“Chatt About Science” – What it Takes to Start a Science Cafe (Q&A)

Dr. Sarah Webb and Dr. Deanna Beasley outside a Chatt About Science event.

Can I interest you in a shot of science with your caramel macchiato?

Science cafes are popping up across the country and around the world.

The concept is simple, researchers chat with the public about their exciting work at a coffee bar, ‘real’ bar, or another public place. Instead of a technical presentation, the researchers share their stories in language easily understood by a diverse audience of non-scientists. Conversation, questions, and debate then follow with the goal of boosting public understanding of – and support for – science.

Most major cities have science cafe programs, but when freelance writer Dr. Sarah Webb moved to Chattanooga in 2012, she was surprised that the city didn’t have its own. It took a few years, but she started one herself – calling it Chatt About Science.

The first event took place November 2016. She’s currently planning number six. Each Chatt About Science attracts an average of 20 people to a local coffeehouse to learn about science. So far, topics have included plant ecology, chemistry, memory, urban ecology, and water quality.

In this Q & A, Dr. Sarah Webb shares what she learned as she brought Chatt About Science to life. Hopefully, this will inspire you to do the same in your community.

Q: Tell me a little about yourself and your connection to science. 

A: Today I’m a science writer and editor, covering topics such as chemistry, medical research, and the environment for science magazines and websites. (I’ve written for Discover, Science News, Scientific American, and many other publications.) But my first scientific love was chemistry, and I originally thought I wanted to be a professor. While I was finishing my Ph.D., I realized that I was more interested in writing and communicating about a broad range of scientific topics than in traditional chemistry research and teaching. So I started writing about science for the general public and worked in a hands-on science museum in Bloomington, Indiana, where I was a graduate student. I took a course in science writing, did a couple of journalism internships in New York City, and over several years built an independent career as a science writer. I’ve spent the better part of the last 15 years writing and communicating about science to a range of audiences including kids, the general public, and even scientists themselves.

Q: What made you want to start the Chatt About Science science cafe series in Chattanooga?

A: The idea had been percolating since my husband and I moved to Chattanooga in 2012. At the time I was a little surprised that one didn’t already exist here– there’s so much work in science, technology, health, and the environment going on in the region. Some of my motivation was self-serving. I work freelance, so I spend a lot of time alone in my home office. I wanted to learn more about science in Chattanooga and connect with others with similar interests.

A flier promoting the first Chatt About Science event.

But it took a while to free up some time. By 2016, I could think seriously about getting a science cafe started. I was also becoming more concerned about science literacy and the way that science is perceived in all parts of society. For example, I’m troubled by the misinformation surrounding vaccines and the denial of human-caused climate change. (For the record, vaccines save lives and do not cause autism. Humans are causing the Earth’s climate to change and in ways that threaten our health and safety.)

In addition, non-scientists often don’t understand much about who scientists are and what they do. Years ago, when I would meet a new person and say that I was a chemist, I would almost always watch them physically recoil. Then that person would tell me the story of how she hated chemistry in high school or college. When that happens once, it’s a memorable anecdote, but over time it struck me as a symptom of a much larger problem. I’d like to help build a world where the next question is, “What do you study?” Studies have also shown that people, even kids, tend to think of scientists as gray-haired white men in lab coats. Scientists are so much more diverse than that stereotype and have important roles outside the traditional laboratory.

On the other side of the equation, some scientists aren’t helping with this problem. I still run into researchers who are reluctant– or don’t feel equipped– to talk to the general public about their work. That hesitation can fuel mistrust.

So I wanted to create a local forum that would bridge that gap– a place where people in the community and scientists can meet and discuss research and talk about how that work fits into the rest of the world.

Q: How have things gone so far? Any hiccups – successes? 

A: No major hiccups. Our speakers have been really wonderful. The weather can make a difference in attendance — cold or wet evenings tend to bring out fewer people.

Our January event — with UTC psychology professor Jill Shelton discussing memory — was particularly successful. I’m estimating that we had 40 people at Stone Cup Cafe. It was standing room only.

A packed coffeehouse for a Chatt About Science talk.

Q: What lessons have you learned that you can share with others who want to start a science cafe series where they live?

