Science Center of Iowa Blog

At the Science Center of Iowa, our goal is to be a quality community resource for informal science learning where children, families, school groups and individuals come to explore science and technology. To continue the learning outside our walls, we give you the SCI blog! Our knowledgeable staff, along with special guests and local scientists, will give you a behind-the-scenes look at SCI activities and in-depth information about science events.

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Q&A with a food scientist: Enzymes, birthday cake and curiosity

Q&A with a food scientist: Enzymes, birthday cake and curiosity

Forget immaculately plated dishes on crisp, white dinnerware… it’s all about the perfect puree in Jennifer Jensen’s lab at the Eurofins Nutrition Analysis Center in Des Moines. Jensen, an associate scientist, tests foods for their nutritional content — a job that’s always interesting but not always pretty, she says.

SCI sat down with Jensen to learn more about life as a food scientist, and in honor of our 10th Downtown Birthday Party this Saturday, we couldn’t pass up the chance to ask an expert about the chemistry of birthday cake.

SCI: Can you describe your work as a food scientist at Eurofins?

JJ: We do nutritional testing. We test for anything that’s on a nutrition label. We test for fat content, as well as how many calories are in a certain food. We test for vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and more. There’s always something different happening. I work specifically in the enzymes department, so my department primarily tests animal food. We test how much of a certain enzyme is in the food, so an animal can digest it more easily.

SCI: Why it important to have basic knowledge of food science?

JJ: Your body is a machine, and you want to make sure your machine is running as well as it can. You want to make sure you’re putting things into your body that help it to run well. You want to look at the label and look what’s in the food you’re eating, so your body has a good balance.

SCI: We’re serving birthday cake at our 10th Downtown Birthday Party on Saturday, May 16. What can you tell us about the chemistry behind the perfect birthday cake?

JJ: Baking is a bit different than cooking in general. When you’re cooking a stew, for example, everything has a role. Each ingredient contributes a flavor. When you’re baking, you have to be a lot more careful about measuring. Every single thing you add has a specific job to do. You have to be careful that everything is in the right ratio, or your cake won’t rise correctly. Or, it could rise correctly, but if you add too much baking soda or powder, it could fall. It could rise really pretty and then all the bubbles could rise to the top, and it will fall flat like a pancake. If you use the wrong kind of flour, your cake could be too hard like a hockey puck. You have to be a little more careful when you’re baking than when you’re cooking because every ingredient has a specific role.

SCI: What are some common misconceptions you’ve experienced as a food scientist?

JJ: I get a lot of funny looks because I’m a woman. It’s not usually the first job people think that I would have. When people come through the lab, though, they’ll see quite a few women who work as chemists and food scientists. Another thing is that food science isn’t always pretty work. On a lot of TV shows, chemistry is portrayed as really clean and pretty. While it’s interesting, it’s not always all that pretty. You think about a food, and you have to mash it all up together before you can test it. When people send us food to test, we have to mix it all up so we can get accurate results from the testing. It’s interesting but not always all that pretty.

SCI: Do you have any advice for young women who are considering STEM careers?

JJ: Just do it. If you’re interested in something, go for it. Don’t let other people dampen your curiosity. Science isn’t a field that you should be afraid of or worried about. Just do it. There’s a lot of people who will help you along the way, and there’s always people you can talk to if you’re interested in it, and we’ll help you out.

Category: General SCI


Four local organizations team up to give a classic composition a modern makeover

Four local organizations team up to give a classic composition a modern makeover

In one room at the Des Moines Art Center, water swirled in recycled bottles, creating tiny tornadoes. Next door, mini meteorologists painted mini jars, each one a piece of a DIY barometer project. Down the hall, a violin solo echoed all the way to the stage, where dancers embodied spring, summer, fall and winter through a blend of ballet and modern moves.

Antonio Vivaldi’s classic composition “The Four Seasons” is getting a modern makeover, thanks to four prominent Des Moines organizations.

