had not done this to any extent previously and found that it worked very well with teachers who actively participated in the lesson with me.  I introduced myself to the class, explained what physiology is and described various careers physiologists and other scientists have.  A popular topic was how the lungs and heart function together.  We constructed a model with a plastic bottle, tubing and balloons to demonstrate how the lungs inflate and deflate during normal breathing and formulated inquiry-based questions such as, “what causes air movement during normal inspiration and expiration.”  This enabled us to illustrate the relevance of Boyle’s Law and discuss principles of pressure-volume relationships, airflow, ventilation, diffusion, gas exchange and even Bernoulli’s Principle using demonstrations, physical laws and basic math.  Videos with animations downloaded from the internet were used to show gas exchange and how the lungs function together with the heart and vascular system.  Students were divided into groups and guided to develop and discuss a hypothesis related to flow, velocity and pressure relationships in the lungs.  The heart as a source of pressure for blood flow was discussed along with its role in systemic and pulmonary circulation.  In a hands-on group activity, students were taught how to measure blood pressure and to calculate heart rate and breathing frequency.  They speculated about changes they would expect with exercise, measured changes in heart rate and breathing frequency that occurred, and summarized data.  We concluded by discussing benefits of a healthy life style and exercise on heart and lung function.







Following up:

A subsequent follow-up quiz comparing the ability to correctly answer curriculum-based concept questions (without reference to physiology) to questions based on our inquiry activity indicated a positive correlation. We also experimented with  “Before” and “After” questions as a way to get students to apply what they learned to the solution of questions that they formulated.  Responses to the questions were used to assess understanding of physiology and scientific principles that were presented. Scores indicated that hands-on activity increased the classes’ overall performance.  Quizzes also helped to identify concepts that needed further explanation. Teachers provided perspective of the curriculum and accommodated our activity into their lesson plans.  Our team gained new perspectives for developing ways to think about and teach physiology and enjoyed interacting with teachers and students.  Students were very enthusiastic about their PhUn Week experience.  The overall model that we used can provide experience with the scientific method, inferential reasoning, formulating questions, making observations, and collecting data while introducing students to future STEM careers.  Our model is flexible and allows concepts to be taught in interesting ways that hold student’s interest and are relevant to every day life.  It can be scaled up or down depending on the grade level and we learned that collaboration is important for developing and coordinating appropriate activities and questions for the grade level.


The strength of collaboration:

In addition to the classroom teachers, our Phun Week activity depended on the collaborative efforts of a diverse team consisting of a physiologist, a physiology graduate student, a graphic artist experienced with information technology and an experienced K1-12 teacher who has participated in APS teacher workshops and poster presentations, taken high school students through the exhibit hall at Experimental Biology meetings, talked to students and got them to talk about career plans. This team approach greatly supported and enhanced the transitions between demonstrations, video presentations and hands-on group activities.  It also made it possible to work with three different classes sequentially on the day of the activity.  The different perspectives of our team members helps to show that science careers also depend on effective communication skills and knowledge of the arts and humanities as well as science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  The University of Louisville is supportive of our community outreach.  At the end of the school year, our PhUn Week activity was followed up by a field trip to the University where three classes visited my laboratory for a demonstration related to our activity and toured educational facilities in the Health Sciences Center.

Our experienced K1-12 teacher (Ann C. Roberts, who is also my wife) provided insight into teaching and learning styles, motivational techniques, incorporating PhUn Week lessons into school curricula, and co-authored our PhUn week perspective. She has good rapport with students and classroom teachers which helps to direct and guide students during presentations and group activities. Ann received her B.S. and M.S. degrees in education at Western Connecticut State College in Danbury, Connecticut.  She received certification in New York, California and Kentucky, has many years of classroom experience in public and private schools and co-authored our PhUn week perspective.

Dr. Andrew M. Roberts received a Ph.D. in Physiology from New York Medical College. He completed postdoctoral training in heart and vascular diseases and a Parker B. Francis Fellowship in pulmonary research at the Cardiovascular Research Institute of the University of California San Francisco, School of Medicine. Afterwards, he was recruited by the University of Louisville, School of Medicine and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physiology.  Dr. Roberts’ research focuses on integrative cardiopulmonary physiology, neural control mechanisms, alterations in microvascular regulation and inflammation.  He has served on the Education and Careers Committees of the American Physiology Society and is a Fellow of the APS.



