Science on Tap: Pouring into the community

Three Colorado State University graduate students and two CSU faculty members recently launched an initiative in Fort Collins called Science on Tap, a program that seeks to connect the community and science.

The vision behind Science on Tap is to provide an informal, relaxed and fun atmosphere for the Fort Collins and CSU communities to engage and discuss scientific research taking place at CSU as well as popular topics in the media.

The event takes place once a month at Pateros Creek, a local brewery located on College Avenue just north of Old Town that extends its happy hour for anyone who attends. The event is free and open to the public.

Science on Tap audience at the local brewery Pateros Creek
Science on Tap audience at the local brewery Pateros Creek

“We want to inform the general public from a real scientific perspective, but not in a threatening way,” said Mark Zabel, an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology. “We want it to be a community-based discussion.”

Science on Tap is a way for scientists to communicate what they do to people who may not be familiar with seemingly complicated research topics.

“I think scientists get into a rut of only communicating with other scientists, because that’s their job,” said Hannah Romo, one of the CSU graduate students involved with planning Science on Tap. ”But I think it’s also important to branch out and tell people why their science is important.”

The event consists of one speaker or a panel of experts giving an informal talk about their research or a hot topic of science. The presentation lasts between 30 and 40 minutes, and after that the audience is encouraged to ask questions and have a discussion with the speakers.

“We try to avoid PowerPoints to ensure it stays informal and conversational, and we can get to the questions as fast as possible,” said Zabel. ”We want to minimize presentation time and maximize discussion time.”

Danielle Adney, who had the original idea to bring Science on Tap to Fort Collins, explained the importance of the discussion portion of the event.

Ben Prytherch, Mark Zabel, Danielle Adney, Steve Jones (owner of Patero's Creek) and Hannah Romo at Science on Tap.
Ben Prytherch, Mark Zabel, Danielle Adney, Steve Jones (owner of Patero’s Creek) and Hannah Romo at Science on Tap.

“We want people to feel like it is a safe place to ask any questions they have and get answers from scientists instead of Wikipedia,” she said.

According to Adney, the event has been a success so far. It has been standing room only at the brewery each time.

“Our first Science on Tap was on Ebola, which nobody works on directly at CSU, but we do have a lot of expertise in immunology and epidemiology,” said Zabel. “So we had a panel discussion for this topic where several CSU scientists gave a five-minute introduction on what they specialized in and then shared their perspective on Ebola.”

Another topical issue discussed at Science on Tap was influenza, a fitting subject for flu season. Last month, CSU’s Brian Tracy, an associate professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science, talked about his research on the biological electricity of muscles. He brought his “Muscles Alive!” demonstrations to show how the body responds to electrical stimuli.

Brian Tracy doing a demonstration as part of his "Muscles Alive!" presentation
Brian Tracy doing a demonstration as part of his “Muscles Alive!” presentation

The next Science on Tap will take place on February 23rd at 6:30 p.m. and it will discuss the topic of lousy sex. Other upcoming topics include elephant conservation ecology, fracking, a brewing presentation from the Pateros Creek staff and a grown-up version on a physics demonstration from CSU’s Little Shop of Physics.

The series – which is promoted with the motto “Grab a beer, stay for the science” – won’t tap out at the end of the semester. It will flow through the summer.

How it started

Inspired by a friend at West Virginia University who started a similar initiative, CSU Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology graduate student Danielle Adney decided to get a team together and bring Science on Tap to Fort Collins.

She first shared her idea with her peer Hannah Romo, and shortly after, faculty member Mark Zabel joined their efforts. Another graduate student, Kassi Willingham, and CSU statistics instructor, Ben Prytherch, joined them. All three students know each other from working together in the MIP grad program.

The team of five are now in charge of planning and organizing each Science on Tap by inviting scientists and researchers they know to speak at the event. The group is open to anyone who wants to join.

Educating the public

Another function of Science on Tap is to demystify what research is and emphasize why it is important and applicable, since it is often paid for with taxpayers’ money.

“Sometimes we get a bad rap for doing things that ‘waste’ taxpayers’ money, and sometimes the general public doesn’t understand why you might want to study reproduction on a fish or a fish virus,” said Zabel. “Science on Tap is an opportunity to explain that a fish virus can cause cancer. And sometimes those viruses have similar mechanisms that cause the cancer that humans get. Science on Tap can help explain what basic research is and what it does, and how it’s applicable. If we didn’t have basic research we wouldn’t have the Internet, or plastics, or antibiotics.”

Science on Tap aims to change the occasional public assumption that researchers are wasting money. It also aims to inform people that basic research is vital to stay ahead in areas like technology, disease, famine, drought and other important things that may not be obvious from the title of a research project.

“We are educating the public on why the science we do is so important,” said Romo, “because ultimately general opinion dictates research funding.”