New LSU Event Series Brings Research to the Public | Events
On the last Tuesday of every month around 5 p.m., a crowd gathers near the bar in the side-room of Chelsea's Café. Loud talk and laughter fill the crowded room as drinks are poured, and local cuisine is served buffet style. As the guests finish their hors d'oeuvres, the lively crowd quiets down and turns their attention to the front of the room where an esteemed LSU faculty member takes the stage. The scientist is not about to lecture to the crowd; rather, they will begin a dynamic discussion about their academic research as the guest speaker for LSU's Science Café.
LSU's Science Café is an event created to promote two-way, scientific discussion between university experts and the public in a social and informal setting. Although the conversation is led by an LSU faculty member, Science Café is not a lecture. Also, it isn't an exclusive event for science majors and professors. Rather, anyone who is interested in learning about scientific research, or even just what goes on at LSU, is welcome to attend and participate in the discussion.
"LSU's Science Café is a great way for our researchers to take their work straight to the public," said Ashley Berthelot, director of research communications at LSU's Office of Communications & University Relations, or OCUR, and the Office of Research & Economic Development. "We're so very excited about how well-received it has been. It just goes to show you that both our faculty and the community are searching for avenues where they can better connect. Chelsea's has provided that venue, and the Office of Research & Economic Development provided the support."
Each event features a guest speaker doing academic research and focuses on a particular topic. Since January, LSU Science Café has hosted a wide range of discussions including the search for water on Mars; underwater cave diving and the discovery of new fish species; and the relationship between hip-hop music and homicide rates, among others. At the most recent Science Café on Sept. 24, Jeff Nunn, who holds the Ernest & Alice Neal Professorship in Geology & Geophysics at LSU, led a discussion about the Bayou Corne sinkhole.
LSU Science Café serves as a channel between researchers and members of the Baton Rouge community who want to learn about the remarkable and interesting research going on at LSU. Faculty members are able to discuss complex, scholarly research with people who aren't necessarily familiar with the science behind it all. This eliminates the tendency for researchers to use technical jargon when talking about their work to other professionals. Rather, guest speakers outline the most fundamental aspects of their research so someone without a science background can understand and participate in the discussion.
"It's easy to speak about extremely complex technical matters with our colleagues," said Matthew Lee, senior associate vice chancellor for the Office of Research & Economic Development, who also served as the second speaker in the series. "But engaging a general audience that doesn't necessarily know the technical language that we would normally use, or has no idea about what kinds of equipment and instrumentation are used to collect certain types of data, is a whole different ball game. To keep them from falling asleep in their seats you need to keep it engaging, fast paced and easy to understand. That is a lot harder than it sounds, believe it or not."
In preparation for Science Café, guest speakers work extensively with Research Communications professionals to create short, engaging presentations, which set the tone for the events' discussions. According to past speakers, the most difficult part of presenting at Science Café is explaining their research to a diverse crowd in only 15 to 20 minutes. For this reason, Berthelot and Zac Lemoine, communications specialist at OCUR, collaborate with the speakers to help them condense their complex research into a concise and easy to understand presentation.
"We reviewed the presentation together to make sure there were no issues of being too technical or becoming more like a presentation," said Suniti Karunatillake, assistant professor of geology & geophysics at LSU. "The idea is to have an interaction at Science Café rather than a lecture. I tried to keep jargon to a minimum and emphasize images that can be informative."
Indeed, Karunatillake's presentation was a success, with attendance of more than 100 people – the largest Science Café yet.
As the inaugural speaker at LSU's first Science Café in January, Chakrabarty Prosanta, assistant professor and curator of fishes at the LSU Museum of Natural Science, spoke about his expeditions to Madagascar and the search for new fish species in underwater caverns.
"I wanted the crowd to interact with me, and I wanted to talk about how scientists need to be better communicators," said Chakrabarty. "I was told 10 to 15 minutes, and I timed to 12 minutes to make sure there was plenty of time for questions — and for people to refill their drinks. I think I reached my goal of giving an entertaining talk about science that makes it more approachable for the general public. I'm glad there are outlets to discuss science with the public like LSU Science Café."
Since its beginning in January, Science Café has drawn crowds of approximately 80 people for each event and connected researchers at LSU to members of the LSU and Baton Rouge communities with different academic backgrounds. The event has provided an atmosphere that encourages people to share their ideas by promoting casual scientific discussion.
"The purpose of Science Café is to take the complex scientific and scholarly work being conducted at LSU and make it accessible to our friends and neighbors in the community that support us and entrust us with their children," said Lee. "The research that takes place here is not only important, but it is very much inherently interesting as well."