Thursday, 23 August 2018 14:46

Volunteering in the Outbreak exhibit with clinical microbiologist Jeanne Jordan

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Published in mBiosphere

Author: Ashley Peery

For 8 hours each month, ASM member Jeanne Jordan facilitates one-of-a-kind science experiences for visitors to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s newest exhibit, Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World.  By day, Jeanne is a clinical virologist working in the School of Public Health at the George Washington University. In the exhibit, she dons a safari-style vest and eagerly waits to answer questions and help the microscopic viral villains of the exhibit come to life.

  • What: Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World.

  • Where: The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (2nd floor) in Washington, D.C.

  • When: The exhibit will remain on view until May 18, 2021.


ASM sat down with Jordan to speak with her about her experience bringing real-world epidemiology expertise to a museum exhibit.


ASM: Did you have any experience in science outreach before volunteering in Outbreak?

Jeanne Jordan: Not a lot. Several years ago, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asked me to talk on Capitol Hill to a committee about the importance of Group B Strep screening in pregnant women. But Outbreak has been my first opportunity to engage with the general public on topics of infectious disease.


ASM: Why did you volunteer?

Jordan: I wanted to volunteer because laboratory scientists are not very visible to the public. You know what physicians, nurses, or veterinarians do because you have interacted with them in your life, but you don’t really know what a laboratory scientist does. We are the team behind the scenes that tests your samples (e.g. blood, urine, sputum or stool, etc.) for pathogens. Often, the idea of working with human fluids or tissues results in a “yuck” reaction from the person I am talking with. By volunteering, I hope to spark visitors’ curiosity and get them to think about the impact that diagnostic testing and vaccines have in infectious disease outbreaks.


ASM: What do you hope visitors to Outbreak will learn?

Jordan: I hope they come to appreciate the concept of ‘One Health,’ that our health is intimately connected to the health of animals and the environment. As a volunteer, I talk about how human behaviors put us at risk of infection, about how our actions can disrupt the natural environment and lead us to more interactions with animals and disease vectors.


Jeanne Jordan at the Smithsonian's Outbreak ExhibitJeanne Jordan displays visitor drawings of what they imagine a virus looks like. Photo courtesy A Peery.

ASM: What activities do you do with visitors to Outbreak?

Jordan: In one activity, I ask visitors to draw their impression of what a virus looks like. Some visitors take this seriously and really think about it. What comes out often looks very much like a virus. It’s amazing to see their faces when you bring out the plastic models of Ebola and influenza, and they realize how similar their drawing is to one of the models.


ASM: What part of the exhibit do visitors like best?

Jordan: Children young and old LOVE the animal market portion of this exhibit. Young kids adore the bunnies, and I can always get the attention of teenagers by asking them whether they have ever heard of the civet cat and its connection to the world’s most expensive coffee. This story is always a hit and allows me to pivot to a teachable moment about the civet’s role in SARS.


ASM: What is the most surprising story an Outbreak  visitor has shared with you?

Jordan: During one of my Outbreak shifts, I met a woman from Utah. When she turned the corner and saw the Hantavirus panel, she just lit up! She began telling me her story. She lives in an established suburb in the mountains in Utah, just down the road from a new housing development. She was in her kitchen and opened up a cupboard and, to her surprise, there was a deer mouse in the back. Because she lives in an endemic area and knew about local cases of Hantavirus, she knew not to expose herself to the mouse or its droppings. She quickly closed the cupboard and called the local animal control office. They came and took away the mouse for testing and it was positive for the virus!


Jeanne Jordan at the Smithsonian's Outbreak ExhibitJeanne Jordan discusses virus outbreaks with people from around the world. Photo courtesy A Peery.

ASM: What do you enjoy most about being an Outbreak volunteer?

Jordan: I really enjoy meeting those who come from all over the U.S., as well as visitors from other countries across the globe! I love asking visitors about their career and what they do in everyday life. It has been really gratifying for me to have these conversations and learn about others. I also love answering questions about the exhibit and the viruses it showcases.


ASM: Are there any challenging questions or topics that come up in Outbreak? How do you handle those?

Jordan: For me, the most challenging topic is HIV. Discussions in that section of the exhibit come in two forms -  either the conversation about HIV happens in hushed tones, or a parent appears uncomfortable and, sadly, dismisses their child’s question. Rarely am I asked to join in the conversation or answer a question about HIV.


ASM: What advice do you have for others interested in sharing science with the public?

Jordan: Come to this with an open mind and heart and a big smile on your face. I evaluate each person’s level of interest in talking with me as a stranger. Don’t start out talking science, instead engage people with a question about where they are from. Find a way to make a connection first. If I feel they are open to the idea, then I tell them about myself, my particular interests in science and about the exhibit.


  • Outbreak currently has ~60 volunteers that enthusiastically share their time and expertise with the public. To learn more about volunteer experiences, check out TWiV 501.

  • Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History will be recruiting new volunteers for Outbreak in early 2019.

  • Those with an interest in volunteering can reach out to Ashley Peery,


2018.8.23 PeeryAshley Peery, Ph.D. is a Public Outreach Fellow for the American Society of Microbiology. She is stationed at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History working as an educator for the exhibit Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World. In this role she trained and maintains a corps of exhibit volunteers. She also designs activities and programs to engage the public with the content of Outbreak.

Last modified on Thursday, 23 August 2018 15:10