“I am a Latina, I am a scientist, and you can do this too:” Stories of Community Engagement with Ashley Pirovano

If you’re lucky, at some point in during your time in school you encountered a teacher that ignited a spark in you. A teacher who made a subject that you may never have been very interested in, somehow extraordinarily fascinating. Maybe even one who helped you rethink what was possible for your future, and altered the course of your life completely.

Ashley Pirovano is one of those educators. As a Community Scientist at BioBus, her role is to spark an interest in science in students of all ages every day.

As part of our ongoing Stories of Community Engagement Interview Series, I spoke with Ashley about her journey from ballerina to scientist, how her work opens the eyes of students to the wonders of science, and what she hopes to see for the future.

Jessica Califano: The first question that I ask everyone for the interview series is what communities are you a part of?

Ashley Pirovano: BioBus is a science outreach organization, and part of our mission is to make science accessible. We have our mobile science laboratories that we bring all over New York City and beyond, and so we have the potential to have a really big science community. We’ve recognized that the best way for us to achieve our mission is to focus in on communities, and leverage those ties with the community to build relationships with the students.

A BioBus Mobile Lab

To embed BioBus in the communities we serve, we have community lab spaces in addition to our mobile laboratories. One of those spaces is BioBase in Harlem, a lab space within the Columbia Zuckerman Institute, another one is on the Baylander ship moored at Harlem Piers, where we have our Temboo sensors, and our first ever community lab space was in the Lower East Side in the Girls Club. So those are spaces where scientists work, but there are also kids who come in for classes and to use our microscopes and high school junior scientists who come in and do research with us. It’s a space for everybody! We have the potential to bring science everywhere, but we focus specifically on communities in Harlem, the South Bronx, and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The team I’m on is the Harlem team.

JC: It’s really cool that you have those community spaces. So how did BioBus get started? Tell me the history of it.

AP: BioBus is relatively young. We’re about 13 years old. So 13 years ago, our founder, Benjamin Dubin-Thaler, was in a PhD program at Columbia University studying the immune system and he had these really powerful microscopes that helped him watch white blood cells as they moved around and gobbled up pathogens. And he was like, “This is super cool and I want to show everybody!” So he would invite the community into his lab to see and they loved it! And so he started doing it with kids, and they loved it! So he was like, I have to make this a thing. How do I take the science from inside of this institution, in this ivory tower, and bring it out to people so they can experience it themselves? The way that he did that was with our first mobile laboratory, or BioBus–that’s where we get the name.

The inside of our mobile lab is decked out with research grade microscopes on “science stations”. They’re these little carts that can wheel around, which is perfect now with COVID because now we can roll them outside and there’s all of this space. They’re all adjustable. So we can have a little Pre-K student using a microscope or we can have a full grown adult using it. It’s really accessible for everybody.

There are microscopes onboard the BioBus that I never even used as a graduate researcher! I had never seen an electron microscope until I started working at BioBus and I was like, there’s an eighth grader using this thing! That’s so cool!

JC: Sounds amazing.

AP: Then, Ben started bringing the BioBus around to schools in New York City. These visits evolved into our Discover program, where kids would come in with their class for 45 minutes, and we would rotate through the whole school, and everybody would get a chance to come on and use the microscopes. We recognized that this was a really powerful experience for the kids so we wanted to figure out more ways to do it! So we started to do what we call our Explore classes, because kids wanted the next step. Kids would come into our community labs on the weekends or afterschool, and do classes with us, where they would have more space and time to really dig into a topic and start to gain confidence in their scientific skills.

Then we started to think about how to get students who are really into this the opportunity to do it as a job and get paid and gain experience so that they can get a job in the future in science. So we built out our paid Junior Scientist Internship program, our Pursue program, where high school students can come up with their own research question, and under the guidance of BioBus scientists, conduct their own research. Junior Scientists also help us teach in our programs, so they’re in the shoes of the expert. It’s a really great way for them to build their own identity as scientists.

JC: That’s really cool. Can you tell me an example of one of the projects that a student has done?

