How two Dartmouth women are making science easier to understand

By Morgan Banville | Jul 04, 2017
Courtesy of: Jennifer Koop University soil scientist Peter Fletcher and the Department of Agriculture's Maggie Payne demonstrate the effects of poor soil quality on water run-off.

Considering scientific work may conjure images of crazy-haired Albert Einstein, the radioactivity-tinkering Marie Curie, or shining idea man Thomas Edison. Brilliant people, but not easily understood.

Two Dartmouth women are looking to change that — by making science and scientists more accessible.

The New Bedford Science Café — spearheaded by science writer Ann Parson, and University of Massachusetts Dartmouth biology professor Jennifer Koop — connects the public to science experts in a relaxed, fun, and free setting.

“We feel that the gap between scientists and the public has perhaps never been as apparent as it is today,” said Koop. “We aim to make science and scientists a tangible item for everyday citizens and the café is a fantastic venue for such a goal.”

All of the events are held at Waterfront Grille, located at 36 Homer’s Wharf in New Bedford.

Both the inaugural May 2 event — a discussion on fishing gear advances led by Dr. Pingguo He, an associate professor at the university’s School for Marine and Science Technology (SMAST) — and the following June event on soil science both attracted about 50 guests each, said Koop.

“We anticipate further growth as word spreads,” said Koop. “The energy, enthusiasm, and support from the community has been outstanding.”

The organizers plan to host monthly gatherings, with a new guest scientist and topic at each event. Upcoming topics may include climate, animal intelligence, and bio-terrorism. Guest scientists will provide a short introduction to their research or expertise, and then open the floor to a moderated discussion with the audience.

“The gap between science and society keeps widening, as the sciences become more intricate,” said Koop. “We hope the café attracts all kinds of people and fosters an interesting back-and-forth discussion in a relaxed, no-pressure setting.”

Cybersecurity expert Dr. Joel Brenner will lead the next event, scheduled for July 11, 6-8 p.m. He will explain how a fundamentally insecure cyber network designed for a small group of scientists became the backbone of virtually all private-sector and government operations, including water supply, electricity grid, and health records management. Brenner is a senior research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Internet Policy Research Initiative, and has served as the inspector general and senior counsel for the National Security Agency.

The Science Café will pick up again on September 19 with physicist Grant O’Rielly leading a discussion titled “Particle Colliders, the Cathedrals of Our Modern Age: Higgs Boson & Hints of a Mysterious New Particle.”

The events are run by a steering committee that includes science writers, scientists, doctors, and concerned citizens, said Koop. The committee is charged with brainstorming topic ideas that are of broad interest to the public, but Koop said it welcomes suggestions from attendees and fans. To weigh in on topic discussions, or for more information, visit facebook.com/groups/NewBedfordScienceCafe.

The Science Café was sparked by a 10-year-old concept already actualized in areas including Hungary, Florida, California, and Singapore.

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