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Trading Lab Goggles for Beer Goggles at Pint of Science

Jun 3, 2014

Even though she's relatively new to the research world, Crystina Bronk knows there's a not-so-complementary - but partially true - stereotype about her and her colleagues:

"We’re not ‘people-persons,’ like, you can’t have it all, right? You can’t be good at science and be good at talking to people!" said Bronk, a graduate student in the University of South Florida Cancer Biology Program.

It's funny how a little blueberry ale can change that.

Bronk is in the middle of the Florida Avenue Brewing Co., a brewery in Tampa's Seminole Heights neighborhood. It's your typical Wednesday night, Pink Floyd and Allman Brothers on the stereo, a Rays game on the TV, a crowd drinking beer and wine and exchanging saloon small talk.

But this small talk isn't about sports or politics - it's about cancer and neurons and disease.

You see, the bar is one of four local establishments hosting the Pint of Science Festival, an international event designed to make science a little more understandable - and social.

Parmvir Bahia is a USF research associate and operations director for Pint of Science's U.S. division.

"The purpose is to bring scientists out to a fun environment for the general public so that they can share their research and allow the public to be able to speak to the scientists in question," she said.

The event was created in the United Kingdom in 2012, but has blossomed into an international festival: for three days in more than 70 bars in in over 20 cities across six countries, expert scientists and researchers shared their work, hopefully in everyday English – or whatever their native tongue is. 

Tampa and St. Petersburg had the largest number of speakers among the five American locations: 18 scientists and researchers from USF, Moffitt Cancer Center, and private companies spoke at four bars (The Amsterdam in downtown St. Petersburg, Datz and Dough in South Tampa, and PJ Dolan's Irish Pub near USF's Tampa campus were the other three).

Bahia said that such a local response demonstrated the quality of the work being done at USF and Moffitt.

"I think, actually, it’s doing a great job of telling people that it’s not just Ivy League universities that can carry out amazing research," she said. 

On the festival's final night, a trio of researchers presented their work at Florida Avenue Brewing Co. Actively discouraged from using the scientist's normal tool of choice, PowerPoint, presenters improvised.

Imigine researcher, Dr. Matt Ewert, hands out 'prop' toys meant to symbolize sepsis and other infections at Pint of Science at Florida Avenue Brewing Co.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

Dr. Matt Ewert, formerly of the USF Center for Biological Defense and now owner of his own company, Imigene, handed out stuffed animals and sprayed audience members with Silly String in a mock demonstration of how someone can contract the deadly infection, sepsis.

"I was admittedly put off a little bit by the reference to alcohol because science always, to me, seems like something that has to be very serious," Ewert confessed after his presentation.

"But then I immediately recognized the value in coming into an informal, relaxed environment, and talking to people who may not be steeped in the particular topic that we’re covering."

"It might even change their own behaviors and how they manage their health," he added.

Dr. Anna Giuliano passed on the props, instead engaging the crowd with questions about what they knew about the human papillomavirus, or HPV.

"What’s nice about this opportunity is that we have a chance to really have a dialogue, so I can throw out some basic concepts, hear the issues, tell me what you think and now let’s talk about it and let’s see what questions come up," said the Director of Moffitt's Center for Infection Research in Cancer (CIRC). "So I think in terms of conveying information to the public, this is a much better venue for doing that than standing up with a 45-minute lecture and slides."

Dr. Anna Giuliano, Director of Moffitt's Center for Infection Research in Cancer, talks to an audience member at Pint of Science about HPV.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

And since some of the biggest questions about HPV center on the prospect of vaccinating young people to protect them from a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cancer, an open discussion - like a conversation in a bar with an expert on the subject - can really come in handy.

"It’s good to hear what the opinions are and some of the fallacies that are out there, some of the truths that are out there, and help to resolve those issues for people," Giuliano said, as she sipped one of the Brewing Co.'s trademark blueberry ales. "So presenting in a setting where you can actually have that give-and-take really is very helpful for controversial topics."

Bahia, who was in constant contact with festival organizers around the world, said it was a tremendous success, particularly in the Bay area, where around 500 free tickets were snapped up - not bad for an event put together by a bunch of scientists.

"Given that the vast majority of us have no experience in marketing, raising money, any of these things. I mean, we do to some degree as scientists, but it’s the first time I’ve ever had to put this in place in such a way," she said.

In addition to thanking the bars that donated their space and the presenters who also volunteered their time, Bahia had praise for the folks who enjoyed their science for a few nights with a beer chaser.

"Thank you to everyone who’s come to us afterwards to say ‘we loved it, and we’re looking forward to the next one,'" she said, adding, "We’re hoping for bigger and better (next year). I mean, it’s the American way, right?"