Scientist Who? Bringing science to the public in Chicago

by Natasha Wadlington

Einstein might be the type of name that pops up when one thinks about a scientist. But how many people know the names of current scientists? In 2009, Research!America tackled that question, and found that 65% of people polled could not name one scientist and 18% tried but could not name one correctly. That’s about 83% that could not name a living scientist. One might think that sounds pretty dire, but that was almost ten years ago. Surely, things have improved since then. Right? Unfortunately, that is not the case. This year Research!America and Zogby Analytics announced the results of another poll conducted in 2017. It turns out that 81% of people polled still could not name one living scientist. This would suggest that majority of Americans do not know scientists – not even the ones living side by side with them.

Scott and Hannah, the founders of Wonder & Skepticism, recognized that this was a big issue. They thought it critical for people to realize scientists were out there and striving to solve problems that might even affect our everyday lives. Also, as scientists, we need to step out of our academic bubbles once and awhile and  build community with our neighbors. What better way to do this than over drinks? As a result, Wonder & Skepticism was created. The Empty Bottle, a bar known for its laid-back atmosphere and as a venue for musical acts, welcomed Wonder & Skepticism and hosted our first successful event in December 2017.

Wonder & Skepticism’s host Hannah shown introducing our “(Don’t) touch me, I’m sick” event. Photo credit: Natasha Wadlington

Initially, our events were spread by word of mouth and promotions from The Empty Bottle. We started to gain traction in the Chicago area when we were featured in The LoganSquarist article in April of this year. Recently, we have joined Twitter and are engaging with local universities and science communications organizations to build our network in the Chicagoland area. For our expert presenters, we are seeking local early career scientists, postdocs, and graduate students .

At the events, a few scientists passionately deliver their research on stage in a relaxed manner that is relatable to the diverse audience. The evening concludes with the audience spearheading a semi-guided, eye-opening discussion session with our scientists.

(Don’t) touch me, I’m sick

Most recently, we had our “(Don’t) touch me, I’m sick” event highlighting the work from postdocs Lizzie Steinert from Northwestern University and Yeva Yue Shan from University of Chicago. Topics focused on exploring how vast and adaptable our immune systems are and how bacteria are winning the fight against antibiotics. Audience discussion varied from the mechanics of protecting ourselves from viruses and bacteria to whether probiotics in yogurts are helpful, and even touched on the hot topic of vaccination. After the formal stage discussion ends, everyone ends up mingling and grabbing a drink with each other, which allows audience members to talk directly to that night’s scientists. This informal socializing has been the favorite part of the night for several of our presenters.

The audience having a laugh during the discussion session with Lizzie and Yeva. Photo credit: Natasha Wadlington
A vital connection

These events are vital to science communication and awareness because they provide non-scientists the opportunity to ask experts questions they may have on their minds in a no pressure, laid-back environment. This kind of interaction fosters positive community-building between scientists and non-scientists. Hopefully, meeting a living scientist and getting to see their passion for science will give people a different perspective and lead them to understand the importance of science in our everyday lives.

Natasha Wadlington holds a PhD. in Neurobiology from the University of Chicago and serves as the social media manager for Wonder & Skepticism.  If you’re interested in being a presenter at a Wonder & Skepticism event, please email present@wonderandskepticism.com or you can contact them  directly, via Twitter message @WSkepticism.