At Café Woo, scientists strive to demystify their work

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"By academic freedom I understand the right to search for truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true," wrote Albert Einstein. "This right implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true."

University of Massachusetts researchers Ana Maldonado and Kelly Hallstrom are giving scientists a unique opportunity to share what they recognize to be true. They are the founders of Science Café Woo, a free public lyceum that meets on the third Monday of each month at NU Café on Chandler Street in Worcester.

Maldonado, a post-doctorate student studying infectious bacteria that cause food-borne illness, first heard of science cafés while attending an event sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston in February. According to Ana Kellythe websites www.cafescientifique.org and www.sciencecafes.org, science cafés were started in London in 1998 "where, for the price of a cup of coffee or glass of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology." Now there are more than 300 cafés around the world.

In 2006, the PBS television show "Nova ScienceNow" began to offer a structure for the individual grass-roots cafes that had sprung up throughout the United States. Volunteer organizers can receive logistical support, such as printouts, calendars and ideas.

Forty-nine of 50 states have at least one café. Maldonado learned there were cafes in Boston, Hadley, Cambridge and Framingham, but none in Worcester. Considering the vital economic role of science and technology in Central Massachusetts, home of UMass Memorial Medical Center, UMass Medical School, WPI, David Clark and BioTech Park, among other employers, she felt there was a need that wasn't being met.

Maldonada says it's up to scientists to communicate with the public. 

"Ultimately it's the taxpayer who pays our salaries," she said. "This is the way for us to give back. It's our duty to do this. But we can't do it the way we use to, with one person talking with lectures and slides. We have to open it up."

She recruited her laboratory co-worker, bacteriologist graduate student Kelly Hallstrom. (Hallstrom pens the science blog "You Don't Have to Be a Rocket Scientist" for telegram.com.) They also found help from Drs. Andrew Coles, Elena Merino, Sanchaita Das, Payal Patel, Kryngle Daly and Izzat Jarudi. 

The two women began brainstorming the who's and where's. For possible presenters, they reached out to their network from UMass. "Response from the scientific community has been positive," says Ms. Hallstrom. "We booked the six months (of speakers) in just one month."

"You just have to look around, Worcester is super rich in this. Given that we have so many schools and researchers here, this is a way to show people what's going on," adds Maldonado.

Next they sought a Worcester restaurant that had a large open room and would be amenable to presentations during the dinner rush. They approached NuCafe on Chandler Street. "(Owner) Josh (Van Dyke) has been amazing," says Ms. Hallstrom. "He agreed to move the tables and helped us make space for the sound system and for the projector."

At a session earlier this summer, the topic was titled "Serendipity in Science," and it featured UMass Medical School geneticist Dr. Allan Jacobson. For the first half of the one-hour presentation, Dr. Jacobson explained the history of his research in microbiology. As the 44 attendees ordered food, coffee, shakes, wine, and beer from the busy servers, Dr. Jacobson said that many breakthroughs in science are serendipitous — "ah-ha moments" discovered while studying something entirely different. While researching the genetics of slime molds and yeast, for example, Dr. Jacobson first learned of premature stops.

Picture the DNA strand as the familiar double helix, shaped like a ladder. Microbiologists discovered that sometimes, rungs between the rails could end suddenly. For ribosomes trying to read these rungs, it was "like a sentence with a period halfway through." They didn't make sense. These "nonsense mutations" cause thousands of different diseases, such as hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Many of those disorders can afflict children.

Dr. Jacobson's life's work was based on the theory, "What if we could develop drugs that would force a read-through of these strands, even if they ended prematurely?" Was it possible to make a drug that would fix the root problem (the missing rungs) and not just the symptoms?

Dr. Jacobson went on to start his own drug company, which has received FDA approval to experiment on human subjects.

After speaking for about a half hour, Ms. Hallstrom opened the forum to discussion.

Afterward, Peter Wood, a writer from Shrewsbury, said he appreciates the idea behind the series. "I think there's a lot of fascinating research going on for people to hear about."

Jim Keefe, a physical therapist from Warren, said, "I think it's a terrific idea to get everyone involved in science and make it a little less mysterious. I'm kind of a physics nerd, and I'd probably go to the next one."

As the crowd dispersed, Dr. Jacobson enjoyed a drink at a table in the center of the dining room, chatting with some audience members, including friends and co-workers who had come out to hear his talk. He said he spent about six hours preparing the presentation. Compared to preparing for his usual cohort of physicians and geneticists, he had to anticipate his lay audience and revolutionize his approach. "I think it's much harder to teach someone who doesn't have the background knowledge. It's easier to lose and confuse a crowd."

"All the people putting(the Science Café) together are doing the community a service. I think scientific illiteracy is a big problem in the country. We need an informed public. This is a really nice start."

Might a high school science teacher hand out some extracurricular points to students for checking out the Science Café?

"We want to get people thinking about science, no matter what their education level," said Ms. Hallstrom.

Worcester's Science Café Woo occurs the third Monday of each month at NU Cafe, 335 Chandler St., beginning at 6:30 p.m. The public is invited and it's free (ordering from the menu is encouraged). To see upcoming speakers, visit www.sciencecafewoo.com or email sciencecafewoo@gmail.com">sciencecafewoo@gmail.com. For more information on Dr. Jacobson's research, see http://tinyurl.com/pwup3dg.

Original article can be found at Worcester Telegram.com