Chances are, you’ve heard of Pint of Science. Now in its fourth year, the international science outreach festival, bringing the scientists and the public together in local pubs has become a staple event of the graduate community. I had the opportunity to talk with Amy McKean (A) and Caitlin Fowler (C), both graduate students at McGill and organizers of the Montreal event, taking place from May 20-22nd 2019 .
- What is Pint of Science?
A: Pint of Science is an international, non-profit organization that aims to bring science to the public in an accessible and engaging way. Every year in May, in over 20 countries and now 25 cities in Canada, Pint of Science promotes science and public engagement in science in a three-day festival. We do this by bringing researchers out of their natural environments (universities, research labs, etc. ) and into a bar. These events don’t require any background knowledge or scientific training as they are designed for everyone and anyone with science curiosity.
C: It’s geared towards people with no prior science knowledge, so casual science enthusiasts and geeks alike will benefit from the event, particularly because there are so many themes and talks to choose from!
- What are your responsibilities as organizers?
A: As the Montreal English Event Coordinator, I have had a number of responsibilities. The most important one for me was finding my amazing team of 20 volunteers that are in charge of running each Pint of Science theme during the three-day festival. Pint of Science has six themes: Beautiful Minds, Our Society, Our Body, Tech Me Out, Atoms to Galaxies and Planet Earth. This is the first year that Pint of Science Montreal English is running this many events and we’re really excited to be giving more researchers a platform to share their science and more people a chance to learn something new! Once I had my team chosen, my responsibilities have been securing funding to run our festival, supporting my volunteers in finding speakers and locations, and advertising our events. Basically, I spend a lot of time talking to people who are excited about their own research or other peoples. It’s been a lot of fun.
C: As an event manager I am part of one of the six teams in my city (Montreal) organizing a single theme happening at a local bar over the three nights. This means that I, along with three other teammates, am in charge of choosing a bar that will accomodate a crowd, finding six speakers (who not only have neat research projects on the go but who are also capable of delivering a talk that will get the audience excited and inspired by science!), and then hosting the actual events. I have recently also taken on the role of admin for promotion of the Montreal events on facebook. This part is a lot of fun because I get to post about our awesome line-up of speakers and event themes!
- What are some Montreal specific POS events that you are each excited for?
A: This is like making me choose my favourite kid! I think every theme has some real winning combos, and I myself am having a hard time choosing where I will be each night of the festival. I’m really excited for the talks “Leaving the Earth behind: Mars & Beyond” because space never fails to capture my imagination. I’m also really excited by the Our Society talks because they bring up research questions that we haven’t had at previous editions of Pint of Science. For example, their event “Unlocking our genetic past and future” should be particularly relevant considering the increase in genetic testing services and the rise of things like 23 and Me in recent years. All I can say is check out our website. You’ll be sure to find something that piques your interest.
C: Personally – and obviously I’m a bit biased here – I’m really excited for one of the events that my team will be hosting on May 20th. Our theme is “Our Body” and we managed to arrange two speakers who will be talking about the gut microbiome which is a super hot topic right now. Our first speaker, Dr. Corinne Maurice, is a repeat from last year; I was so impressed by her talk in 2018 that when I became an event manager this year I knew I wanted to have her back again! Our other speaker, Dr. Susan Westfall, is actually a recent PhD graduate from McGill and after attending her thesis defence I knew I wanted to learn more about her research, which focused on the newly discovered connection between the gut microbiome and the brain and its role in Alzheimer’s disease. Hopefully everyone else at the event is as keen as I am to learn more about this emerging field of research! That said, I know all of the teams have put a lot of work into finding engaging and interesting speakers so every single one of the events has something unique to offer.
- This is the event’s fourth year. Why do you think this event has become so popular in such a short period of time?
A: I think Pint of Science is growing in popularity largely because of how we receive information these days. Science can be a bit of a game of telephone when it passes from researchers to press releases to eventually the media, and it’s hard to know what is true or over exaggerated. Pint of Science lets people cut around all of that middle ground and go straight to talking to the people at the start: the researchers. With every Pint of Science Event I have attended, the question and answer period with the speaker at the end has always been a clear highlight for this reason especially. This is a great opportunity for anyone to ask researchers their questions, and get a better idea of where science is leading us.
C: I think it’s because so many people are curious about science but often they aren’t able to engage in a way that is catered to the non-expert. Even when research is written with the general public in mind, it’s hard to get past a lot of the sensational news headlines that often misconstruct the actual findings of a study, and often don’t or can’t give a particularly good sense of what it means to run an experiment or study. The Pint of Science events allow non-scientists to actually meet people doing research, ask them questions directly, and discuss science from various perspectives, all in a low-key environment. Reading articles by groups like “I f***ing love science” or listening to podcasts is also a great way to engage in science, but the in person component of PoS is what makes it really beneficial.
