By Stephanie Madden, Ph.D.
Memphis made its mark this week by joining a number of movements around the country to bring science out of the labs and into the streets (and bars, we know alcohol + science = a good time). As a social scientist and new transplant to Memphis, I am thrilled to see nerds around Memphis coming together to support the sharing of their research and passions. Here’s my recap of three events for science in Memphis this past week.
March for Science
I consider myself an activist-scholar, so it is not unusual to see me out marching in the streets for various causes. Contrary to popular belief, though, protesting is not a paid gig (unless you are interested in throwing me a few bucks, then I’ll send you my PayPal information). One reason it is so important to me to be active and vocal on issues is because of what I study. I recently earned by doctoral degree in communication with a focus on activist public relations. More simply put, I study language, meaning making, and the role of strategic communication to facilitate social change. It has been an interesting semester for me teaching an introduction to public relations course at the University of Memphis with phrases such as alternative facts, #fakenews, and the everyday gaffes of Sean Spicer serving as examples to my students. And that’s just from the government! We’ve also had corporations like United Airlines and Pepsi give my students a master class in how not to do public relations. All of this is to say that I am used to my area of study being misunderstood, and the important roles education and relationship-building with people outside my field play in changing those perceptions.
With the recent direct assaults on various government agencies with a scientific mandate, funding for research, and the uncertainty of public education, many scientists and academics are becoming involved in activism for the first time (welcome, join us, we have lots of poster board!) To me, the March for Science worked to put names and faces on scientists and the important work they do. My husband (a rhetorician representing the humanities!) and I attended the March for Science event that marched from Gaston Park to LeMoyne-Owen College on Saturday, April 22. Despite the rainy weather, I was impressed with how many people joined the mile-long march. While the organizers did their best to get people to chant, it was a rather quiet march (I mean, most of us are introverts) to our final location where various scientists from the community spoke about the importance of science and their work. The speakers and tabling event after the march worked to remind of the politics behind whose knowledge gets shared, how knowledge gets created, and what (and who) is sacrificed in this process.
Overall, I’ll sum up my experiences from the march with my favorite chant from the event.
What do we want?
When do we want it?
Taste of Science
The taste of science festival is taking over three venues across Memphis over three nights to bring top science researchers from the area to share their work with the community. I attended The Science of Food event at High Cotton Brewery on the first night of the festival (April 25) because I was hoping there would be food tastings (and there were!) Also, did you know that April 25 is National DNA Day? Hopefully we can replicate this much fun next year! (get it! #DNAJokes)
Dr. Anthony Trimboli, an associate professor of chemistry from Christian Brothers University, kicked off the event with his presentation on the Chemistry of Cooking. He immediately made friends with the audience by offering up beer cheese he had made prior to the start of the event and explaining the chemical processes behind the food (I may have forgotten how the chemistry works, but I will never forget about the deliciousness of the beer cheese). Dr. Trimboli offered us an Alton Brown-style understanding of how and why different foods pair well together. One of my favorite takeaways from this presentation was learning about IBM’s Chef Watson (yes, the Watson from Jeopardy!) I think had a front row seat to Dr. Trimboli blow torching flank steak for us while discussing how temperature affects the chemical properties of food (again, I can’t remember the science exactly, but I remember the smell of the food). After this presentation, though, I want to enroll in Dr. Trimboli’s Chemistry of Cooking class at CBU!
The second speaker for the evening was Dr. Kimberly Kasper, an assistant professor of anthropology at Rhodes College. As a social scientist myself, I found Dr. Kasper’s presentation fascinating on how anthropology and archaeological sciences can help to explain the origins of food inequality in Memphis. As her talk discussed, although Memphis has a rich culinary foodscape, it remains one of the hungriest and most obese cities in the nation. Farmers markets can play a key role in helping to overcome food inequality in the region, and the Overton Park Community Farmers Market is an initiative that students and faculty from Rhodes College help coordinate to alleviate food insecurity in Midtown. Dr. Kasper also talked about archaeological work that she and her students do at the Ames Plantation Field School and showed artifacts from the Fanny Dickins slave cabin.
The Science of Food was a great event that inspired me to get more adventurous in the kitchen, support my local farmers markets, and more consciously consider the way science impacts my life every day! I am only sad I was unable to attend more taste of science events this year, but I look forward to what next year brings!
Nerd Nite Memphis Science Night
This brings me to the last event I attended during my week of science celebration. I started the monthly Nerd Nite Memphis series in January because I believe in the importance of creating communities around knowledge and nerdery. I wanted our April Nerd Nite to be a part of the ongoing national conversations on the importance of science in the wake of the momentum from the March for Science. I was lucky to score some dynamic speakers for this event who covered topics from the Memphis aquifer, genetic variation, and the mysteries of the brain.
Dr. Brian Waldron, director for the Center for Applied Earth Sciences and Engineering Research (CAESER), was the first speaker of the night. His talk answered many of our questions about the Memphis aquifer, including how it got there, why it needs so little treatment, and if we really do have some of the best water in the nation. Also, did you know that you could age date water?
There was a brief interlude between speakers for our first ever dry t-shirt contest. The theme for the evening was your best environmental/science nerdy shirt. We had eight contestants enter for a chance to win a $20 gift card to Two Rivers Bookstore (graciously donated by our friends there!) Olivia Douglas was our winner with her “Never Trust an Atom. They Make Up Everything!” t-shirt (sorry, I forgot to take a picture!)
Emily Quinn was the second speaker for the evening and gave an impassioned talk on what causes genetic variation and why that is important. She also challenged us to rethink the ways we view ability and disability and the contributions that everybody can make to society. Her talk also reminded us that compassion and acceptance can go a long way.
Dr. Nick Simon rounded out the evening with a hilarious and informative presentation on neuroscience. He debunked a number of myths about the brain (no, we don’t just use 10% of our brain). He also highlighted some advances in neuroscience that involve brain-machine interfaces. Monkeys can steer wheelchairs with their brains, and in humans, a man paralyzed from the waist down was able to kick a soccer ball at the World Cup WITH HIS BRAIN! Dr. Simon also gave us the story behind the title of his talk, “The Girl with the Dopamine Tattoo,” with the moral of the story being to not get a tattoo unless you really know what it means.
Science is alive and well in the Memphis community. I’ve had a great time supporting these different events in Memphis throughout the week, and I encourage you to find the next public event you can that brings science into the community! With a number of colleges and universities in the area, our monthly Nerd Nite Memphis series, and amazing research going on in Memphis, there is certain to be no shortage of events to attend.