Science festival tackles truly 'gross anatomy'

Dr. Katharine Prigge of Monell Chemical Senses Center studies earwax, which can be used in forensics.

A fluffy blanket, perhaps? Or a cuddly stuffed animal?

No, when Pamela Dalton needed a baby-shower gift, she picked out a lovely Swedish snot-sucker for her new grandson. After all, she studies mucus for a living.

Dalton, an olfactory researcher at Philadelphia's Monell Chemical Senses Center, is one of a group of scientists speaking Thursday night at an adults-only, cabaret-style event titled Gross Anatomy. Others will expound on earwax, urine, and feces - and how, ickiness aside, they play a vital role in human health.

Too gross for you? That is just one of a variety of events remaining in the fifth annual citywide Philadelphia Science Festival. On Wednesday, exult in the latest research on happiness. Thursday, you can learn about edible weeds, followed by a Friday session on the science of beer. Then on Saturday, the last day of the nine-day extravaganza, top it off with the science carnival on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Since the first festival in 2011, a goal of the organizers has been to expose people to science in locations where they do not necessarily expect it. That meant a busy day Saturday for Larry Dubinski, president and chief executive of the Franklin Institute, the festival's lead organizer.

He dropped by neighborhood "discovery day" events at Clark Park, Hunting Park, Chestnut Hill, and Fairmount Park's Smith Playground, checking out hands-on events such as nature walks and mural painting. Some of it even sounded sort of gross.

"We had slime that folks could make," Dubinski said of the Smith Playground event. "We had bubble monsters."

The actual Gross Anatomy event also takes place in a nonscience venue, Ruba Club Studios, a nightclub-theater space at 416 Green St. in Northern Liberties.

Monell's Dalton readily acknowledges that many find her subject matter off-putting. But without mucus, humans would be in bad shape.

The viscous substance helps filter out airborne chemicals and contains antimicrobial compounds. It also can serve as a record of environmental pollutants. The mucus of smokers and people exposed to harsh chemicals will show signs of inflammation, said Dalton, who has studied this type of response in those present at Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2001.

A fan of mucus, Dalton cautions her daughter not to go overboard with the NoseFrida snot-sucker, rewarding though it may be.

"You can actually see what's been sucked out," Dalton said of using the clear plastic device. "Which is very reaffirming."

Monell colleague Gary Beauchamp will try to top Dalton's yuck factor with his talk about urine, and how it is used for communication in many species. Think of creatures that mark their territory with a well-timed spray.

Some animals, such as rodents, "can recognize very, very slight differences, just like we can in facial expressions," Beauchamp said. "Urine is just a wonderful mishmash of odorous materials, containing hundreds, probably thousands, of compounds."

Ah, but then there is Daniel P. Beiting, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine, who will speak of what the festival organizers are bluntly calling "poop transfusions."

In humans, the technical term is a fecal transplant - the practice of inserting fecal material into a patient's bowels in order to treat infections and other disease. Beiting is more used to the animal version, called transfaunation, such as when microbe-rich material is administered to dairy cows that are not producing enough milk.

Other speakers will address such topics as the placenta and animal venom. The event also will feature comic interludes, including a performance by a burlesque sex-education group known as Chlamydia dell'Arte.

Not to be outdone is Katharine Prigge, a postdoctoral fellow at Monell. Chemistry is her trade, and earwax is her game.

Among her fun facts:

"We can actually detect in someone's earwax that they've eaten an orange," Prigge said.

But why would you want to?

Turns out earwax might be useful as a record of exposure to environmental contaminants, or even as a forensic tool to tell if a person has spent time in location X.

Like her colleagues, Prigge has a sense of humor about her topic. But she does not find it terribly gross.

"Actually, I think it's really interesting," Prigge said. "I mean, who else studies earwax? I can put the grossness aside when I think of research."


If You Go

Philadelphia Science Festival events continue daily through Saturday's carnival.

Gross Anatomy

What: Disgusting conversation with experts who know.

Where: Ruba Club Studios, 416 Green St.

When: Thursday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Admission: $7 in advance, $10 at the door (must be 21). Reservations required:

Science Carnival

What: Blocks and blocks of family- friendly experiments and games.

Where: Ben Franklin Parkway.

When: Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Admission: Free.

General information

Phone: 215-448-1346