- What do you think are some of the challenges that science outreach faces?
A: Science outreach can be challenging for a number of reasons, but two main causes come to mind. The first reason is that as a researcher, outreach has very little emphasis when compared to the other expectations we are given: publish, teach, attend conferences, etc. We have constant opportunities to practice presenting our research in a scientific manner, but rarely are there opportunities to engage in science outreach. Instead, outreach is a skill we have to develop on our own, and it isn’t an easy thing to do! Secondly, even if we want to take part in outreach, it can be very hard to find an audience. This is why Pint of Science is so important to me because it has grown year after year, and is becoming a reliable organization for those interested in science outreach to get a platform, and for the public to have an event they can trust.
C: The first issue is that we have powerful figures in our society claiming that they don’t “believe” in science, which is harmful to science outreach and just scientific research in general. For those of us actually doing research, we know and value the work put into a study and we accept that our and others’ findings are valid. The general public may not understand this though, so it makes it harder to talk about the important new things that scientists are discovering if there isn’t public acceptance that what a study finds is actually true. That’s on the broader scale though. Echoing what Amy said, I would say a smaller issue is that as scientists, most of us are not taught how to present data in a way that is deconstructed, visually appealing, and engaging. The standard is pretty low for how we talk about and discuss science amongst our colleagues/in our work environment, so it becomes doubly hard when scientists are asked to communicate with a demographic that, understandably, needs the information to be presented in a way that is accessible and inspiring! Someone can be doing the most fascinating and important research ever but if they don’t know how to talk about it, the impact will be totally lost. I honestly think all scientists should have to complete a science communication course in undergrad and this would significantly benefit both the scientific and non-scientific community!
- This year POS will be giving away a green souvenir, plantable coasters, made from recycled paper containing basil seeds. How important is sustainability to the event?
A: Sustainability is very important to us at Pint of Science. Looking at the programming alone that we have for this year there are talks about improving the sustainability of the chemical industry, how our land use is impacting the planet, how indigenous perspectives can guide sustainability to discussions on the impacts of climate change. Choosing a sustainable product for our give-away just made sense.
C: It is definitely a big part of this event and the organization’s agenda as a whole. Much of the organization is comprised of students and young adults who have realized that we’re the ones who are going to have to live with the planet in whatever state it gets left to us by our parents and grandparents. There is literally no act too small when it comes to helping the environment, something that older generations have not taken quite as fully to heart. Heck, you can even come to our Planet Earth events to find out more about the not so give-and-take relationship between humans and the environment!
- GradLife McGill is about sharing the graduate student experience through social media by engaging and connecting with all graduate students. How can students engage and connect with POS?
A: Pint of Science is for anyone that wants to learn something new in a fun setting. Since our talks are designed for a general audience, my best suggestion is to go to a talk on something you know nothing about! You never know what you may find, and if you really enjoy your experience, we are always looking for more volunteers to help or even speakers for next year. Be sure to book your free ticket soon though as some of our events have already sold out.
C: First of all, come to our events! We are hosting english and french events all over the city from May 20th to 22nd and, with broke students in mind, all of our events are free! The only cost is paying for drinks if desired, and let’s face it, that’s an expense that most students are accustomed to. Aside from that, people can find out more about the themes for each bar, the speakers, etc at pintofscience.ca, as well as follow our events on facebook (search for “Pint Of Science Montreal – 20-22 MAY 2019”), instagram (@pintofscienceca) and twitter (@pintofscienceCA). Lastly, if students want to get involved in the event itself, being an event manager is a lot of fun and doesn’t require a crazy amount of work. I attended the event last year and immediately knew I wanted to be a part of the festival in some way. I found the “Contact Us” part of the PoS website, was put in touch with the Montreal coordinator, and have been having a blast helping out ever since!
Amy McKean: Amy is finishing her Masters in Mechanical Engineering at McGill University where she has studied how blood interacts with medical devices such as artificial hearts. She believes that the best parts of life come from learning and sharing knowledge, and looks forward to doing that with you over a pint at this year’s Pint of Science. Cheers!
Caitlin Fowler: Caitlin recently started a PhD in Biological and Biomedical Engineering at McGill University where she is using neuroimaging to study Alzheimer’s disease. Caitlin is not yet jaded by the world of academia and is keen to learn about and accessibly communicate as much scientific research as possible!