Pint of Science: Come for the Beer and Stay for the Inspiration
By Cassie Tran, Ph.D.
I guarantee that every scientist you have ever encountered can recall the person who inspired him or her to embark down the long and winding road that is science. From the quirky high school chemistry teacher with the best analogies for remembering the types of chemical bonds to the biology professor that illuminated the astounding complexity of the smallest cells comprising a human body, there is one thing that these figures had by the truckload – the genuine, infectious, and absorbing enthusiasm for one’s subject matter that can’t help but spread. From my seat at the bar with a cold beer in hand, I smiled as I saw flickers of those same candles being lit at the Pint of Science event at National Mechanics in Old City.
Pint of Science is a global science celebration that occurs over three evenings in May in cities around the world. The organization was birthed in 2012 by two scientists in London, Michael Motskin, Ph.D. and Praveen Paul, Ph.D., whose simple goal was to make scientists more accessible to people. At the same time, Parmvir Bahia, Ph.D. and David Basanta, Ph.D., two researchers who were also keen on communicating the importance and excitement of cutting edge science to the public, started the American branch in Tampa, FL. At the core of Pint of Science is the notion that a child-like curiosity and enthusiasm can be ignited in adults given the opportunity (and the beers) to sit down and listen to an expert talk about their field in an engaging and interactive manner.
The beauty of the event at National Mechanics was that it extracted this feeling of wonder by starting as big as you could start, with Penn graduate student, Nicholas Galitzki, whose thesis involves working on a giant balloon borne telescope (BLAST or Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope) that would record the spectrum of emissions from star forming cores in an attempt to trace back to the earliest stages of star and planet formation. Basically, when a new star forms, the interstellar medium – the opaque dust and gases that fill the universe – blocks the visualization of the formation event in the visible light spectrum. He explained, with many pictures, how the telescope allowed the visualization of a specific submillimeter wavelength of emitted light that only occurs in these specific high-density regions where the stars are forming. What made his talk even more interesting was his accounts of several expeditions to Antarctica that he taken with the BLAST team to launch the balloon. Surprisingly, he mentioned that the food at the research site in Antarctica is very good. In the end, he left us with a Sagan-esque reflection – that humans essentially came to be out of a cycle of star birth, death, and re-birth and we are all made of stardust.
The next memorable talk was by Dr. Matthew Farber, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of the Sciences and Director of Brewing Sciences. In contrast to the previous talk about the universe, Dr. Farber’s talk took us down to the molecular level to examine the very liquid that filled our cups – beer. He took us through the beer brewing process from malting, where the grains are made ready for brewing by releasing the starches, to mashing, wherein the released starches are converted into sugars, to fermenting, during which those sugars are turned into alcohol and carbon dioxide by the added yeast. Everyone laughed when he emphasized that we were essentially all drinking yeast poop. One of the Farber Lab’s interests is how we can remove gluten from beer so that people with Celiac’s Disease can enjoy it as well. This problem was something that his team and others have been able to solve through some pretty cool science. Basically, they have engineered a protease that can specifically cleave the gluten molecule and can simply be added to any beer to make it gluten-free. Now, this sounds simple to a scientifically geared reader such as a post-doc, but could be a complex idea to convey to your standard bar crowd. I was impressed with the way that Farber was able to clearly and succinctly convey the mechanism of action of the protease to this audience without omitting any of the relevant science. I felt that this accessible example was a great analogy to get people thinking about how harness the power of science can be harnessed to solve all kinds biomedical problems. Additionally, in the context of the modern day phenomenon to be gluten-free by choice or trend, it was a nice reminder to keep science in mind when making decisions such as whether or not to eat gluten.
The last talk by Dr. Lynnette Regouby, a post-doctoral fellow studying the history of science itself at the American Philosophical Society Museum, was a great way to end the night in that her studies focus on how science has been practiced by humans since the very beginnings of recorded history. Now, if it doesn’t awe a person to reflect upon how much knowledge the human race has accumulated about the world through science and the ever evolving thought process that runs in parallel, I don’t really know what can. She specifically focused her work on the history of botany and how the discovery of “plant monsters”- venus fly traps and the like – in the 18th century caused scientists to question the classification system of plants that had been created thus far and had forced the community to rethink the nature of the relationship between plants and other living beings. It was again a sentiment that is still so relevant in modern day science.
Undoubtedly, as rapid technological advancement allows us to reveal more truths about our world, both about the universe beyond the Milky Way’s boundaries and about the molecular inner-workings of our own cells, we will be forced to reshape and rethink many of our current views. I left with a feeling of hopeful wonder, feeling somewhat small (as one does when presented with the utter vastness of the universe), and feeling appreciative of the all the scientists who are dedicating their lives to unraveling the universe’s many mysteries, which scientists know only multiply the more you think you know. I hope that the infectious enthusiasm behind each Pint of Science speaker around the globe sparks these little flickers so that, at the very least, the wonders of scientific discovery and curiosity for the world around us lingers even in adults.