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In a trendy East End brewpub, a young woman walks up to a stranger and smiles. It’s not what you’re thinking. She wants to get a closer look at the sign beside him.
We are scientists. Ask us anything!
It just so happens 24-year-old Kathleen Monin has a burning curiosity. If someone gets drunk and blames it on not sleeping or eating enough, is there any truth to it? “Or did they drink too much and it’s just an excuse?” she asks.
Rick Koepsel, a microbiologist sipping on a porter at East End Brewing, lets out a laugh. “Most people underestimate how much they drink,” he says, weighing in on how the body metabolizes alcohol. “If you don’t eat or sleep, your alcohol metabolism rate is down.”
So it’s true that skipping a meal or pulling an all-nighter makes someone feel like the alcohol hit harder than usual, he says. “That makes sense,” replies Monin, who lives nearby in Point Breeze.
Koepsel is a volunteer with the Two Scientists Walk into a Bar program. It might sound like the first line of a joke, but the adult outreach effort coordinated locally by Carnegie Science Center is a way to break down barriers between scientists and other people in the community. Koepsel was one of about 30 experts in everything from neuroscience to astronomy, engineering, and automotive painting who fanned out to local drinking holes in southwestern Pennsylvania on a recent autumn Saturday, where he spent two hours, inviting people to pull up a bar stool and talk science over a pale ale or a lager.
“Adults in a bar, you can see their inner curious kid. It’s such a cool combination—ripping whatever comes to mind with legitimate science.” – Ralph Crewe, science educator at Carnegie Science Center
“It’s a way to demystify science and expand our program beyond our walls,” says Lamont Craven, program manager for adult programs at the Science Center. “Science is everywhere and for everybody.”
Two Scientists originated at the Fleet Science Center in San Diego in 2014, and it was such a hit that the museum trademarked it in 2017 and invited other museums to participate. For the second year in a row, Carnegie Science Center has sent pairs of scientists into community bars. Some bring visual aids or conduct on-site experiments. All bring a sense of humor.
It’s attracted professionals of all stripes, including an Egyptologist and paleontologist from the Science Center’s sister museum, Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Before going out to meet the public, volunteers attend an orientation where they receive guidance on dispensing knowledge in this offbeat forum.
For example, what happens if a curious patron throws out a question the scientist can’t answer? “No one knows the answers to everything,” acknowledges Craven, and in these cases he advises the volunteers to say, “I don’t know, but here’s my best hypothesis.
“It’s also cool to Google it and think things through with another person.”
Ralph Crewe, part of the Buhl Planetarium team at Carnegie Science Center, sometimes brings a meteorite to the bar.
“What’s that?” curious patrons ask. “It’s a part of outer space,” he tells them, a simple fact that is almost always the perfect conversation starter. The most common question he faces: Why is Pluto no longer a planet? The short answer: It’s complicated. Or, what is dark energy? The answer: “I’m not exactly sure and neither is anyone else.
“Adults in a bar, you can see their inner curious kid,” says Crewe, who has enjoyed in-depth conversations with bar patrons for upwards of an hour. “It’s such a cool combination—ripping whatever comes to mind with legitimate science.”
An occasional discussion requires him to muster all of his scientific diplomacy. One seemingly sober man tried to convince him that the Earth is flat, an argument he countered with the successful experiment of Eratosthenes. The ancient Greek scholar noted that the shadows of two identical sticks spaced apart varied in length because of Earth’s spherical surface.
It’s the informality of the situation that can lead to some of the most interesting or unexpected questions. In the middle of a Penguins playoff game, an environment that lends itself more to hockey fanaticism than scientific inquiry, fans stop and ask about the physics behind a speeding hockey puck.
Other times, pubgoers ask the scientists about their research or career path. People often ask Erin Peters, an Egyptologist, how she got interested in her field. “I tell them I got bit by the Egypt bug when I had to do a project in sixth grade,” says Peters. As a student in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, she chose to focus on the goddess Nephthys, writing a poem about her and dressing up like her. “I thought my costume was so cool,” she says, a relatable response that often keeps people talking.
Koepsel, the microbiologist, thinks a microbrewery is actually the perfect setting to talk about his research specialty. Raising a glass, he says, “Beer is microbiology. In order to make beer, you have to rely on microbial organisms like yeast and sometimes bacteria.”
In addition to talking about hops, home brewing, and his research on antibiotic resistance, Koepsel engages in a freewheeling conversation with a young couple making a stop during a pub tour.
“Are you really a scientist?” asks Jennifer Vrobel as she approaches Koepsel’s table with the awe usually reserved for celebrities. She shares that she, too, loves science, having earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and specializing in neurosurgery at John Carroll University.
She and her boyfriend, Andrew Harrington, who’s pursuing a doctorate in health care ethics at Duquesne University, are rapt as Koepsel describes his journey into microbiology. As they sip a sampler of beers, the trio talk about everything from antibiotic resistance to survivor trauma to epigenetics, the study of inherited changes in gene expression.
“I love epigenetics,” Harrington says. Not something you hear in a bar every day.
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