What is “Science on Tap”? Beer, science, and a hit!

By Kathleen Heffernon, PhD; postdoc in Food Science

Beer and Science?  Science and beer?  What is Science on Tap?  Organized by Graduate Women in Science’s (GWiS) Science Communications Chair, Tisha Bohr, Science on Tap is designed to make science accessible to everyone, allowing the public to engage with experts in a variety of fields.

In Spring 2018, Sarah Murphy, a graduate student from the Department of Food Science, and I tried it out for ourselves.  By participating in a GWiS science communication training program, we were offered a platform to practice and gain confidence in public speaking by giving talks at Science on Tap’s Summer Series.

We were both the speakers for a session on “The Science of Food: Energy resources, food waste and health!”  The event was held at Casita Del Polaris, on North Tioga Street in the Falls Creek district of Ithaca, NY. The venue is definitely comfortable, cozy and cool.  There is a bar at one end, comfy chairs and sofas throughout, and a screen for the speakers at the other end of the room. Even better, it is air conditioned! Although every seat in the house was filled during our presentations, there was still plenty of space to move around and the atmosphere was fun and friendly.

My first thoughts when I signed up to be a speaker were “how will I explain my work to a general public audience, whom may not necessarily have any scientific background?” and “what if they don’t like my talk?” My initial fears were soon alleviated when a local woman sat next to me on the couch with a notebook. She told me she just lived down the street and had read about Science on Tap in the newspaper. She liked to come and take notes of all the interesting talks. That was encouraging. Others quickly filled the room. It was great to see how many folks, of various backgrounds and ages, are interested in science.

While one can never be too sure how an off-campus audience is going to react to some of the scientific innovations being presented, it became clear that we had nothing to fear. The questions asked during our talks were insightful, thoughtful and fun. The audience had a general wish to learn and discuss scientific research with us from both the perspective of food spoilage as well as food waste. Sarah Murphy began with Are you SURE you want to eat that? Food, microbes and you!”

Sarah Murphy’s presentation, “Are you sure you want to eat that?” was a hit with the audience.

She started us off with a fun description of microbes; the good, the bad and the ugly. Sarah is working on her PhD in Food Science and Technology and is conducting research in the Milk Quality Improvement Program at Cornell. She was sure to show us some videos of milk that had gone bad. Really bad.  Next, we had an engaging discussion of what ‘best before’ food date labels really mean.  Finally, she gave us a tour of her grandfather’s refrigerator. Some of the food had been in there for a long time and was something we to which we all could relate.  Generally, folks learned tips and tricks to keep their food from spoiling and what to be wary about ingesting to protect themselves from nasty food borne pathogens.

After a short break, I began my talk “How to build a better biofuel: securing food and energy resources by turning food waste into biofuel!” about ways we can reduce or repurpose food waste.  Then I highlighted some of my research on microbial cellulases, and their use in biofuel development.  I ended my talk by describing my latest experiments of using cellulases to break down food waste into biofuel.  The questions that were asked were interesting.  It was fun to see how the crowd picked up on certain topics and the feedback was fabulous.

It is so important as a scientist to learn how to communicate science to the general public.  This is a wonderful program for BESTies to learn science communication skills and practice them out in a low-key venue.  The Science Communications Training Program and Science on Tap Summer Series is brought to you by GWiS Cornell, Cornell’s Office of Postdoctoral Studies, Cornell BEST, OISE and GPSAFC.

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