Brewing an interest in science

Rojo’s Roastery head roaster, J. David Waldman, explains the process of empirically analyzing coffee beans for moisture and other characteristics after roasting. IMAGE COURTESY OF GARNER SOLTES

Once high school or college ends, many adults are more than happy to let memories of science class slip to the same dark place reserved for cheap beer and cafeteria food. As a result, it’s easy to lose sight of the scientific foundations that support the world around us.

Take coffee production, for example: One might foggily consider this process as one’s morning brew drips down, but countless enzymatic and chemical changes occur from the time the coffee cherry leaves the tree to the moment its extract reaches a cup. At a recent Science by the Cup event in central New Jersey, not only caffeine but thoughts about solubles extractions and Grignard reactions buzzed about participants’ heads.

Surrounded by the aroma and sound of fresh coffee beans roasting, attendees investigated everything from the pyrolysis of green coffee beans to the molecular details of the flavors they experienced. Throughout the event, Ph.D. student volunteers shared their knowledge of the underlying biochemistry of taste-receptor interactions and led participants through even broader topics from the subjectivity and genetics of flavor perception to the potential for bias in our thoughts about quality.

This roastery tour and tasting is one of many events from the Science by the Cup & A Tall Drink of Science initiative, an adult science literacy and awareness effort born of a partnership between Ph.D. researchers from the Princeton Graduate Molecular Biology Outreach Program and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

The initiative began with our recognition that few adult science education events exist and that these opportunities are single, temporary moments of contact between scientists and the public. Therefore, we designed Science by the Cup events to facilitate informal conversations about the scientific foundations of familiar processes. We partner with local businesses and empower brewers, roasters or experts to share their knowledge of their craft, and our volunteers focus on the science and modern advances connected to the topic.

By removing the scientist from the podium and joining the crowd, we eliminate distance between practicing researchers and the public. Ultimately, we work to inspire a sense of everyday inquiry that may have been lost since the participants’ disconnection from formal science education.

Thoughts about fermentation

A few months after the roastery tour, a new crowd met at a Princeton brewpub to try some interesting beers and explore the hidden biology of fermentation. Most participants came to ask about the differences between ales and porters or how beer spoils. But at the end of the evening, our genetics Ph.D. student volunteers used this discussion to shift the focus to the scientific benefit and ethical implications of using common genetic tools to engineer novel brewer’s yeast strains.

In this way, even complex and important national concerns such as the use of genetically modified foods were framed as simpler, recognizable concepts. And as a result, it was easier to have a candid, informative conversation about these touchy topics. A single night of discussion isn’t an opportunity for people to learn as they might in a classroom. However, it is a perfect time to break down barriers between practicing scientists and the larger public.

Participants learned about the chemistry of roasting as Rojo’s 1956 gas-fired Probat roaster produced a fresh batch of beans. IMAGE COURTESY OF ELIZABETH ROWLANDS

Founding Science by the Cup

With support from an ASBMB Outreach seed grant, Science by the Cup began a year and a half ago as an effort to complement Princeton University’s successful K – 12 Molecular Biology outreach program. Much of our inspiration for this initiative came from parents and adults that we met at science festivals and school events.

In many cases, adult attendees seemed shy about participating in demonstrations alongside the children or thought that the material would be too simple. We recognized that it was just as crucial to engage adults, as many hadn’t directly interacted with science in a decade or more. And although many adults don’t feel comfortable conducting banana DNA extractions at Princeton science fairs, we find they will gladly participate in a double-blind tasting experiment at their favorite coffee shop.

“It’s fulfilling to see adults, who already teach their children to engage with science, start to think and get excited about all of the science behind something they may have taken for granted,” says volunteer Allison Hall.

The success of this model became evident at the science pub trivia night that we host at the end of each year’s cycle of varied events. In order to attract a broad audience, we designed “punny” science questions (such as a holiday-themed category called ‘On Comet!’ that explored the mysteries of reindeer and astrophysics) that would reveal some interesting science but could be answered with just knowledge of wordplay.

During the first year of Science by the Cup, we worried that many of our previous participants still would be hesitant to put their scientific knowledge to the test. In spite of our concern, the pub was packed with returning and new participants sharing jokes and knowledge about topics they may never have imagined discussing in that space before.

Moving forward

With this success in mind, we are convinced that, given appropriate informal opportunities and the use of interesting, relatable topics, we can erase adults’ sense of scientific ennui.

“We like using a ‘top down’ approach where adults/parents can get as involved as their children with events that are geared specifically to their interests,” says Hall.

To this end, we are pursuing additional connections with area experts (such as cheesemakers and chefs) and seeking new ways to engage an even broader audience. Our goal is to integrate this initiative seamlessly with our general outreach to reach students and adults alike. In the end, we hope that Science by the Cup will help adults think about the world differently, one beer or coffee at a time.

Garner Soltes Garner Soltes is a Ph.D. student in molecular biology at Princeton University, a member of the Graduate Molecular Biology Outreach Program, and founder of Science by the Cup & A Tall Drink of Science. Visit Facebook to find out more.