By Rob Rogers
Melinda Pahl has spent her adult life working in the world of business and finance — from insurer Fireman's Fund and the investment company Charles Schwab to American Express.
Yet her heart has always belonged to science. As a child, Pahl regularly examined water from a nearby stream under a microscope, and even dissected a frog in her room. "I always loved science, but I never pursued it, because I was told that 'girls didn't do that,'" said Pahl, one of the organizers of Saturday's Discovery Days event at the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma. "I thought that the math would be too hard, or that chemistry would be a disaster."
Pahl hopes that Discovery Days, which brings together more than 40 hands-on experiments and exhibits created by science and technology organizations throughout the North Bay, will help convince young people that they can do science — and give them a sense of the kinds of groundbreaking research taking place all around them.
"The purpose of this is to inspire kids toward careers in science, technology, engineering and math," Pahl said. "It's important for our work force to inspire future scientists, to get kids into the kind of gateway classes — like physics and biology — that will let them move forward in science."
Discovery Days is taking place as part of the Bay Area Science Festival, a region-wide science fair taking place simultaneously in the East Bay, Silicon Valley and San Francisco, with a capstone event at AT&T Park on Sunday.
Originally, the organizers of the festival had not planned to include an event in the North Bay. That changed with the involvement of Julie Mangada, education coordinator at Novato's Buck Institute for Age Research, and the North Bay Leadership Council.
"We had to fight to get ourselves on the (Bay Area Science Festival's) radar screen," said Cynthia Murray, president and CEO of the North Bay Leadership Council. "We have such an amazing wealth of scientific assets in the North Bay — so many private companies, environmental groups, and agencies of the county, state and federal government — and yet people don't know about them."
That's likely to change on Saturday. Visitors to the event, held in two of the NASCAR garages at the Infineon race track, will have the opportunity to sample ice cream made with liquid nitrogen, courtesy of the Buck Institute. They'll be able to determine the age of a sea lion by counting the rings in its teeth, thanks to Sausalito's Marine Mammal Center. And they'll be able to design and build towering structures out of LEGO bricks in a challenge designed by San Anselmo's Play-Well Teknologies.
"These are not just information booths. This is a doer's festival — a festival for people who like to do things," Pahl said. "We'll have members of the Marin Master Gardeners making wildflower seed balls, and DNA extraction by Program in Biotechnology Education (PROBE)."
One of the event's guests of honor is "Mr. Sim," a $70,000 robot who normally helps to train medical professionals at Kaiser Permanente.
"Kids will get to put on white coats and act as interns with the attending doctor, who will guide them through a scenario with 'Mr. Sim,'" said Dr. Don Pierce, a retired physician who helped to organize the Discovery Days event. "We'll also have a presentation by Bay Area restaurateur Ted Smith, who will provide a healthy food demonstration and some 'taste it' dietary games."
While most of the Discovery Day exhibits are geared toward those in grades 4 to 8, the event "will have something for everyone," Pahl promised. "If you're curious at all about science, the whole thing will be an eye-opener for you."