AP: Sure. There’s been a lot, and it kind of depends on the scientists that they’re working with. A lot of times they get inspired by what they hear and experience while working with the BioBus Scientists . One of our BioBus Scientists, Francesca, makes microscopes. In her research, she actually built a microscope that helped her look at mouse brains.

DIY microscope from a BioBus student

JC: I would literally never even think that you could build a microscope.

AP: So she was like, “Microscopes, at their core, are very simple. They’re just magnifying glasses put together. So I want to make a deconstructed microscope that we can use as an educational tool.” Francesca worked with a couple of our Junior Scientists to build that out, literally taking magnifying glasses that go on to a rail to make a functional microscope.

And the Junior Scientists would just mess around with the physics of it. Like if we use this color light how does it change the image? Can we use this tool to model the human eye and eye diseases? This project has turned into its own curriculum. We do classes all about this, we call it the DIY microscope. We have classroom teachers who come in for our professional development classes and ask us to teach them the physics that these high school students figured out! I think that’s probably one of the fullest stories of this research project that turned into so much more.

JC: That’s amazing. What a smart kid to do that. Wow. So going back a little bit, how did you personally become interested in science? You work with kids all day that are just starting to build up this interest so I’d love to hear how it happened for you.

AP: Yeah, it’s always interesting when I work with high schoolers who are like, “I know already that I want to be a scientist.” Because in high school, I was not that girl. In high school I thought I was gonna be a ballerina when I grew up. I’ve been a dancer my whole life and I still love dance.

In college I was doing this program that was a dance degree with a concentration in body science in motion at Marymount Manhattan College. The idea was thinking about the science of dance and how our bodies work and so if the dance thing didn’t work out, I could be a physical therapist or something. But in my first physiology class, we were studying how the body works and doing experiments on our own bodies. And my mind was blown!

And so I was like, okay, maybe I’ll dabble in this a little bit more, and I started a biology minor. And to do that, I had to take chemistry, and I was so nervous, because in high school, it was not my thing. I had this professor who was so sweet, really great at explaining things. I was going And so I thought, okay, maybe I’ll dabble in this a little bit more, and I started a biology minor. To do that, I had to take chemistry, and I was so nervous, because in high school, I was not good at math. I had this professor, Dr. Alessandra Leri, who was incredibly sweet and a fantastic science communicator. The way she taught chemistry, she really related the content to her students and put it into the perspective of why it’s important either to the environment or to the human body. That made me fall in love with chemistry even more than biology and I ended up doing really well in the class!

Dr. Leri asked me to stay after class once, and I don’t know why–I had an A in the class–but I was like, “Oh my god, I’m in trouble.” She asked me to join her research group. I had no idea what that meant, but I thought, “Wow, that’s a big deal! Sure!”  Then I started doing research with her in environmental chemistry. Through that experience I started to really see myself as a scientist. I could see how you get from asking a question to turning that into an experiment, and then getting answers from it. I started doing these presentations at conferences about my research and winning awards. It really felt like my thing!

From there, I went to graduate school at SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry. I was studying how to use plants as tools–a fancier word for that is plant biotechnology. I was really interested in how we could use plants to clean up pollution. Some people in my lab did that. I focused on how to grow plants really large for biofuels. One way to do that would be to use fertilizer, but that’s not the most environmentally friendly, so something that I was looking into is how we could use the relationships that plants and bacteria have with one another and see if there are some bacteria that might be feeling very generous in helping the plants to grow big. I was studying this one bacteria in this one type of plant and looking at how they were communicating with one another and what was it doing or saying that made the plant grow so much bigger.

In graduate school I was doing research, but I also realized that I missed talking to people about science. I was a teaching assistant for a general chemistry course for a year and I really loved that. So I started looking for any way to talk to kids about science or just teach in general. Anytime an undergraduate student wanted to volunteer in our lab, I would take them under my wing and at one point I had a whole army of students working with me! I was also teaching dance classes too on the side. After receiving my Masters degree, I was trying to look for anything that combined research and teaching. I was thinking about teaching at the college level and I did that a little bit as an adjunct but I wanted to work with younger kids too.