PhUn is What You Make It!

Each year, we celebrate PhUn (Physiology Understanding) Week at a local elementary school in Georgia. Reaching out to elementary-aged students allowed us to surprise and excite young students about the role of physiology in their daily lives. Our goal was to inspire them to have an open mind about who can become a scientist. Studies show that between the ages of 6 and 15, women and minorities lose confidence in their ability to thrive in mathematics and the sciences (1, 2). Therefore, our goal was to demonstrate, to a diverse group of students, that PhUn is what you make it!


Our PhUn consisted of 4 phases: 1) Draw a Scientist, 2) Dress a Scientist, 3) Meet a Scientist and 4) The Scientist Within.


Phase 1: Draw a Scientist. This phase served as our “Scientific Bias Screening”. The goal was to dispel assumptions about who was and could be scientists.

  • Prior to our arrival, we requested teachers to encourage students to draw whatever they considered a scientist.
  • When we arrived, we allowed students to describe their pictures to the class.


This phase was necessary, as it is important to encourage teacher participation since teachers are on the forefront of motivating students daily. Teachers are responsible for shaping and encouraging students to pursue various career opportunities, so having an entire community of teachers to encourage students of all backgrounds (gender, race, socioeconomic, etc.) to pursue STEM fields is critical to promoting awareness of the opportunities and needs within STEM. Furthermore, allowing students to confront their implicit biases about scientists provided a teachable moment.




Phase 2: Dress a Scientist. This phase was important to de-mystify scientific tools and make them relatable.

  • Prior to our arrival, we assembled a “science” bag with laboratory tools (conical tubes, beakers, pipettors, etc.), personal protective equipment (gloves, lab coat, eye googles) and fun items (“crazy” wig). We included items that are used in the typical physiology lab – we decided to leave heavy analysis equipment out of the bag!
  • The teacher selected a volunteer student to be dressed as a scientist.
  • Classmates were asked to name items that the volunteer student needed to “look” like a scientist.
  • After removing the named items from the bag, students were then asked to guess the utility/function of said items. Guiding questions were used to assist.
  • We explained how each item is used and what other purposes it could serve.
  • The item was given to the student scientist to put on or hold.
  • After emptying the bag, students take group pictures with the scientist they dressed.


Many students feel overwhelmed and ignorant because they haven’t been exposed to laboratories. Our goal was to allow students to touch and learn about these tools. As a result, science became a lot less foreign and intimidating.


Phase 3: Meet A Scientist. The phase served to motivate students to consider themselves capable of contributing to scientific discovery.

  • We introduced ourselves as scientists and explained our areas of research.
  • A picture of a “Mad Scientist” was projected. Students were asked if we looked like mad scientists.
  • Pictures of scientists from diverse backgrounds were then projected.
  • We described our journey to becoming scientists from high school to college to graduate school. We also shared personal stories of our experiences at each level, explaining that determination is the key to success.
  • We posed the question “Do you ever ask why…why…but why?”
  • We explained that scientists use the scientific method to answer the “whys” and that each of them possessed the important quality of being inquisitive and that they were indeed “Scientists in Training”.


We were aware that there are multiple reasons students may not be excited about science and scientists – namely it can be seen as nerdy or dangerous. As we clearly do not typify what a “Mad Scientist” appears to be, we aimed to expand the definition what scientist appear to be. The goal was to help them realize that anyone with an interest in learning how things worked can be a scientist.


Phase 4: The Scientist Within. This phase was crucial for helping student internalize their ability to be scientists.

