Science hitches a ride on a bicycle

Publicação: 26 de September de 2020

A Spanish researcher travels by bike around the world to encourage high school students to develop a passion for science

Riding his bike, the researcher from IRD-MIVEGEC (Montpellier, France), fulfills his dream of bringing science closer educational communities with the Scicling project

Science is not like riding a bike, but nothing stops science from hitchhiking on a bike, does it? If you do not understand how this is possible, it is because you have never heard of the Sciclingproject, which merges two of this scientist’s passions: science and cycling. But before we talk about the project, I’m going to tell you a little bit about the researcher’s story and his bicycle.

Dr. Alejandro Marín-Menéndez is a veterinarian by training (although he never worked in this area) and a biochemist. He holds a master’s degree in education and a PhD in microbiology. In his first laboratory experiment, still while an undergraduate student, he investigated specific genetic traits in fish and since then he has worked in the areas of Neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute, Tumoral Stem Cells at the University of Castilla-La Mancha in Albacete, his hometown, he has also contributed to develop nanoparticles against infectious diseases and, mainly, studies the different aspects of how to tackle/understand better malaria infections. He is currently working at MIVEGEC-IRD in France, where in October he will continue his research as a Marie-Curie postdoctoral fellow.

In a very relaxed and spontaneous way, the researcher, who has extensive experience in top-of-the-line institutions in Europe, Africa and South America, including outreach activities in England, Spain, Morocco, Kenya and Brazil, enthusiastically recalls the time when he lived and worked in Manaus; “I have fond memories of people and gastronomy. I still remember açaí with cereals as one of the best/strongest breakfasts I’ve ever had”, recalls Dr. Marín-Menéndez.

About how to do science on a bicycle, the researcher explains that Scicling is a public engagement initiative that aims to bring cutting-edge science to schools in a simple and sustainable way: cycling. The objective is to expand the scientific culture in educational communities and generate meeting points between high school students and teachers with scientists who are specialists in different areas. Dr. Marín-Menéndez says that the themes of the lectures (workshops) are very flexible and that they are usually adapted to the needs of the institution he visits. “I ask for at least two hours, but I am happy when I can spend three full hours with 25 to 30 students between 14 and 18 years old. As I have already seen teachers who were very quickly and enthusiastically involved in the sessions, I believe that they can also be suitable for adults (teachers)”, he points out.

Accommodating easily to new environments, this researcher takes off his cycling helmet and, in shorts and T-shirt, will give a lecture on what DNA is, for example. “In the first hour I aim to make them think about what being a Scientist is and attempt them to forget the stereotype of a white male Scientist by showing them pictures of some of the very diverse groups I’ve been lucky to be part of with people of more than 30 nationalities. Then, I invite them to do a hands-on experiment and purify DNA from a fruit using very simple elements, so they can experiment themselves and see results in just a few minutes. In the second hour, the class is divided into groups of 5 or 6 students. First, a brief introduction is made about malaria, a disease that Dr. Marín-Menéndez has been investigating for about 10 years. Then, each of these groups receives ten one-page proposals with different real projects related to the disease. Acting as a funding committee, each group must decide, with a limited budget, which projects they would or would not finance. Within each group there is a treasurer, a secretary and a speaker, who in the end presents the entire class what decisions they made and justifies why. Finally, he openly talks about this personal and professional life followed by a long round of questions and answers.

The first action of the project started in the spring of 2019, when Dr. Marín-Menéndez visited two of the Canary Islands, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. During the three weeks he was there, he visited eight high schools engaging with more than 500 students. In the autumn of the same year, after a great effort by the Consejo de Educación Secundaria [Secondary Education Council], especially by the head of a High School, Felipe Rodriguez, and the inspector Marta Kandratavicius, the researcher rode through Uruguay. There, he visited 21 schools and the Pasteur Institute in Montevideo to discuss, in the later, with other scientists the importance of public engagement. During his stay in the country, he engaged with more than 700 students.

Questioned why he chose the bike, Dr. Marín-Menéndez believes that it adds a twist of proximity from the beginning. “I mean, I arrive to the School in shorts, with all my cycling gear, the two bags I carry with my clothes and the materials for the session and usually I get there sweating!”, he jokes. According to him, this basically breaks the idea that the scientist is a lab-geek and demonstrates that he is a human being like any other. “Cycling is a sustainable and simple way to minimize what is needed to bring science to the general public. And, of course, I believe the more you like what you do, the better for everyone, so it also allows me to discover the landscape of the places I visit with more calm than if I traveled with a motorized vehicle”, he adds

Regarding public engagement, the researcher emphasizes that the field is still taking the first steps in many countries, but at the same time, advances are being made and scientists are more aware of the importance of becoming more and more involved, not just with teenagers, but also with the general public. “Having a section of Public Engagement in all applications for funds will help/is helping scientists to get creative and increase attention on that aspect of their roles. I am an optimist, I think the enthusiasm from other scientist is increasing more and more nowadays”, he acknowledges.

Cycling in malaria

Dr. Marín-Menéndez current research focuses on understanding better the genetic uniqueness of the malaria parasite to  fight against the disease, that affects mainly pregnant women and children. He argues that, even if there are pharmaceutical industries with several specific malaria programs attempting to develop new drugs and/or vaccines, although there is no doubt that more investments and efforts are needed. “Not only from the big pharma but also from governments and other private parties”, he says.

But why study malaria in countries where it is not present? The researcher justifies that he sees humanity as a whole, that is, he does not believe in borders, nor do diseases. “We are all living a good example with the current situation. It’s funny that you ask that because during the sessions some students have questioned it as well. When that happens, I ask them, if there’s a fire in the neighbors’ house, do you go and help them?  For me, basically, there is no question. It is better to help each other, no matter where we are or where we are from”, he concludes.

Learn more about the project visiting the website www.scicling.org and following it on Twitter and Instagram @Scicling.