So I was like, I want to do more of that. I want to teach more. It kind of turned into this army of undergraduates who would work with me in the lab. And I was just trying to find any way to like, talk to kids about science or just teach in general. I was teaching dance classes too on the side, because I really missed teaching. So I was trying to look for anything that combined the two. I was thinking about teaching at the college level. And I did that a little bit as an adjunct. But I like younger kids a lot. It’s just, a totally different energy.

While I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I started working as a lab supervisor back at Marymount Manhattan College. One of the professor’s there was Rob Frawley, and he was telling me about what he does full time at BioBus and I was like, no way you get paid to do this?! He was the Volunteer Coordinator and got me started volunteering with BioBus. I volunteered every weekend with BioBus for two years. And I think it came to the point where they were like, “I think we have to hire her because we can’t get rid of her. She’s working here so much, maybe we should give her money.” I’ve been at BioBus full time since 2018!

JC: That’s really cool, how it all went full circle from you being inspired in your love of science from one of your professors to now you getting to help do that for other people. That’s pretty amazing. So talking a little more about your role at BioBus, I saw that your title is Community Scientist. Can you talk a little bit about what that means and what your day to day work is like?

AP: Community Scientist is a kind of rare title. I’ve never seen it anywhere else other than BioBus. In general, community science is incorporating the people of the community wherever you are into the research that you do. Another term for that is citizen science. Temboo does citizen science too. BioBus kind of expanded it out even further from the youngest kids to grown adults and added them to the type of science that happens in their community, showing them how they can be a part of that science.

A lot of what I do as a community scientist is developing curricula that I think would be interesting and relevant to the community. One of the first things that BioBus did when they started working in Harlem was a community needs assessment. Something that came up a lot was that the community was interested in the health of their soil. When I joined, I was one of the first environmental scientists to join the Harlem team so I worked with a group of junior scientists to come up with a soil curriculum where the kids could explore things like, where does soil come from? What is soil? How do we make good soil? Is there such a thing as good or bad soil? And then the students got really into it. So we decided to see if we could reach more students with that content.

One of our mobile laboratory lessons is about soil science and composting and the work of Dr. George Washington Carver because we thought it was important to showcase a person of color as a scientist, because it’s super important for students’ identity and science identity to see people who look like them doing a job that they’re interested in. George Washington Carver was actually born into slavery around 1850 and become the first black faculty member at Iowa State University. He was an incredibly influential agricultural scientist and inventor. The Junior Scientists got so into his story that they built a model Jesup wagon! Have you heard of the Jesup wagon?

George Washington Carver’s Jesup Wagon

JC: It sounds familiar but I don’t think I know what that is.

AP: It’s basically the first mobile laboratory, which I didn’t even know about until I started getting into this.

JC: So the first BioBus?

AP: Yeah! It was made by George Washington Carver and he used it to share how to farm sustainably, so that the farmers weren’t extracting too many nutrients from the soil to the point where that soil couldn’t be used anymore. So he would figure things out, like, if we plant peanuts, or something that we know does nitrogen fixation (where there are bacteria inside of those plants that provide new fertilizer) if we switch out and do some peanuts here, instead of just growing cotton continuously, we can actually use this soil for much longer. Once he made those discoveries, he didn’t just want to keep it to himself. He wanted to make sure that he shared what he learned. So he would take his science, plants, and tools out into the community in his Jesup wagon, his mobile lab that was a little horse and carriage, and teach sharecroppers how to farm sustainably as a way to better his community.

JC: That’s so cool. I totally didn’t know that story. And that’s really cool that he was thinking about sustainability at that time. Who knew how prolific that would be?

AP: People just think about peanuts and peanut butter when they think of him but it was more than that. The Junior Scientists [interns at BioBus] made their own model Jessup wagon that is on display in our community laboratory right now. Sometimes we bring it along when we do the lesson on the mobile lab, just to show it because we have our own mobile lab, and this was the first mobile lab. So it’s an interesting comparison and also just a cool shout out to an amazing person in history.