  • We described the cardiovascular system in health and disease.
  • Students were then instructed to form a hypothesis regarding blood flow in a healthy blood vessel versus and unhealthy blood vessel.
    • Step 2- Measure 60 ml of the liquid into the cup.
    • Step 3- Start the timer and use the coffee stirrer to suck up and drink all of the liquid from the cup. Be sure you drink until you reach the bottom of the cup. Do it as quickly as you can but only suck the liquid through the coffee stirrer. Stop the timer as soon as the liquid is gone.
    • Step 4- Record the amount of time it took to drink the 60 ml of liquid.
    • Step 5- Repeat steps 2-5 again but this time use the drinking straw to suck up the water.
    • Step 6- Repeat steps 2-5 two more times so you have run each experiment three times. Record the amount of time it took to drink the 60 ml of liquid.
    • Step 7- When you have recorded your data, go to the APS Physiology Understanding Week website ( and share your findings with other APS Junior Physiologists.
  • We assisted the students in performing the Healthy Heart Experiment II: Does What We Eat Matter to Our Hearts?


The students certainly enjoyed this Phase the most! This phase served to teach students about the cardiovascular systems and how science is already an active component of their lives. By showing the students a fun way to perform experiences, we removed some negative stereotypes about scientists and sparked interests in science we hope are lifelong. Most importantly, students were able to identify themselves as scientists and internalize their abilities to thrive in STEM.

Ultimately, we received plenty of participation and interaction with the students and teachers. We were able to surprise and excite students to re-evaluate who could be a scientist all the while, we were also able to encouraged students to believe that they all have the potential to become scientists themselves. Beyond being rewarding, this event was critical to demonstrating how diversity in STEM is critical for recruiting the next generation of scientists. Seeing two minority women be confident, capable, and qualified inspired the students to ask questions they may not have felt comfortable with in other environments. It also allowed them to believe that being a scientist is possible and that PhUn is what you make it!




Expose elementary students to scientist from diverse backgrounds

Debunk the myth of who a scientist is and looks like

Empower students to view themselves as scientists-in-training

Phase 1: Draw-A-Scientist – Scientific Bias Screening

Prior to arrival

Teachers will instruct students to draw a picture of a scientist

At arrival

Select students to describe their drawings

Phase 2: Dress-A-Scientist

  1. Assemble a science bag
  2. Select a volunteer
  3. Ask ‘What items does he/she need to look like a scientist”
  4. Select a student to provide an answer
  5. Collect item from science bag
  6. Give item to volunteer
  7. Explain purpose/function of item
  9. If items remain in science bag, pull item out…explain

Phase 3: Mad Scientist – Compare and Contrast

Show picture of mad scientist on PowerPoint

Introduction yourself as a scientist

Ask “Do I look like this?”

Explain that scientist look like the average person.

Show pictures of diverse scientists

Encourage students to view themselves as scientists


Dr. Clintoria R. Williams is a renal physiologist. She is a 2001 graduate of Clark University, where she completed a BS in biology. Dr. Williams continued her education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), earning her PhD in physiology in 2008. She returned to Atlanta and joined the Emory University School of Medicine as a postdoctoral fellow, where she established her research program.

Dr. Williams’ research interest focuses on the pathophysiology of kidney disease. Her work has identified a key functional difference in the two isoforms of calcineurin, a family of ubiquitious calcium-dependent enzymes. These enzymes contribute to the regulation of sodium channels in the distal nephron and subsequently blood pressure. Notably, patients that take calcineurin inhibitors for immunosuppression frequently develop hypertension. Since current drugs that inhibit calcineurin do not discriminate between the isoforms of the enzyme, there is an opportunity to refine pharmacological interventions to selectively target calcineurin isoform(s) implicated in the immune system versus isoform(s) involved in salt regulation in the kidney. Her work is currently funded by the American Heart Association.

Dr. Williams has been recognized as an outstanding early career scientist by the American Physiology Society, where she has been an active member of several committees. In addition, she was a founding member of the Minority Postdoctoral Council at Emory University and is a passionate mentor of undergraduate and graduate student scientists.

Sherry Adesina received her B.S. from the University of Georgia and her PhD in Molecular and Systems Pharmacology from Emory University in 2015. As an R&D BIOMEDICAL SCIENTIST with 10+ years experience in academic and industrial settings, Sherry is solution-oriented and currently specializes in front-end preclinical technology innovation within the medical device industry. Her excellent public speaking, written, and verbal communication skills have been published in top scientific journals and presented at national and international conferences. She is a strategic thinker with extensive experience leading multi-functional teams composed of peers, key opinion leaders, and stakeholders. Sherry believes that it is a privilege to demonstrate the importance of science and science education in her daily life with students at all levels of education. In her spare time, she volunteers with Women in Bio, ASPET Education Division, and APS.