The Science Center of Iowa, the Des Moines Arts Center, the Des Moines Symphony and DanzArts Studio are teaming up this spring in The Four Seasons Project, an innovative showcase of science, music, dance and art presented by area students. The project culminates in a group performance and exhibition May 27-28 at the Temple for Performing Arts in Downtown Des Moines.

Project invites students to embrace new disciplines

Late last summer, the Des Moines Symphony and its partners introduced the idea for a collaborative experience that would give accomplished fine arts and science students the opportunity to share their skills and explore disciplines beyond their area of expertise.

Though each organization will contribute to the May performance in a distinct way, all four are committed to a student-driven approach, said Joshua Barlage, managing director of the Des Moines Symphony Academy. When the students from all four organizations first met in March, early nerves quickly gave way to a lively learning environment.

“‘The Four Seasons’ is the perfect catalyst piece for a cross-disciplinary learning experience,” Barlage said. “Students could learn about disciplines that may not be their primary focus. It was a great opportunity to try a new art form.”

Modern dance gives classical music a new edge

DanzArts students incorporated an unexpected art form in their interpretation of the beloved violin concertos: modern dance.

Though “The Four Seasons” was composed in 1720, studio director Paula McArthur and her students choreographed a dramatic combination of modern dance and ballet.

“This project has provided a variety of opportunities to think outside the box. How do we take a classic piece like ‘The Four Seasons’ and bring it into the 21st Century?” McArthur said. “The music really lends itself to contemporary work. When I told the dancers we’d be performing ‘The Four Seasons,’ they were surprised it wasn’t all ballet.”

SCI students demonstrate science of changing seasons

Art and nature are intertwined for the 11 students from the Science Center of Iowa. They’re designing experiments to illustrate the physical phenomena at play in the four seasons.

SCI Education Specialist Jolie Pelds is encouraging her students to journal throughout the project and capture the process.

“They each bring their own expertise,” she said. “They can learn something new and can teach other students something new.”

Performance artwork features Des Moines landmarks

The Des Moines Art Center students are creating four backdrops — one for each season — featuring four iconic Downtown Des Moines destinations: “Nomad” at the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, the State Capitol, the Crusoe Umbrella at Cowles Commons and the bridge at Gray’s Lake Park.

Runway-ready looks inspired by “The Four Seasons” will be on display in an adjoining exhibit hall during the May performance.

Michael Lane, an educator at the Des Moines Art Center, said working with each organization has changed his students’ approach to art.

“It’s been a lot of fun to work with people from different viewpoints and perspectives and experience art in new ways,” Lane said.

Don’t miss The Four Seasons Project’s final performances

Students from all four groups will present their work at The Four Seasons Project Culminating Performances Wednesday, May 27, and Thursday, May 28, at 7:30 pm at the Temple for Performing Arts in Downtown Des Moines.

The performances are free and open to the public, but registration is required. Registration forms will be available at and

Category: General SCI


SCI Volunteer Spotlight: Get involved as a community group

SCI Volunteer Spotlight: Get involved as a community group

For SCI’s group volunteers, ULTIMATE Spring Break wasn’t about the ULTIMATE Dig Pit, ULTIMATE IMAX or Ultimate Dinosaurs — it was about the ultimate combination of teamwork and community service.

Throughout the year, companies, organizations and educational institutions from across the Des Moines metro volunteer their time at SCI, boosting employee camaraderie and presence in the community. In the past year alone, groups from Principal Financial Group, Nationwide, Wells Fargo, Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, Happy Medium and more have engaged SCI participants in an out-of-the-ordinary team experience.

“It helps build teams and helps us work together and bond as a company,” said Ann Kindwall, a business analyst at ITA Group in West Des Moines. “And we get to help the community at the same time.”

