Denver museum researcher breaks down barriers for volunteers

Nicole Garneau's research is looking into genetics and taste


At the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, a small research lab is looking into how a person’s genetics affects his or her sense of taste. The research can help determine how people can pair healthy food with other things to make it taste better.

But for Nicole Garneau, the study is also a way to bring more people to the table when it comes to science.

Garneau is curator of health sciences at DMNS. She first came to Colorado in 2004 when she was studying microbiology, specifically viruses, at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. The techniques for researching genetics are the same, but when Garneau joined the staff at DMNS, she joked that she “species hopped” from viruses to humans.

What drew her to the museum, Garneau said, was the opportunity to communicate with the public.

Although Garneau loves research, she also wants to show the everyday person how science can impact lives. The museum is an example of a place doing science “for the people, by the people.” But with genetics, there can be a little bit of a learning curve, she said.

“We found through evaluations it’s incredibly hard to teach people about genetics when they’re not having it applied to their life,” Garneau said. “Everyone associates genetics with disease, when really it’s you. It’s part of you right now.”

That’s where the Genes and Grains study came in. The study brought volunteers to see how the TAS2R4 gene affects the taste of wheat. The study is funded by Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institutes of Health.

But the data is only part of the grant from the NIH, Garneau said.

The museum is also looking at how studies use their volunteer scientists. The research is helping the museum look into how to break down barriers for volunteers, not only in the genetic studies, but in labs as well. Garneau said the research will help bring more diverse groups of people into studies.

On the research side, Garneau said the study is also shaking things up.

In the traditional scientific process, volunteers work in a linear fashion. They start with a question, do some tests to answer the question, and so on. But that method only works for people who are interested in becoming scientists like herself, Garneau said.

“When you have volunteers, they have different motivations,” she said. “What we learned is our community scientists don’t want to be me.”

Instead, the DMNS is catering what the volunteers do to their specific skill sets or interests. Volunteers have been more invested when they feel they are bringing something back to the study, Garneau said.

This new method has also lead to some discoveries in the study.

During data analysis involving the papillae, or bumps on the tongue, volunteers noticed that a 20-year-old method of collecting information was giving subjective results. Without a large number of volunteers looking at the information, that may have been overlooked, Garneau said. The lab has now created a new method of collecting data, which has become the research standard.

Discovering new information was one of Garneau’s goals in the study.

“We really wanted this, the work that the public is being involved in, and our lab is actually something that is going to build the knowledge base of how the human body works,” she said.

In the world of food pairings, Garneau is researching hop roasting in different beers. Pairing research can be complex, she added. Most scientific pairing data is done in a lab. The problem is that so much of flavor and how a person tastes food can be affected by the world around them, she said. Pairing can help people find a way to eat a food item they wouldn’t typically eat by itself, such as blue cheese.

“Really, it just opens up the doors to how we’re studying flavor,” she said. “The beauty of a pairing is the sum is so much more than the separate pieces.”

In addition to breaking down barriers in studies, Garneau hopes to reduce barriers for women and minorities interested in making a career in the sciences. The problem is not necessarily getting those people into those fields, she said. It’s supporting them once they are there.

Garneau has personally felt the pressures of fitting into the mold of the ideal scientist. She’s been told to be less bubbly or wear less make-up during presentations and talks she’s giving. Making people feel like they have to change makes them feel like they don’t belong, she said.

“You don’t have to change who you are," Garneau said, "to be successful."


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