A journey through my years of PhUn: lessons learned

PhUn Week is very dear to me as it has been an important part of my professional life for the past 15 years. I was fortunate to be elected to serve on the APS Education Committee in the early 2000’s.  At that time, APS, and specifically that committee, were interested in increasing member outreach and I was charged with the task to develop an outreach program.  There were other professional societies that promoted “awareness days” to increase their visibility to the public and it was thought that we should attempt to do something similar.  After playing around with various acronyms, I pitched Physiology Understanding or “PhUn” Week to the committee.  My thinking was that very few lay people I spoke with about my career knew what a physiologist was or did, so I thought increasing public understanding of the importance of physiology and physiology research would be a laudable goal and, in doing so, we could show people just how “PhUn” physiology can be!

According to my records, PhUn Week was officially rolled out by APS in 2005 and I have run a PhUn Week event every year since then, having just completed my 13th event this past November.  Over the years I have visited elementary, middle, and high schools.  These schools have been in affluent suburban, middle-class urban, and high-poverty urban schools.  I have done activities with a small class of about 20 and with groups as large as 100 students at a time.  We have covered a wide range of topics, from cardiovascular adaptations to exercise and extreme cold, to DNA and transgenic animal models of disease. One of the things I love about PhUn Week is the ability to share the wonder of physiology with students of all ages and backgrounds and see the excitement in their eyes when they “get it”.

Looking back on the common denominators of my wide variety of experiences with this over the years and the ability to fit a PhUn Week visit into my busy professional life each November, successful PhUn Week participation seems to have come down to three important factors.

#1: Find an effective school partner

My first experience running a PhUn event was at my daughter’s middle school in 2005.  The 8th grade science department chair was extremely interested in providing new experiences for the students, so she was an easy sell when I approached her with this idea.  However, she was adamant that whatever I planned needed to be for all the 8th grade students, and not just selected students, such as the “gifted and talented” group.  I completely agreed with her on that point as I am more interested in reaching the students who don’t think they like science or who don’t think that they “can do” science than working the whiz kids who already get it.  The problem with that though was that I needed to present to a total of 300 students.  We handled the situation by having 3 consecutive 1-hour sessions to 100 students in each session and used the school gym so that the students could spread out and do an activity on cardiovascular adaptation to exercise.   It was a whirlwind but we made it work!  The whole process was made so much easier by having a motivated school partner who came up with solutions to potential problems and was able to make the facility arrangements necessary to have a successful event.

Finding that school partner who is motivated to have you visit and is willing to do necessary shuffling of classes and room scheduling is extremely helpful. I have been lucky over the years to either have connections through my children’s schools or through colleagues.  If you don’t have that luxury, try e-mailing science teachers from websites of local schools.  Teachers will self-select by either replying if they are extremely motivated to assist you or not replying if they are not interested.  One you find a great school partner, the rest is easy!

#2: Connect to the curriculum

Learning always works best by building upon an existing knowledge framework rather than starting from ground zero. In 2006, my daughter was now an 8th grader at the middle school so I had already made the connection with the department chair and now I was aware of much of the science curriculum.  That fall, the class had taken a field trip to a biotech company and learned how to transform bacteria so that they fluoresced in different colors.  I had been a chaperone on the trip so I could see how it was presented to the students and how they were led through the activity.  Were they successful in producing bacteria that glowed different colors?  Yes, they were.  Did they think it was cool?  Yes, they did!  Did they have any clue as to what they were doing or the significance of it?  None whatsoever!  As I was considering what to do for the PhUn Week visit that was coming up, I suggested that I might try to connect to that experience by digging a bit deeper with them and exploring what DNA was, connecting DNA to proteins and their multiple functions and ultimately to physiology!  Back in those days, researchers in our department had recently been the first to develop a transgenic rat that expressed green fluorescent protein and thus glowed bright green.  I connected the glowing bacteria that they had produced with the glowing rats the researchers had produced by working through the science behind both experiments.  In the case of the transgenic rats, however, we were able to discuss the important potential of this new technology to biomedical research.  Close connection to the curriculum is not required but it is helpful and gives what they are learning in school real-world relevance.

