From snakes to axolotls, Levi Storks uses a variety of peculiar pets to lure public audiences into meaningful discussions on science. Levi is currently a PhD candidate in Biological Sciences here at the University of Missouri who studies learning and neuroanatomy in lizards. Storks says he had engaged the public with live animals to a smaller degree before he came to the university, but it was his experiences once he began his graduate study that inspired him to actively pursue scientific outreach. His outreach endeavor initially began with an opportunity to work with after-school science clubs, where he would bring his live animals and give presentations about how reptiles and amphibians relate to important biology concepts including evolution, ecology, and conservation. However, Levi wished to expand the demographic of his typical outreach audience members, so he sought scientific outreach opportunities in communities beyond local Columbia schools. In 2017, he became a speaker for Science on Wheels, a program run by postdoctoral and graduate students which specializes in engaging unique communities across Missouri. Since then, he has transitioned to the lead position as Executive Committee Chair for the program.
Science on Wheels (http://scienceonwheels.missouri.edu/) connects scientists at the University of Missouri with rural communities outside of Columbia, which Levi Storks emphasizes are communities traditionally underrepresented in scientific outreach. Storks also mentions that the program is now looking for other unique audiences, such as local senior centers, in order to reach more communities that do not typically engage with MU scientists. He mentions that it is not just the audience who benefit from Science on Wheels programming, however. “If we can bring people who are actually scientists in front of people who are voting and funding our research… then they’re going to be more likely to support scientists,” Levi explains. He believes that it is important for science as a practice to be “humanized” by bringing real scientists into the community. As Levi sees it, “The primary goal is to make a connection between scientists and people.” He hopes these connections help foster positive attitudes towards science and increased interest in STEM-related careers.
Levi Storks believes that there are a myriad of positive outcomes for scientists who engage in public outreach events. He says that engaging in scientific outreach, whether as a graduate student or faculty scientist, will help develop public speaking and science communication skills that are helpful in having successful academic careers. With Science on Wheels, he says, “you have an opportunity to practice going out and talking to someone who has no idea what you do, about what you do.” This specific ability to communicate your research is what Levi emphasizes is an important skill that can be developed by doing outreach. He also discusses the idea of a career in scientific outreach and how a program such as Science on Wheels can assist in that pursuit. This is because the program can provide someone with a community of people that share similar interests in connecting the public with science.
Despite these benefits however, Levi is not blind to the challenges that participating in outreach might present, including a lack of professional incentives for scientists and the need for more time to fully commit to these events. Science on Wheels does not simply send people out into their partnering communities without preparation. Speakers in the program must now complete an online training module, along with a feedback session in which they will receive critiques and considerations on their presentations. Storks says that this style of professional development is new to Science on Wheels, but he is hoping that it continues to cultivate engaging presentations that captivate the program’s unique audiences.
Along with being a full-time graduate student and the leader of one of Mizzou’s most successful outreach programs, Levi Storks brings his reptilian friends to other events around Columbia, and is always always looking for more ways to engage the public with science. He acknowledges that it can sometimes be stressful because of the pressures that all of these endeavors put on his schedule. He adds, “But, I think the cool thing about science outreach, particularly compared to similar leadership and extra-curricular things you could do, is that it’s kind of in it’s own way rejuvenating.” Storks makes a point to say that outreach prevents him from getting too bogged down by the stresses of research and reminds him why he is so passionate about what he does. He says this has been a similar outcome for the speakers of Science on Wheels and is one of the reasons they continue to participate in the program.
To apply to be a speaker for Science on Wheels, click here.