Aspiring middle school scientists were lucky enough to break bread with real-life scientists at UC Merced this week.
The sixth annual Dinner With a Scientist brought more than 20 scientists -- ranging from chemists and medical doctors to biologists and even a crime scene investigator -- and about 200 middle school students from eight Mer- ced County school districts to UC Merced's Lantern Room.
The Merced County Office of Education, with UC Merced, hosted the event to give county students a chance to interact with scientists from a variety of fields of study over dinner in a professional environment.
Encarcian Ruiz, director of admissions and outreach at UC Merced, helped welcome the students, and said, "What you represent is the dream becoming a reality." Merced County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Steven E. Gomes added, "I hope that you will all take advantage and ask questions of the scientists at your table."
Each table had about eight students, a teacher and a scientist.
Evelyn Mendoza, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at El Capitan Elementary School in Delhi said, "It's really nice to be around scientists." She was seated at a table with Ronald Coleman, a biology professor from California State University, Sacramento, who studies fish and other aquatic life in the Amazon jungle.
Evelyn already has a head start on her goal of becoming a pediatrician because she's enrolled in Delhi Unified School District's Junior Academy of Medical Sciences, where students learn leadership skills, engage in activities geared toward the medical profession and even conduct science experiments in a lab. "I'm going try to take (advanced placement) classes and stay in the JAMS program," she said.
Christopher Viney, professor of engineering and founding faculty at UC Merced, was the keynote speaker and gave the students several demonstration and a few experiments. Viney focused on material sciences and told students that studying material science has elements of physics, chemistry, some math and even a bit of biology.
He also said scientists learn a lot of lessons from nature. "Nature makes really cool stuff," Viney said. "I'm looking at about 200 different examples of that."
Viney started his demonstration with a leaf blower and a small beach ball to show the concept of an airstream, and continued with putting a thin piece of pencil lead between a projector and screen to show that light travels in waves, not particles.
He made it a point to let the students know those were demonstrations, not experiments, because he knew the outcome. An experiment, he explained, doesn't always produce the same outcome.
He then showed students that by using oils from human skin, he was able to insert a long needle through a blown-up balloon, with the oil serving as a lubricant.
Other scientists at the event were from the California Department of Fish and Game, Hilmar Cheese, Foster Farms, UC Merced and the Merced Police Department.