Science on Tap: Science communication at its best

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Sandra Porter

Last night we went to a pub to hear about some new technology for diagnostic testing. A wonderful speaker, Karen Hedine from Micronics came and told us about the work that her company is doing. She brought along a demonstration machine and passed the machine and several plastic test chambers around the pub so we could all take a look.

The technology, microfluidics, is fascinating stuff. I've written about it a little before( "From Louis Pasteur to "Lab on a chip"").

A biological sample (blood, poop, urine, saliva, a vaginal smear) is drawn into the card. Molecules move into the card via capillary action and there are all kinds of valves and circuits that ensure that cells get lysed, stuff gets mixed, and the DNA, proteins, or other materials in the sample encounter the right materials in the chamber and react. Because everything is happening in a small volume, the reactions can take place much more quickly. Blood typing can be done in a few seconds and PCR in a few hours. It was very impressive. We learned about tests to distinguish the malaria parasites from Dengue virus, tests for blood typing, tests to quickly identify pathogenic E. coli, and all kinds of interesting new things.

All of this, the talk, the toys, the atmosphere was nice, but what really makes it all special is the format and the audience. First the format of Science on Tap is unlike any other scientific talk that I've attended. The speaker talks for about 20 minutes (? I wasn't timing this, it could have been longer or shorter), there is a ten minute break, and then there are questions. I went to one event last year to hear about Mycobacterium tuberculosis, this event was equally great.

The questions were amazing! I did notice a few familiar faces in the audience from my days at the UW, but still, these were not the kinds of questions you might expect from an audience in a pub. People asked about quality assurance, they asked how the products would be priced for third world countries, they asked how pathogenic samples would be handled and disposed of, they asked about software and wireless security. I learned a surprising amount from the questions and from the give and take. One person asked how other countries regulate these kinds of diagnostic tests. What are their standards? Interestingly, Hedine replied that other countries want the tests to be approved by our FDA. This will make the tests more expensive, but she said that they don't want to be our guinea pigs.

This kind of unfiltered back and forth kind of discussion is something that needs to happen more often if we are reincorporate science back into popular culture. It's better than a class. There are no tests, no grades; everyone is there simply out of interest. No spinning, no framing, just honest discussion; it's the best.

If you're interested in attending one of these events, there lots of interesting talks coming up this fall. Science on Tap isn't just something that happens in Seattle, though. There are versions of it in St. Louis, MO; Madison, WI; Coeur D'Alene, Idaho; and probably lots of other places, too. Just search for "Science on Tap" or "Cafe Scientifique."