She blinded them with science at Fan Fusion's Discovery Lab

Rachel Pikstein (right), who teaches biology and environmental science at Grand Canyon University, brought hands-on activities and guests to the Discovery Lab at Phoenix Fan Fusion.

Comic book writers have taken plenty of inspiration from science and the animal and insect worlds. There's Lizard, also known as Dr. Kurt Conners, a scientist-turned-lizard in the Spider-Man realm, and Peter Parker, an aspiring scientist bitten by a lab-manipulated spider who now has superhero powers.

But at Phoenix Fan Fusion, which wrapped up its three-day run Sunday at the Phoenix Convention Center, fans had the chance to get chummy with a 6-foot alligator — and to bite their teeth into some friendly, neighborhood science, thanks in part to herpetologist and ecologist Rachel Pikstein, who teaches biology and environmental science in Grand Canyon University’s College of Science, Engineering and Technology.

Katelyn Rose Garcia, Education Director for the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary, worked with Pikstein to make the Discovery Lab happen at Phoenix Fan Fusion. She dressed as Gomez Addams for the event.

The eight-time Phoenix Fan Fusion attendee was approached before the pandemic by Rebekah Brubaker to launch a science room at Fan Fusion’s Corridor of Science, education central so to speak, where visitors also could sit in on a slew of fun science-related panels (and get credit for teacher professional development hours).

One of the things visitors could do at the Discovery Lab was visit with a 6-foot alligator.

Brubaker is the CEO and co-founder of RealTimeSTEAM, a nonprofit group that designs and implements educational programming on the sciences, including panel discussions, workshops and exhibits.

Fan Fusion is the group’s largest activity of the year, with RealTimeSTEAM (the STEAM part of the name stands for science, technology, engineering, art and math) working with more than 100 experts to deliver engaging and informative programming.

Pikstein helped Brubaker launch the science room, dubbed the Discovery Lab, in 2022 and is its director alongside Katelyn Rose Garcia, Education Director for the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary.

“Last year was so successful with the start of this that they gave us around twice the size this year, put all the panels in the same hallway (thus the hallway’s moniker, the Corridor of Science), and moved us by the front,” said Pikstein, who along with Garcia, invites all the guests featured in the lab, from Arizona State University to Lowell Observatory.

Everyone was excited about science in the Discovery Lab at Phoenix Fan Fusion.

For this year’s Fan Fusion — the ultimate nerd-out assembly of all things comic book, sci-fi, steam punk and fantasy — the Discovery Lab toted along not just an alligator but offered up static displays of space specimens, taxidermied animals and bugs.

Add to that feats of engineering and a slew of hands-on activities, such as the Sink-and-Float Station, where Fan Fusion attendees could learn about density.

At another station, guests could learn how a computer is put together by looking at one that has been taken apart. There also was a fingerprinting station to teach science-lovers and the science-curious how their genetics make them different.

Besides co-directing the Discovery Lab, Pikstein also spoke at two panels, one on whales and one on crocodiles.

Nathan Lambson of Broms Bug Box brought a bevy of insects to the Discovery Lab.

When Pikstein isn’t at Fan Fusion, she’s on the GCU campus teaching and mentoring students in various Research and Design Program studies, such as one study on tegu lizards and another on Indonesian rainforest plants for a guidebook to help oil palm farmers farm in a more rainforest-friendly way.

Three of her and her students’ research papers are set to be published this summer.

A visitor learns about density at the Sink-and-Float Station.

Also, her lab, Pikstein Lab, became an official nonprofit two weeks ago. Hosted by GCU’s Research and Design Program, it brings students research experience and mentoring. They also develop and maintain research projects, present their work at symposiums and volunteer with public outreach/education while working toward scientific publication within the fields of ecology, conservation and environmental sustainability.

It’s been a busy summer for Pikstein, but there’s always time for a little fun at Fan Fusion.

She said, “My favorite thing about it is I get to nerd out in my favorite way, which is being a scientist and to share this passion and love with others, both colleagues and fans.”

GCU Internal Communications Manager Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.

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