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May 31, 2008

Help Wanted!

Cooljobs The Cool Jobs session offered inspirational voices to the many school-aged children in the audience who may someday be interested in pursuing a career in science. Moderated by Good Morning America's Weekend Edition co-anchor Bill Weir, this lively multimedia presentation featured several engaging scientists showcasing their amazing and challenging work.

First up was cognitive psychologist Dr. Laurie Santos, a self-described "monkey magician" who conducts human brain research by studying our cousins on the evolutionary tree. She and her diverse group of graduate students recently discovered that monkeys react with surprise to common magic tricks thus displaying their ability to understand the world around them in a manner similar to humans. For more on this innovative research, check out yale.edu/monkeylab.

Following Dr. Santos was a real-live "CSI." Peter Diaczuk is a leading authority in forensics and an expert witness on firearms, trace evidence, and crime scene reconstruction. Diaczuk combined his childhood interest in firearms with a propensity for chemistry to forge his unique career path. Though Diaczuk debunked some of the glamor of the typical TV CSI (he arrived via subway, not some custom, souped-up SUV); he impressed the audience with the multi-disciplinary focus of his work. In any given day he might be involved in chemistry, ballistics, geometry or mechanics, to name a few.

Chris McKay, NASA astrobiologist and lead scientist on the recently landed Mars Phoenix spacecraft, took the stage next and expounded on the challenges of searching for evidence of life on the Red Planet. In order to prepare for Mars missions, McKay has spent loads of time in some of the most extreme (and thus Mars-like) places on Earth: Antarctica, Siberia and the Atacama desert.

Marine biologist Ellen Prager was the next speaker, and like McKay she also had a unique office location — an undersea laboratory. She and her colleagues in the lab refer to themselves as "aquanauts" and share the astronauts' ability to tolerate tight spaces and "interesting" bathroom conditions. For more on Prager's work check out the Aquarius project web site.

Winding up the session was Disney Imagineer Ben Schwegler, who described what for may would be a dream job designing, testing and building major theme park attractions such as roller coasters and wave pools.

At the end of the discussion there were several intelligent questions from kids in the audience, most of whom sat relatively squirm-free through a nearly two-hour presentation. The speakers continued long after to interact with the curious students and answer more questions. 

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