Knowledge on tap

Researchers Dr Andy Flies and Emily Johnston. COMMUNITY

It’s a Friday night in the Brunswick Hotel, pints are being pulled, pies are being nibbled and around a small stage a crowd of almost 100 people gather.

But it’s not karaoke or an AFL big-screen game that has caught their attention; it is Dr William Smith, Senior Consultant at the Department of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, Royal Adelaide Hospital, who is talking about the human genome.

It’s an unusual end to the week, but one which marks the start of a great new initiative to encourage the wider public in South Australia to learn more about science.

Science in the Pub in Adelaide is the brainchild of UniSA PhD student Emily Johnston and postdoctoral researcher Dr Andy Flies, who aim to take science outside of the lab, into the less stereotypical surroundings of a bar.

For one night a month over the next year, a range of science experts will gather and discuss subjects ranging from bees and pollen to cosmology, while the beer quietly flows in the background.

Dr Flies, based at the School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences, explains how and why Science in the Pub originated.

“It’s something that has been done in other cities but there wasn’t anything like it happening in Adelaide,” he says.

“We’ve seen some scepticism among the public about science and about interpreting science. We wanted to make science more accessible to people, we wanted them to interact more with scientists and to be able to ask them questions.

“It’s about being able to see scientists go through their data and make sense of their findings to the wider public.”

PhD student Emily, who recently won the UniSA’s Three Minute Thesis Grand Final and is no stranger to science communication, says the event gives people a professional and accurate first-hand insight into fascinating topics.

“We encourage discussion and feedback and for those attending Science in the Pub it is a unique opportunity to hear from people at the cutting edge of research and practice, who talk about their findings as specialists in their chosen field,” Emily says.

“There’s so much information out there on the internet – it can be hard to discern good sources, so this is one way of enabling people to get to reliable sources.”

Back at the Brunswick Hotel, the ‘Nothing to sneeze about: A conversation about allergies’ Science in the Pub event, occurring during hay fever season in Adelaide in early October, is seeing three specialists deliver 10- to 15-minute presentations on the theme of allergies before fielding questions from the public.

Dr Smith discusses the chemical relationship between DNA sequencing arrangements, antibody molecules and antigens in the environment, while Dr Jovanka King, RACP/RCPA Advanced Trainee in Paediatric Allergy, Immunology and Immunopathology at SA Pathology, talks about the role of the immune system and allergies particularly common in children.

Final speaker, UniSA’s own Dr Michael Wiese gives a presentation on the identification of allergens as well as his reflections on fieldwork involving the extraction and collection of jack jumper ant venom – a talk which is pitched perfectly for the Friday night crowd.

The calibre of the panel is impressive but it’s their ability to communicate their knowledge to a lay audience that makes the event a success. Described as a ‘come and go’ event, almost no one leaves until the end. A wisecracking MC Justin Stone, who fields questions from the floor, keeps the atmosphere cheery while reigning in excessive scientific jargon.

Dr Flies says that getting the experts together to talk on the same night was probably the toughest part of setting up the event. Despite that, more are already being lined up to speak on the first Friday of each month.

“The topics for future sessions will include cancer, bees, cognitive science and education, vaccination, climate change and antibiotic use. We are also looking at sessions on sleep, biodiversity and one on physics and cosmology,” Dr Flies says.

“We definitely want to go with topics that are misunderstood, to get scientists to come out and go through data to help separate fact from fiction and give people a clearer understanding about science, its value and its role in our society.”

With feedback from initial surveys indicating that 90 per cent of attendees said they had learnt something, and 85 per cent saying they intended to return, the science equivalent of ‘happy hour’ looks set to grow.

For details on future Science in the Pub events, go to the website.