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UI’s Science Café brings scientific discussion to Iowa communities

Nancy Mayfield, Dr. Pat Winokur, and Shannon Christensen, at Solon’s first Science Café, held at Frida Kahlo Mexican Restaurant. (photo by Jen Moore)

SOLON– How about adding a few scientific facts to your meal tonight?
That’s exactly what the Science Café Series, a University of Iowa created program, aims to do as it brings scientific discussion to restaurants and bars across small towns in Iowa.
The series, which started in October of 2013, covers a different topic each session and brings experts from all scientific fields to engage in discussion with community members. These events are free and open to any who wish to attend.
Co-creator Shannon Christensen said that holding the Science Café sessions in these non-traditional locations makes normally abstract or complicated topics seem more approachable and engaging than when offered in a typical lecture hall or classroom.
In fact, it’s not uncommon to see one of these experts holding a beer while explaining the details of water purification or climate change.
“I hope they find that through [the series], science is accessible,” Christensen said. “It’s a discussion, not a lecture.”
The Science Café Series is a collaborative effort from the Iowa Institute for Clinical and Translational Science (which Christensen is a part of), the College of Public Health, and the Environmental Health Sciences Research Center (EHSRC).
Nancy Wyland, of the EHSRC, helped bring the series to Iowa after hearing of several other centers around the country that had hosted the Science Cafés.
“I thought that rather than have them here in Iowa City, where there’s a lot of [involvement in scientific fields], we’d take them out and go a little further in the communities,” Wyland said.
Solon held its first Science Café on Thursday, May 14, the topic of which was Vaccines in the News. Dr. Pat Winokur, Associate Dean for Clinical and Translational Science, presented information on the subject. Winokur is currently involved in evaluating new vaccines and other treatments for various types of infectious diseases.
The towns of Mount Vernon and Lisbon have hosted the café in the past, and Christensen and Wyland hope to hold another discussion in Solon later this year.
Past topics have dissected gender differences in the human brain (a very popular one, according to Wyland) and have even delved into popular culture, analyzing the scientific accuracy of the movie, Interstellar (“Surprisingly factual” in a lot of ways, Christensen said).
And it’s not just Wyland and Christensen who are involved in choosing the subject matter; both say they welcome community input when it comes to picking topics.
The next Science Café, which will be held in Ottumwa, will discuss genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) and their role in modern society. This topic was actually requested by the public.
Wyland and Christensen stress that those who attend don’t have to come with a Ph.D. in chemistry or physics. The purpose, said Christensen, is so participants can expand what they think they know about science-related subjects.
“Seeing someone in the moment go ‘oh, I get it! I understand now!’ is awesome,” she said. “Watching people learn is my favorite part.”
The discussions usually start with the guest speaker’s overview on the evening’s topic, but after that, anything goes, said Wyland.
Many times, participants will come with opinions of their own or have a personal connection with the subject being discussed. This usually presents an opportunity for some interesting dialogue and can take the discussion in all kinds of different directions.
“[It can] go over my head, listening to the audience,” Christensen said. “The banter between presenters and the crowd was wonderful, just with their level of understanding and willingness to challenge us. ”
Christensen hopes that the program will continue to grow, both in event popularity and in the number of communities that participate.
“I would love to see it branch out to other communities,” she said. “And I’d love to see the topics be so interesting to people that it’s standing room only.”
Those interested in learning more about the Science Café Series, or suggesting a topic for future events, can contact Nancy Wyland via email at nancy-wyland@uiowa.edu.