Volunteer time is built into staff schedules at ITA, providing opportunities for service during the workday. During SCI’s ULTIMATE Spring Break in March, ITA team members helped future paleontologists excavate bones with real tools at the ULTIMATE Dig Pit.

“It’s our culture at ITA to volunteer and serve the community, so that’s really cool,” said Jarod Trecker, an ITA quality assurance analyst.

For Wells Fargo employees, spring cleaning took on a whole new dimension at SCI’s ULTIMATE Spring Break, as a group of volunteers from the company washed windows and beautified the playground at the SCI Preschool.

“I think the biggest thing is that our community knows we’re out here and willing to help,” said Matt Miller, Wells Fargo loan administration manager. “It’s a really, really positive experience here.”


Doctoral research inspires former SCI volunteer to write children’s book

Doctoral research inspires former SCI volunteer to write children’s book

Dr. Sarah Willis was browsing children’s astronomy books online and noticed a trend: Nearly every title featured the planets in our solar system — but nothing beyond. Willis turned to her doctoral dissertation for inspiration for her first children’s book, A Place in Space, an engaging literary journey of a girl and her feline friend through space.

SCI caught up with Willis, a former volunteer and current post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, on her new book, her post-doctoral research and, of course, her excitement for the Hubble Space Telescope’s upcoming anniversary.

SCI: What drew you to science growing up?

SW: I would say it was just immersion. My parents and grandparents were always giving my sister and me books on science and television programs on science. We got a very technical science magazine that I always loved reading when I was a kid, even though I didn’t necessarily understand everything.

SCI: Was there a particular A-ha! moment when you realized astronomy was the right field for you?

SW: In high school, I sort of stumbled upon it because I wanted to colonize space — Mars, specifically. After reading way too much science fiction, I decided studying astronomy would be a great way to accomplish that. I eventually decided colonizing Mars might not quite happen in our lifetime, but I still thought astronomy was pretty cool.

SCI: There’s often a common misconception that a scientist is someone who wears goggles and spends the day mixing chemicals in a lab. How do you strive to go beyond that notion in your work?

SW: I’ve certainly done a lot of outreach to meet people in the community and bring a team of STEM professionals to demonstrate that scientists are real people, and we come from all kinds of different backgrounds with all kinds of different interests.

SCI: What motivated you to volunteer at SCI?

SW: A friend and I just thought it would be cool. We were both in grad school at the time, and we both started volunteering and found it was a lot of fun. We started off in exhibits. The Star Parties were just getting started when I was volunteering there, so we helped get those running. When theFacing Marstraveling exhibit arrived, I was super excited to be able to help out with it.

The Portal to the Public program was also starting while I was there. I was one of the first scientists to participate in the program. That was a really good experience.

SCI:Why is it important for children to see scientists as real people with diverse backgrounds and interests?

SW: There’s a lot of focus on trying to increase the diversity of scientists today because scientists come from many different backgrounds and have different perspectives. It’s important to get those different viewpoints in the actual scientific community. It helps us fuel creativity and understand the world around us in new ways.

SCI: Besides your formal work as a researcher, you’ve contributed to astronomy in a variety of ways, including writing a children’s book. What inspired you to take on that type of creative project?

SW: I was reading for fun, and I started thinking of ways I could make rhymes about my dissertation research I had just finished. I thought it would be fun to finish that up and illustrate it. When I was looking online, I saw there were a lot of books for kids on the planets in our solar system and very basic astronomy things, but I didn’t see a lot of things available for younger readers about anything else in our solar system.

SCI: What was it like to take your doctoral research and distill it into something that’s accessible for children?

SW: It’s something I really enjoy. Obviously, it doesn’t go into a lot of specific details of my actual research work. It uses an object I studied a lot, which is the Cat’s Paw Nebula. It’s an area where a lot of young stars are forming, and that’s what my research focuses on. It’s a really captivating object visually, and I really like the ability to play on the fact that cats are something kids can appreciate and enjoy, and you can tie that to something so abstract.