Model Jesup Wagon and George Washington Carver poster, made by BioBus Junior Scientists

JC: Definitely. So besides what you’ve mentioned already, can you share some of your favorite science experiments or activities that you done with the students?

AP: Well, what BioBus really focuses on is using microscopes, because it just opens up this whole other world. So even looking at a drop of pond water, you can see all of these microscopic animals, bacteria, and protists that do all these wild things. And it makes the kids’ heads explode with all the possibilities that are out there. I think that is probably the best way to get kids excited about science. Even throughout the pandemic, when we had to go online with our programs, showing students live images from the microscope through Zoom still had that same effect where they were just in awe and wanted to do more of it, which I didn’t expect. I thought that the hands-on component was the most important, and it is important, but it’s still just seeing those visuals and being able to say, Oh, wait, can we look over here at that thing? So I guess it’s two things: microscopes are amazing, but also being able to respond to the students’ voices and empowering them. That’s really what makes what we do special and those are the kinds of activities that I really like because I see that they work.

JC: That’s great. Your focus in Harlem, right? So maybe you can you talk a little bit about what you what you do specifically there, why you chose that area to work in, and how that community plays into what BioBus is doing.

AP: I don’t think I actually told you BioBus’s mission yet which is to help students who have historically been excluded from science, whether that’s because of their race, gender, or income, bring them into the scientific community, and help them discover, explore and pursue science. And those are our three different program types.

So the reason why we focused on Harlem is because it’s a community of untapped potential. There aren’t a lot of resources here, particularly in schools, and you can see such a divide. There are these academic institutions, where the science is, and then everything else, and part of what we’re trying to do is redistribute those resources. There’s so much potential here, and so many kids that just need access. And that can mean a lot of things: it can be access to the microscopes or scientific tools themselves, or access to a scientific network, like knowing a scientist. I didn’t know a scientist as a kid. But there are more privileged students who do, so we’re trying to balance that out because those social networks really do make a difference.

Once those students have a BioBus scientist that they know, and then maybe a Columbia scientist that they know, they start to feel more like a part of that community and it makes it feel more possible for them. The work that we do in Harlem is similar to what we do in the Lower East Side. We work through our Discover, Explore, Pursue Pathway, we call it, because the idea is that with these BioBus mobile laboratory programs, we get the kids really excited about science, and they want to do more. They’re hungry for more science.

Ashley teaching students with microscopes

So those are the programs where we bring the mobile laboratory to school for the day. And we can see up to 200 students. That’s a lot of kids to get excited at once. We see lots and lots of different students, and the hope is that a couple of those students will want to do more, and maybe join one of our Explore programs where they can focus in a little bit more, start to grow those skills and grow their confidence as scientists. And then maybe they’ll join our Pursue program where they can, now that they have all of these skills built, ask their own science questions and answer them in a research project. Those are the types of things that we’re doing in the community. We have over 100 schools that we partner with, and community based organizations where we do our after school programs and we also have several Junior scientist programs going on right now.

JC: That’s really cool. You touched on this a little bit previously, but I’m sure that COVID was kind of a tough time for you all. How did you how you all bring your programs online?

AP: Yeah, it it was tough because our most famous program is taking a group of 30 kids and putting them into this tiny space where they do science. It was not very COVID safe. So we had to transition that program pretty quickly. At the core of what BioBus does is to be part of the community, and we wanted to make sure that we were a resource for the community.

We sent out a survey to all of the teachers that we work with, and we asked, right now, what do you need? How can BioBus help? A lot of what we saw was that they were looking for activities for the kids to do with materials that they have at home and science experiments that they could do at home. They wanted something that they could just play for their students, that they could watch on their own time. And they were looking for us to virtually call in for some kind of lab visit. So based on the needs from the teachers, we built out a couple of different versions of our Discover, Explore, Pursue programs online.

We transformed our Discover mobile laboratory visits into virtual lab programs. So for over a year, I had a BioBus microscope in my kitchen with me where I would plug the microscope into my computer, and we would Zoom just like this, and instead of seeing my face, they would see what’s under a microscope. The students asked questions and made hypotheses and tried to answer their questions with the evidence that they saw. We were all working through the scientific process together.