A: Just do it. It’s easy to be intimidated by the idea of starting a science cafe. Can I find speakers who will be interested? If I build it, will people come? Yes and yes. In a smaller city like Chattanooga, local businesses have been supportive and happy to host our events, which has been a huge help.

Particularly in this first year, I’ve been conscious of looking for speakers that are doing locally focused research, such as environmental or ecology projects, or topics that I think will have broad appeal, like human memory.

Other tips: Use community events calendars, social media, email, and even good old-fashioned flyers to spread the word. And stay open to opportunities — make phone calls and talk to potential speakers.

Q: Who has presented and what were their topics? 

Nov 9: Jennifer Boyd, UTC biology, The Mysterious Monkeyface Orchid — about rare and common plant species

Dec 8: Manuel Santiago, UTC chemistry, Ladybirds: detecting defensive chemicals — about the chemicals in beetles and using that research to control populations

Jan 12: Jill Shelton, UTC psychology, How To Use the Environment To Improve Your Memory

Feb 9: DeAnna Beasley, UTC biology, Lessons from Insects & Stomachs To Design Healthy Environments — urban ecology

March 7: Mary Beth Sutton, CarribeanSEA, Would you swim in the Tennessee River? Or play in your creek? — discussion about local water quality

Q: Have attendees been engaged? If so, how? 

Mary Beth Sutton of CaribbeanSEA leading a discussion about local water quality.

A: We’ve had good discussions. I come to science cafe meetings prepared with my own questions — just in case we need them. I’ve never needed to ask a question just to keep the conversation going. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how pockets of the Chattanooga community have found out about our events and then spread the word. For example, a local Boomer Meetup group found out about our events, and several of their members now attend our meetings regularly. A range of high school and college students have joined us as well.

Conversations with attendees have already shaped our program. I contacted Mary Beth Sutton of CaribbeanSEA based on a suggestion from our first science cafe meeting. And we hosted our February meeting at Revelator Coffee Company because of an attendee who helped make the connection.

Q: Have there been any surprises or interesting stories that have come out of the events?  New opportunities? New partnerships? 

A: It’s very early, but I’m really excited about the relationships that we’re starting to build in the community. (Personally, I’ve made some new friends along the way.) Various University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) departments and organizations have helped me in a variety of ways. UTC’s Sigma Xi chapter co-sponsored our first meeting in November. Our second speaker Manuel Santiago has generously loaned me a projector and screen for our monthly events. And I’ve had several conversations with other organizations interested in co-hosting events. So I think we’ll be evolving and growing in the next year.

Our next event is April 18 at 7 pm in UTC’s Benwood Auditorium. I’m partnering with UTC’s Department of Biology, Geology, and Environmental Science and the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, and we’ll host a talk by David Haskell from Sewanee about his new book:  The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great ConnectorsDavid’s first book, The Forest Unseen, won a slew of awards, including being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. So I’m really excited that we’ll get to hear from him. Tickets are available here. (Most Chatt About Science events are free. This one is a benefit to raise funds for the TRGT.)

Q: What’s your vision for the future of the Chatt About Science series? 

A: I’d like to bring in a wider range of speakers from different organizations — colleges, schools, non-profits. Next year I’d like to host a student night at the science cafe, where high school and college students could give short presentations about research projects. Mostly I hope our audience will continue to grow, and I’m looking for ways that we can reach more diverse audiences.

I’m always looking for topics and speakers and new locations to hold our events. If you have suggestions or feedback regarding Chatt About Science or would just like to join our email list, please contact me at chattaboutscience@gmail.com. Or you can find us on Facebook @ chattaboutcience https://www.facebook.com/chattaboutscience/

Additional Reading About Science Cafes:

Dijkstra, A. M. (2017). ‘Analysing Dutch Science Cafés to better understand the science-society relationship’. JCOM 16 (01), A03.

E.L. Navid and E.F. Einsiedel, Synthetic biology in the science café: what have we learned about public engagement?, Jcom 11(04) (2012) A02.

Mizumachi, K. Matsuda, K. Kano, M. Kawakami and K. Kato, Scientists’ attitudes toward a dialogue with the public: a study using “science cafes”, Jcom 10 (04) (2011)A02.

Dr. Sarah Webb, Science Writer/Editor
Founder & Moderator of Chatt About Science, Chattanooga’s Science Cafe
Photos by Sarah Webb, Banner Photo by DeAnna Beasley

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