SCI: What was the most challenging aspect of writing A Place in Space?

SW: Coming up with a coherent way to try to explain the whole life cycle of a star and keep it at a level kids could understand.

SCI: The Hubble Space Telescope will celebrate its 25th anniversary on April 24. How has it impacted astronomy and STEM as a whole?

SW: Hubble has been fantastic because the images it produces are so good at providing exposure not just for astronomy but for science in general. Anyone can look at those images and see just how beautiful and amazing the universe is. When you learn about the science behind what makes those objects exist, it makes it even cooler.

Category: General SCI


STEM in DSM: Astronomical organization invites the public to explore the universe

STEM in DSM: Astronomical organization invites the public to explore the universe

The Hippo Nebula. You won’t find it in the index of any science book. But for Doug Rudd, vice president of the Des Moines Astronomical Society (DMAS), it’s proof of a major scientific breakthrough: the A-ha! moment.

When Rudd visits elementary classrooms, he introduces the imaginative side of space. Before he reveals the official name of a galactic object, Rudd encourages students to create their own — including the Hippo Nebula, one second-grader’s interpretation of the Eagle Nebula.

“I said, ‘Well, what would you call it?’ She said, ‘I’d call it the Hippo Nebula!’ Then she pointed out, ‘Here’s its head, here’s its ear and here’s its tail and its legs. And look, there’s a squirrel riding on that hippo!’”

DMAS encourages beginning astronomers of all ages to own the star-gazing experience.

“I always like to encourage that when you’re looking up at the night sky, focus on what you see up there,” Rudd said. “Don’t just go by what everybody else says. Invent your own things you see in the sky. Get that imagination working.”

Engaging the imagination is key in creating interest in astronomy. That interest has benefits beyond beautiful telescope images — it fosters an advocate community for dark skies.

This week is especially important in the fight against light pollution, as astronomers across the globe celebrate International Dark Sky Week.

“Awareness of astronomy gives us more opportunities to talk about the need for dark skies,” Rudd said. “City governments and the public rarely consider the implications of big, bright lights. Without public interest in astronomy, they don’t have anything encouraging them to help manage light pollution.”

An A-ha! moment is the first step in creating that community of dark-sky advocates. DMAS engages amateur astronomers of all ages at its weekly public nights from the first Saturday in April through the last Saturday in October at Ashton Observatory in Jasper County. DMAS partners with SCI for monthly Star Party events, too.

The organization also presents astronomy lessons at area libraries, Boy Scout troop meetings and schools.

For Rudd, those lessons often transcend astronomy, igniting interest in STEM along the way. Two weeks ago, he witnessed astronomy’s inspiring power during a visit to a fourth-grade classroom.

After preparing his equipment for the presentation, a group of students returned early from lunch, and one student said to Rudd, “Oh, I don’t really like science.”

But a glimpse into the universe sparked the ultimate A-ha! moment.

“After the presentation, she walked back up to me and she said, ‘I really like science now.’ To that extent, it goes beyond just astronomy,” Rudd said. “It brings some new insight to a young mind that they hadn’t seen before, that science and astronomy can be fun and interesting.”

The Hubble Space Telescope has led the way in that mission, too, providing the public with accessible, stunning images of our solar system and even deep space.

“The biggest thing, of course, is the images Hubble takes are so accessible. NASA, of course, has its Astronomy Picture of the Day. So, over 25 years for 365 days, there are a lot of images it has showed us,” Rudd said. “Hubble has just opened up the world to our unbelievable universe.”

As Hubble and DMAS invite more people to explore the universe beyond Earth, Rudd can count on more A-ha! moments. And those epiphanies are more exciting than any discovery found in the lens of a telescope.

“That’s what I most appreciate about astronomy,” he said. “Yeah, I like to look through the telescope, but to hear the excitement in somebody’s voice that says, ‘Wow, I never thought,’ is amazing.”

Category: STEM in DSM