Another program that we did was actually based on an idea from one of our Explore student’s parents. They came up with the idea for a Student Town Hall. The idea with the Student Town Hall, is that we would have a topic that the students could send in their questions about, and then we would invite scientists on to answer the students questions. We held this forum on YouTube live every week. It’s kind of like a little scientist hangout session. It started out with questions about COVID, because everybody had questions. This was the first program that we did virtually, because we knew that there were so many questions out there, and not a lot of information from trustworthy sources. So our first two or three were all about COVID. The first one we had we got around 300 student questions for an hour long program!

So yeah, we had to do a couple follow ups on COVID because it was a lot and then we started asking the kids what else do you want to know about and kids were like, I want to know about marine biology. And we were like, okay, we have a marine biologist on staff! Great! It was a nice way to have that connection between scientists and kids and have them know that their questions were important to us, so important that we’re going to put them up on YouTube!

Another program that we did was our STEAM challenges. We would make these short videos where we would propose an experiment to kids, and tell them what stuff they need and how to do it, and then they could send in their results to us for the scientists to review and give feedback and we would post their results online. This was our version of helping the teachers out with experiments that the kids could do wherever they are. We tried to make sure that the materials needed were commonly found at home or in nature so it was still super accessible to everybody.

JC: That’s great. I don’t envy the teachers and the parents that that had to be at home during that time, it’s just so tough. So it’s really cool that you were able to launch new programs during COVID that you hadn’t done before.

AP: Yeah, it was challenging to figure out what was working, what wasn’t working. There was a lot of shifting gears very quickly. But it was also kind of a cool time to just be creative, and really respond directly to what the community needed. And we got a lot of really nice emails from teachers and administrators thanking us, and saying we see you and we really appreciate how BioBus is here for us. And that was really powerful.

JC: What do you hope to see in the future for BioBus? And what do you hope your work leads to?

AP: I would love to see a future where we don’t need BioBus. A future where we have a diverse group of people in the sciences, or in science-related fields and in positions of power, and that those spaces are representative of everyone. That’s the only way to move forward. It’s the only way that we’re really going to solve some of these huge problems that our society is facing.

And so I would love for BioBus not to need to exist. Just to be able to sit back and relax and watch all of these future scientists take over and do what needs to be done. Right now we have such a problem with diversity in STEM fields and that is problematic, because when you don’t have those diverse viewpoints, it turns into a kind of an echo chamber. We have really big problems facing us as a society, from Climate Change to the COVID pandemic, and we need new, fresh ideas from everyone. We need everyone’s voices.

In the short term, I would love to see some of the young scientists that we work with choose a path in STEM. We’re already seeing some of our alumni in medical school or in graduate school, and that’s amazing. But there are also  a lot of skills that you learn doing science, like critical thinking and problem solving that are useful no matter what you do. I am so excited for the kids that we work with to use those skills and improve our world!

JC: Is there anything that I haven’t asked about that you would like to mention?

I think it is important to point out that I identify as a Latina. This is important to me because I have worked in a lot of science spaces where I felt like I didn’t belong, where I was not only the only Latinx person but the only person of color. This was difficult for me personally and generally bad for science. One huge barrier for people of color going into STEM is the lack of representation. If you are in a space where no one looks like you, you start to believe that this path isn’t right for you. This isn’t just an academic thing that we theorize about but it is a real, lived experience for even the youngest students that I work with. Students comment on my skin color and how it is similar to theirs or how we say certain words similarly or how they didn’t know that scientists could wear hoop earrings! At a public event once, I asked a group of kindergarteners to draw a picture of a scientist and one Black girl walked up to me and whispered “Can girls be scientists?” When I told her that I am a scientist, her jaw dropped and she drew a picture of me! Representation is so important. One of the biggest reasons I do this work is to show the kids that I am a Latina, I am a scientist, and you can do this too.

Success! You're on the list.