(CN) – At a cozy watering hole in downtown Oakland, California, budding scientists wield an unconventional weapon to help fight misconceptions about their field of knowledge. Their battleground is a bar. Their ammunition: beer.
For the past year, science students from the University of California, Berkeley, have hosted a series of nighttime lectures at East Bay taverns. The monthly talks have tackled topics ranging from the mysteries of microbial bacteria to the search for extraterrestrial life. It's part of a grassroots effort to make science more accessible to the public and more valued in society.
"We want to ignite that passion in them," said Virginia Markham, a 26-year-old UC Berkeley doctoral student focused on biogenetics. "We're not trying to educate them as much as we just want them to go out there and be curious."
The PubScience lecture series grew out of an initiative at UC Berkeley called the Communication, Literacy and Education for Agricultural Research (CLEAR) project. It started three years ago with a $103,000 grant from the University of California Global Food Initiative and has grown to encompass four areas of student outreach: on campus, in the classroom, in government, and in the community.
UC Berkeley researcher and outreach specialist Peggy Lemaux launched the program in 2015. She says it's important for the public to understand why science is important, and having young scientists connect with regular folks in the community advances that goal.
“If we’re not telling people about what we're doing and why they should care, then it's going to be really easy to cut funding for science," Lemaux said.
PubScience started with Lemaux going to a bar with students, digging into her own pocket to buy pitchers of beer, and inviting patrons to "ask a scientist" a question in exchange for a free pint. It evolved into a monthly lecture series organized by UC Berkeley graduate student and beer enthusiast Alex Jaffe.
Jaffe, a 25-year-old Los Angeles native who studies evolutionary microbiology, said he gets two major rewards from coordinating the lectures and working with CLEAR. He gets to share his passion for science and hone his skills at communicating complex and jargony subjects to regular folks.
“It makes you see things differently and be able to articulate why what you do is important and worthy of funding and attention," Jaffe said.
On a recent Thursday night in late August, about 40 people gathered at the Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland's Uptown neighborhood to learn about the science of beer. A guest speaker from Lagunitas Brewing Company explained the intricacies of malting and talked about newly discovered strains of genetically modified brewer's yeast that could allow brewers to create hoppy-tasting beverages without using real hops, which take an enormous amount of water to grow.
According to Jaffe and his colleagues, these interactions are themselves an ingredient to ferment an appreciation for science among the general public. It also helps dispel misconceptions that scientists are inaccessible or arrogant elitists unwilling to talk to or consider the opinions of non-scientists.
"It helps show people that scientists know how to have fun," Markham said. "We're not stodgy weirdoes inventing things in our garage. We're just regular people who grab beers after work."
Thinking like a scientist