Inaugural Meet Up of UR’s Thinkers and Drinkers
News Article by Heather Natola, PhD Candidate
If science happens at a bench, and no one ever hears about it, did it really happen? The students in Thinkers and Drinkers, don’t think so, and they embarked on a journey to tell the people of Rochester what kind of science is happening in their backyard. With stylish, matching T-shirts, these scientists put themselves on the frontline to defend science and add the human angle that is often missing from articles published about science.
Five graduate students from three departments recently attended the inaugural Thinkers and Drinkers event at Jeremiah’s Tavern on Monroe Avenue. They chose Jeremiah’s for its distance from the hospital as well as its variety of cliental. In fact, they met law students, ex-military personnel, construction workers, office workers, teachers, bankers, and many others, but no self-proclaimed scientists. The goal of this new student organization is to simultaneously improve students’ communication ability, as well as improve science literacy in the general adult public. While there, the group walked up to complete strangers and offered them a free appetizer – but there were strings attached. To receive the free food, people had to listen to a graduate student talk about science, their thesis work, or careers in science while the food cooked. Most of the people we talked to were more than interested in hearing from our group, and many even declined the free appetizer despite speaking with a student for up to half an hour.
Many of these conversations ended up lasting much more than the suggested time frame, and graduate students were surprised by the insightful questions non-scientists had about their research. In one conversation I had, one of the people asked if I could apply my work on spinal cord injury to other diseases of the central nervous system, something we have recently been pursuing. Furthermore, many of us were surprised by how many questions we received about life in graduate school, careers in science, and how exactly research gets funded. One person asked about some of the recent studies that make the news, including some of the stories written in popular health or lifestyle magazines that seem to be quack science. With such a negative view of science, it was no wonder he wasn’t concerned about the recently proposed research budget cuts. After talking to several of the members of Thinkers and Drinkers, however, he seemed to have changed his opinion, “I guess I didn’t think about where all our drugs come from, and I am glad UR is working on finding cures for diseases.”
Neal Shah, a first year in the Neuroscience department, was excited to try to explain his first year in graduate school to unsuspecting patrons of the bar. After a few days to reflect Neal said, “I think it is really important to connect with the community. There is such a disconnect between what we do as scientists, and how often people hear about it. I found that most people were not really concerned about the recently proposed research budget cuts, but once I told them how much that will affect people they know, they started to realize how much of an issue that could be.”
In addition to teaching people about science, graduate school, and their theses, students that participated in Thinkers and Drinkers worked on improving their elevator speeches. This short description of a person’s work has become a recent favorite in the science communication field, and is supposed to be an attention-grabbing sentence that hopefully leads to further inquiry. As a participant I felt, as did many of my colleagues, that it got easier as the night went on. I was able to try different approaches to talking about my project with the multiple groups to which I spoke. Overall, this was a very positive experience for the students and the people at the bar, and we are looking forward to doing this again, thanks to the generosity of URBEST and CPD, in a couple of months. We are always looking for new student or postdoc volunteers so if you are reading this and interested in participating in our future events, please email me at Heather_Natola@urmc.rochester.edu.
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