Two children taking part in balloon demonstration
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Pitt virologists teach kids about vaccines

  • Community Impact
  • Innovation and Research
  • Center for Vaccine Research

Styrofoam balls, pipe cleaners, balloons, stickers.

Virus research doesn’t usually look quite like this.

But on Saturday, Aug. 14, scientists from the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research (CVR) treated children visiting the Carnegie Science Center with kid-friendly versions of the work they do.  

Kids at the event, sponsored by Pitt’s Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Research, got to simulate herd immunity on a checkerboard, cut out virus snowflakes and even build their own model coronavirus. Another highlight was a big balloon in the center of the room, where children could attach their blue balloon vaccine to red balloon viruses.

“There’s this vision of scientists as white lab coats locked in remote labs, but actually, they are part of our community: They're at the Science Center, they are at the park, and so this [event] was meant to drive home the fact that scientists are all around us,” said Brad Peroney, a project manager at Carnegie Science Center who helped coordinate the event.

“We’re lucky to have such a strong scientific community,” Peroney added, noting that partnership between CVR and the Carnegie Science Center is continuing to grow.

Justin Dutta, a PhD student studying human genetics who works in the CVR, said he was pleased that he could introduce kids to how exciting virology can be

“This is great for kids to see and ask questions that they have, because we don’t know a lot of the questions that kids have [about our field],” he said. “The center brings a lot of different disciplines and different ways of thinking together in our research, and working as an interdisciplinary team is really rewarding.”

Pitt’s CVR team, directed by Paul Duprex, received one of the earliest American shipments of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in 2020 to begin working on a COVID-19 vaccine. Duprex, who also holds the Jonas Salk Chair for Vaccine Research at Pitt, said he was glad the Science Center event was showcasing the work he and other researchers are doing to fight the pandemic.

Chasing COVID thumbnail

Visitors to the Science Center also had the opportunity to watch the documentary film “Chasing COVID,” directed by Film and Media Studies’ senior lecturer Carl Kurlander. The film follows Duprex’s lab as they receive the virus and work on creating a vaccine and echoes back to the Pitt team, led by Jonas Salk, that developed the killed-virus polio vaccine.

After the screening, the featured scientists — Duprex, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics Anita McElroy, CVR research scientist Sham Nambulli and CVR postdoctoral associate Natasha Tilston — answered questions from the audience.

When asked about what to say to people who are concerned about the risks of the vaccine, Duprex was clear: “It is always more risky to get the virus than the vaccine.”

The documentary is available online (see above video), and the Center for Creativity, which produced the film, and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit are partnering to host an online video competition called Taking a Shot at Changing the World, where middle and high school students create their own films highlighting the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“The film really is a Pitt production,” Kurlander said about the documentary. In addition to featuring Pitt scientists, the production team included co-producer and editor Andy Esper (A&S ’16), Kurlander’s former student.

“We can make good information go viral,” Kurlander said.


— Emilee Ruhland