#3: Have PhUn!

The most important lesson I have learned over the years is to just have PhUn with it! The students are more engaged when you show them how excited you are about the subject.  My daughter, who was an 8th grader during my 2nd PhUn Week event back in 2006, is now a 3rd grade teacher at a high-poverty inner-city school.  This past fall I visited her classroom for PhUn Week, which is the earliest grade level I had visited to date so I was a bit nervous about hitting the correct level.  I got some ideas from the PhUn week activity book about “Phreezy Bear” and decided to focus on adaptations to cold in polar bears and in humans.  My daughter prepped them for the visit by reading them a picture book on polar bears the week prior so they were able to begin the visit by teaching me about how polar bears   stay warm.  They then tested the effectiveness of these adaptations by wearing fur coats to protect them from the arctic wind (me fanning them), placing their hands in ice water with or without Crisco-lined baggies to demonstrate the insulation blubber provides, and measuring water temperature in small glasses wrapped in white or black paper and set in the sun for an hour showing that the black skin of polar bears absorbs more heat than light skin.  We wrapped it up by discussing the different mechanisms that humans have that protect them from cold.  Through it all, the students and I had great PhUn playing with the activities and learning through exploration!

Equally as important as having PhUn on the day of the event is making the entire preparation process PhUn, because if it is something you are dreading doing, you will be less likely to make time for it. What one considers PhUn will be unique to each APS member so I won’t presume to dictate what that might be for you.  For me, I enjoy not having to reinvent the wheel each year because that it too time-consuming.  I like to take what I have done before and build from that.  At the same time, I would get bored doing exactly the same thing each year so I take what I did and tweak it to keep it PhUn for me.  Some years I tweak it more than others.  It varies depending on whether I’m going to the same school and grade level as the previous year or whether that is changing drastically.  It also depends on how crazy my work schedule is each year as to whether I do something tried and true or take some time to tackle a new idea.  Basically, the ability to conform the experience to my abilities and interest each year is what keeps it really PhUn for me!

Finally, why do I really keep doing this each year? I am a firm believer in the power of scientific exploration with children at an early age and that these experiences are long-lasting.  Long before PhUn existed, I visited my daughter’s kindergarten class and explored lung function with them.  At their 5th grade graduation ceremony, each student in her class had to go to the microphone and say what their best memory of elementary school was.  One boy said that he remembered when Dr. Munzenmaier came to his class 5 years earlier and taught them about lungs and that now he wants to be a doctor. We don’t need every child to go on to have a career in science, but we do need every child and future citizen to appreciate the importance of science in their life and in their world.  I believe that we, as APS members, have the ability, and the responsibility, to do just that.

  Diane H. Munzenmaier, PhD currently serves as Program Director at the Milwaukee School of Engineering in the Center for BioMolecular Modeling, specializing in the development of educational programs and resources, as well as professional development for middle school, high school, and college level bioscience teachers.  Diane was previously a faculty member in the Department of Physiology and the Human & Molecular Genetics Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Increasing Contact to Scientists and Science-related Careers through PhUn Week Activities

My first exposure to teaching physiology and demonstrating physiological principles through demonstrations was during my undergraduate years serving as a teaching assistant in the human physiology laboratory. It was through these experiences that I discovered a love for teaching physiology through the use of demonstrations. As such, I was thrilled to discover the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s involvement in PhUn week when I started my time there as a graduate student. PhUn week had been a part of our department’s outreach program for a few years before I arrived and consisted of faculty and trainees visiting local area schools and engaging students with activities mainly focused on cardiovascular physiology. I was very happy to join a team of excited scientists dedicated to sharing the wonder of physiology.

A few years later my lab mate, Alicia Schiller, and I were approached by a program on campus that provided science outreach opportunities to nearby Native American tribes inquiring if we would be interested in adapting PhUn week activities into their day-long outreach program. We agreed to recruit volunteers and adapt our activities in order to fit this program and began work on this new endeavor.

