27 July 2020

Two scientists walk into a bar

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Melissa T Miller

Every few months, fifty scientists head out to bars around San Diego. Well, fifty more than a usual Thursday night. The event is called Two Scientists Walk Into A Bar and, more than just the start to a corny joke, it’s a science communication program designed to reveal scientists as the mere mortals we are.

Testing the pH of drinks can lead into a discussion of ocean acidification. Credit Melissa T Miller

The Fleet Science Center sends two volunteer scientists each to twenty five bars around the county. We bring a sign and wear buttons that say, “I’m a scientist. Ask me ANYTHING!” And people do. I was nervous at first, despite my outgoing nature I can be quite shy. Maybe it’s the drink in their hand, maybe it’s the eager look on my face, but everyone I’ve encountered while wearing that button has a science question to ask.

The mission is to make science and scientists approachable, to remove that perceived barrier between layperson and academic. Some of the most rewarding interactions I’ve had are with people who ask me a question I don’t know the answer to. It’s important to be honest about that, but also ready to think it out and show the scientific mindset in action. That leads to a discussion about how specialized many disciplines are and how to recognize trustworthy sources.

Miller (left) with the director of The Fleet, Dr. Steve Snyder, at The Fleet’s holiday celebration. Credit: Melissa T Miller

I have been paired up with a biochemist, an astrophysicist, a forensic anthropologist, a protein biologist, and a chemist. All were great partners to spend a few hours with and I learned outreach techniques from each experience. I now bring props, something to physically engage with to get the conversation started. Since a telescope or models of bones don’t match my field of ocean chemistry, I bring pH strips and people use them to test their drink of choice. We can then talk about ocean acidification, which leads into discussions of climate change. Everyone seems to harbor fears about the future of our planet, which actually has given me more hope than I had before.

I began volunteering as a way to practice my public speaking and ability to think on my feet (skills I recommend all scientists brush up on). But I was quick to adopt The Fleet’s mission as my own. I want every student to know that they can be a scientist and every person to trust science. If me having a beer and answering questions moves us closer to that reality, sign me up!

Melissa T Miller is a sea-going chemist and science writer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Her website howmanyscientists.com crowd-sources answers to questions that the representation of science and scientists in popular media present.