By Chris Casey | University Communications
DENVER - After fielding questions about rare bones, cool discoveries and tough excavations, Charles Musiba, Ph.D., was asked a more personal question: "Do you like what you do, and why?"
The associate professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver, didn't hesitate: "I love my job. I like to understand who we are and how we got where we are today."
Thanks to a virtual connection set up by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, students in classrooms across the nation on Monday got to spend 45 minutes asking Musiba questions about his fossil research in Tanzania. The museum typically highlights its own scientists in "Scientists in Action" -- often from the field where they are conducting research -- but this time the live-feed program featured Musiba in his research lab in the basement of the Science Building at the Auraria Campus.
A student at Bell Academy in New York asked Musiba, standing in front of a display of bones from Africa, if he had a favorite discovery. He said that in recent years in northern Tanzania he's found some teeth and a jaw from what appears to be one of our earliest ancestors. "All of the bones I find in the field are exciting to me," Musiba said. The bones he's found range from about 3.8 million years old to ones that are only 10 to 15 years old. "They tell a story ... Anything that's a bone is exciting."
Since starting in late 2007, "Scientists in Action" has brought thousands of students into virtual contact with researchers. They watch the scientist talk on a video feed in their schools, and students take turns asking questions. On Monday, Musiba was featured in four 45-minute sessions, each live-linked into several classrooms. During one session, participating schools included two from New York, one from Colorado (Denver Center for International Studies) and a group at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
"The whole idea here is to get a bit of an intimate feel and establish a rapport so that the student feels like, 'I got a piece of that scientist,'" said Gianna Sullivan, the museum's distance learning coordinator. "The reality is a lot of kids drop out of science in sixth grade, where they think it's not related to me. We want to get them before they drop out and say, 'This is cool stuff.'"
The program, running monthly during the school year, is mostly for students in grades third to eighth, though Monday's session was geared toward sixth-grade through high school students. They watch a video featuring the scientist and brainstorm questions before the live-link session.
"It's turning science into something really cool again, instead of that sort of nerdy thing that you worried about being associated with in school," said Sullivan, who knows of no other museums offering a similar program.
Professor Tom Finger, Ph.D., of the CU School of Medicine's Department of Cell and Developmental Biology is another university researcher who has been featured in "Scientists in Action." Besides connecting students to scientists, the program's goal is to give kids a real-life perspective into science careers, Sullivan said.
Musiba, a native of Tanzania, is director of CU Denver's Tanzania Field School. His research centers on human origins, evolution and the environment in which our human ancestors lived some 3.5 million years ago.
Musiba said, "This is fun, being able to do something completely different by interacting with these kids." They ask more questions than even his college students, he said. "They're kids. Their curiosity sort of drives them to ask a lot of different questions. For them, there's no silly question."
He said the experience also puts CU Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus in the limelight and possibly sparks a handful of students to consider studying here. As one of his sessions ended on Monday, Musiba told the students across the nation, "I hope one or two of you think about being an anthropologist."
(Photo: Charles Musiba talks about his discoveries of early human fossils in Africa during the Scientists in Action program, filmed from Musiba's basement lab in the Science Building.)