We were expected to have approximately 300 middle and high school Native American students present that day so the first necessary task was to begin recruiting help from volunteers. We received quite the impressive response from throughout the Nebraska Physiological Society network (which includes campuses in Omaha; Lincoln; and Vermillion, SD) of faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates; 20 in total. Through this we learned that help for education activities is out there and that many people are willing to respond to the call for help.

We then set out to develop the materials and activities we would need for the day of activities, which we were now calling “PhUn Day.” We collected many of the tried and true demonstrations and hands-on activities we had used in previous PhUn week experiences for this age group and also developed a few novel activities. In final, we had nine different activities to be presented at different stations. These included:

  • Heart Rate Changes and Heart Sounds
  • Lung Capacity and Respiration
  • Digestion (Poop Lab)
  • Temperature Sensing/Muscles
  • Eye Dissection (High School only)
  • Diving Reflex
  • Owl Pellet Dissection (Middle School only)
  • Nerves and Reflexes
  • Special Senses/Dermatome Mapping

We also developed a tenth station called, “What Does a Scientist Look Like?” designed to provide participants with an informal encounter with one or more of our volunteers where they could ask questions related to what the daily life of a scientist is like, what kind of education is needed to go into science, and what kind of jobs can you get as a scientist. We’ve found through our previous PhUn week involvements that these times set aside to allow students to freely ask questions about the normal, daily life of our faculty and trainees are some of the most rewarding and fruitful times we spend with students. We wanted to provide a similar encounter for each of our 300 attendees during this event.

We collected all of our demonstrations and background information into a booklet, which is now freely available online at the Nebraska Physiological Society Outreach Website. Because this was also a unique opportunity for us to collect data on the usefulness and attitudes toward these types of demonstrations and events, we developed two surveys. One survey given before the event would serve as a baseline measure of students’ understanding of physiology and attitudes toward scientific careers. The second, paired survey given after the event was to provide data on the ability of the event to change these factors. One thing we learned throughout this experience was how time consuming and demanding preparing for an event like this could be. We owe an immense debt of gratitude to all of our volunteers and affiliated staff members that assisted us in preparing for this event. Science is very much a team effort and so are events and activities such as these.

The evening before the event we gathered our volunteers together at the site and held an “orientation” of sorts. We divided up the stations among the group and provided time for the volunteers to acquaint themselves with the material and do a dry run of the activity. Because many of our volunteers had not done a PhUn week before or because they were doing a novel activity, we knew that this orientation time would be integral to the success of the event. It also served as an opportunity for bonding among the volunteers, many of whom were from different campuses.


The day of the event was a whirlwind of activity. Students filled the room and rotated through the stations, talking with the volunteers and asking scores of questions along the way. We’ve always been curious if our PhUn week endeavors have an impact on the kids we’re interacting with, and because we took survey evaluations before and after the event, this time we were able to measure our impact. Through the day’s activities and interactions we significantly increased students’ understanding of physiology and their interest in scientific careers. What was most striking about the impact was that half of students who initially stated that they were unsure about their interest in scientific careers before the event changed to being interested in scientific careers after the event. We’ve recently published the results of our surveys in AJP Advances in Physiological Education.

We think that this may be one of the largest impacts that events like PhUn week have, in reaching students who have little exposure to scientific careers and the scientists who work in them. These type of events provide that exposure and contact, particularly in demographics where students may have little opportunity to interact with scientists and observe career opportunities in physiology through channels readily available to them. We don’t know for sure if these students who increased their excitement toward science and scientific careers will continue to be interested and start a pursuit towards those careers, but events such as PhUn week help provide the beginning steps towards potential interest. We were encouraged by our data as it suggested that these events and connections do have a meaningful impact in student’s understanding and interest in physiology. Hopefully we can someday consider some of the students we reach through these events as colleagues.

Bryan Becker is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alabama at Birmingham where he studies neuronal control of blood pressure and cardio-renal function. Bryan has been involved in PhUn week activities since 2011 as a graduate student at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Bryan is also a current member of the Careers Opportunities in Physiology Committee with the APS and is interested in how events such as PhUn week and other educational outreach activities increase students’ interest in STEM fields.