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Science Center 'Identity' Exhibit Lets You Electronically Change Your Race, Gender
[January 24, 2013]

Science Center 'Identity' Exhibit Lets You Electronically Change Your Race, Gender

Jan 24, 2013 (The Hartford Courant - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and wondered what you'd look like if you were born a different gender How about a different race Or what you'll look like a few decades from now if you live a healthy life or, conversely, if you don't The new show at Connecticut Science Center, "Identity: An Exhibition of You!," is based on the science of DNA, heredity and the effect of environment and lifestyle on a person's mind and body.

However, if the exhibit succeeds with the public, it won't be because of science but because of the overpowering allure of the mirror.

"You should see me as a Hispanic. I'm a beautiful Hispanic woman," says Traci Shirer, the Caucasian spokeswoman for the Hartford educational museum.

Shirer sits in front of a camera-screen in one of the exhibit's interactive displays, takes a picture of herself, and then adjusts it to fit race- and gender-changing software, developed at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Choosing "Hispanic" from a list of menu options, Shirer waits the 30 seconds or so for the transformation to be complete.

The resulting image looks like Shirer, but with her features and skin color altered to look Hispanic. The screen Traci looks younger than the real Traci, too.

Then Shirer lures an African-American man, Asaad Jackson, to try the software. In a few seconds, on the screen Jackson is transformed into an Asian woman, who looks younger than Jackson.

"It's so much fun. We were playing with the exhibits all day," Shirer said. Visitors to the museum on a pre-opening walk through seemed to agree. The seat in front of the monitor was always occupied, with waiting lines. Who could resist, especially with the youthfulness added in Another irresistible feature of the show is "It's Your Choice" section. It's similiar to the race- and gender-changing station, but this one ages the user, showing the effects of smoking, sun exposure and poor diet, compared to someone who makes healthy choices. Users of that feature might find themselves staring at someone who looks like their mother or father.

That sense of parental deja-vu is appropriate, as one of the focuses of the exhibit is how DNA and heredity affect a person's looks. Upbringing, too, is a factor in the development of appearance and attitudes, more so than most people suspect.

This is illustrated by another interactive feature, which shows how most people have asymmetrical faces. The software photographs the user down the vertical center of the face, then shows what that person would look like if their face was symmetrical. One picture shows the symmetry following how the right side of the face looks, and the other the left.

"I'm thinner on one side of my face. I never realized that," Shirer said. It seems most people are. "Your genes tell your body to make a symmetrical face. But over time small differences in how your body carries out these instructions can change your face's symmetry," according to the feature's wall text. These small differences could be triggered by illness, injury, uneven sun exposure and countless other factors.

Those three elements to the exhibit are worth the price of admission; they even turn a trip to the science museum into a guilty pleasure, since they give people a chance to indulge in vanity, but with a higher purpose.

Several other elements to the exhibit, however, are interesting and challenging to a person's ideas about how their mind works. Most are in the form of push-button games that present intellectual or psychological challenges. Many of these are based on the social conditioning that leads to gender stereotypes. One shows whether users think "like a girl" or "like a boy"; another shows pictures of babies, and asks for words to describe the babies. That one has a twist that many users might not see coming. "I know I fell for it," said museum director Matt Fleury.

Other games gauge whether a person is a traditionalist or innovator or an introvert or extrovert; how belonging to a group affect's one's perception of "good" and "bad"; and how they got their skin color. That is primarily determined by how close your ancestors lived to the equator.

Inflatable DNA strands are scattered throughout the exhibit, and Fleury said he is particularly interested in the DNA-based experiments because of his own experiences. He described how he spent $130 on a home DNA kit, which came with a cheek swab. He sent the sample in to be analyzed. "With a name like Fleury, one would assume ... we were from Canada, then from France," he said. It turned out from his DNA sampling that the odds were more likely his ancestors were from Ireland.

"Dad wasn't right," he said. "He didn't know where he came from, other than Brooklyn." "IDENTITY: AN EXHIBITION OF YOU" will be at Connecticut Science Center, 250 Columbus Blvd. in Hartford, until Sunday, April 21. The exhibit is sponsored by The Travelers. The center is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $19, $16.50 for seniors, $14 for ages 4 to 17, free for 3 and younger. Tickets to movies in the 3D theater cost extra. Details:

___ (c)2013 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) Visit The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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