Arroz y Habichuelas: Making Science for Everyone

February 24, 2020
Attabey holding a neon green speech bubble
Attabey Rodríguez Benítez (Credit: Leisa Thompson Photography, courtesy of the U-M Life Sciences Institute.)

by Rose Hendricks

**Editor's note: This post is part of a series highlighting members of the ComSciCon community who recently attended the AAAS Annual Meeting, which took place from February 13-16, 2020 in Seattle, WA.

In Puerto Rico, rice and beans (“arroz y habichuelas”) are a unifying meal — whether you’re rich or poor, they are likely to be a key part of your diet. This is why Attabey Rodríguez Benítez called her first science blog Arroz y Habichuelas — because science is for everyone. Now called Science-Bey, her blog continues to make a range of science topics accessible to anyone who would like to learn about them.

When she started college, Attabey had planned to go to medical school. But thanks to an early chemistry professor, she fell in love with chemistry. He captured her attention by doing hands-on demonstrations, like the time he showed her research group how a penny can be turned into gold. Another professor invited her to work in his organic chemistry lab after seeing her fascination with the crystals that were the center of his research and her determination to read everything she could on the subject. Gradually, she began to refine her research interests, and she decided to pursue a PhD at the University of Michigan, where she’s currently working at the intersection of chemistry and biology. Through her research, Attabey aims to better understand enzymes—proteins that help speed up chemical reactions. This work will contribute to the development of life-saving therapeutics.

One method that’s central to Attabey’s work is turning the enzymes into crystals to visualize their structures. She specifically looks at what she calls the “reaction chamber,” the part of the enzyme where the chemical reaction takes place. She hopes to use reaction chambers to understand what makes enzymes so good at their jobs, in hopes that she and other researchers can eventually make them more versatile.

Crystallizing the enzymes has proven not only to be helpful for understanding enzymes’ underlying properties, but it has also brought beauty and creativity into Attabey’s work. It has helped her think more deeply about creating visualizations that are attractive, informative, clear, and accessible. As a result, she’s become a go-to person in her scientific community for advice on figures.

a progressively zoomed-in view of the structures present within TropB crystals
A progressively zoomed-in view of the structures present within the crystallized enzymes. (Credit: Attabey Rodríguez Benítez)

For Attabey, doing science and communicating about it go hand-in-hand. As she continues to explore the process of crystallizing enzymes through her research, she’s also learning to think about ways to show the visual sides of her science in more accessible ways. She’s set herself up for this symbiotic learning experience by cultivating communities of science communicators. Specifically, as a ComSciCon-Michigan organizer in 2018 and 2019, Attabey has contributed to a vibrant and growing community of scientist-communicators in Michigan and beyond.

Attabey’s work shows us that science doesn’t take place in tidy disciplinary boxes. Finding solutions to some of the biggest challenges we face right now as a society requires bringing together ideas and methods from different fields. Taking great care in how scientific processes and findings are communicated. And ensuring that — just like arroz y frijoles — science is accessible to everyone.

If you’d like to learn more about Attabey’s research, you can visit her website, and be sure to follow her on Instagram and Twitter @sciencebey!

Rose is a cognitive scientist working to improve the relationships between science and the broader society. As the Kavli Civic Science Fellow, she is leading a collaborative initiative among scientific societies to better support scientists who engage in science engagement and advocacy. Find her on Twitter!

See also: Life Science