Science & Cocktails

By Julie Spierer, Special Features Editor

Craving intellectual and stimulating conversations about science in a pressure-free, casual setting with drinks, food, and no homework? Have you ever longed for a setting where complex, scientific topics are explored in a digestible manner so that individuals of all areas of study are welcome to come and learn? Sure sounds unrealistic, but one of the University’s newest and hottest events, Science & Cocktails, has all of this and more.


Science & Cocktails is held on select Friday evenings at Uptown with the goal of exposing individuals of all interests to a variety of intriguing and relevant scientific topics, ranging from artificial intelligence, to drug addiction, to the psychology of music.


Those who attend are given a crash course of the discussion topic. Even if you are not able to completely soak up all of the information, you still gain a solid understanding of one subject.


Its origin


While studying abroad last spring semester in Copenhagen, Alek Zherka ’19 was inspired by Science and Cocktails events that were held throughout Europe. These events would bring together various scientists to discuss their area of expertise. “One time they brought in an astronaut to talk about space and electricity. Some of the other events were about nanoparticles and hallucinogens as the next treatments for anxiety and depression,” Zherka said.


After speaking with Director of Campus Activities and Student Organizations Mike Duignan, Zherka contacted Associate Professor of Physics Ben Vollmayr-Lee to speak at his first event. Vollmayr-Lee discussed some of Einstein’s greatest discoveries and recently gained knowledge about space and time. After the event, Zherka noted that people who came to the event did not need to have any foundational knowledge in physics whatsoever–anyone could come and get something out of it.


“When Alek asked me to give a physics talk at the Uptown, it sounded like a fun idea, but I didn’t think there would be much of an audience for it. I was surprised and thrilled to see a large crowd show up. We were all there on a Friday evening getting into the details of gravitational waves, and the students asked a lot of great questions. I had a blast!” Vollmayr-Lee said.


The following week, Uptown had another opening for the same time slot, so Zherka contacted other science professors, inquiring if they had interest and availability to speak at the second event of Science & Cocktails.


“All of the topics get fairly specific to some extent. The professors boil it down to the point where you get to talk and even if you don’t understand all of it. It’s awesome that there are always so many people there and so many people interested in it. And everyone comes from different backgrounds, from different realms of life, and have different majors. There is a large crowd going every week; students who had never even heard of Uptown are engaging. You don’t have to be a specific type of person to attend Science & Cocktails,” Zherka said.


Spotlights on past discussions


Science & Cocktails creates a platform for discussion about a myriad of topics that are bound to attract a wide variety of interests.


One of the most popular presentations was Associate Professor of Psychology Jennie Stevenson’s discussion on drugs and addiction. “It’s a great opportunity for faculty and students to interact and talk about interesting things in an informal setting. Also, it’s great to give students the chance to drink alcohol in a different context, one where they are still cognitively engaged and interacting with people with whom they want to maintain professional relationships. Many students will need to redefine the role that alcohol plays in their lives after college, so it’s valuable to start practicing that in college. Plus, based on my experience, it is just fun, and I think many Bucknell students are tired of the same old activities and looking for new interesting ways to spend their free time,” Stevenson said.


Another discussion that attracted a large crowd was the artificial intelligence presentation by Associate Professor of Management Eric Santanen.


“There was one person who contacted Professor Santanen and said he didn’t agree with what he was saying, and he responded saying that not everyone needs to agree, but the fact that students are engaging with the material and forming opinions is great,” Zherka said.


Notably, Science & Cocktails does just what education is supposed to–it puts topics on the table that people may not know about or may have questions about, and allows for individuals to engage with others and discuss disparities in opinion.


Professor of Psychology Andrea Halpern’s discussion on the psychology of music was another popular lecture, attracting a large crowd of students. Halpern proved the idea that, “We seem to have minds, and brains, that for most people, are well suited to produce, understand, and enjoy music.”


“I liked the challenge of presenting a ‘taster’ of my work to students (and some faculty) from all different academic backgrounds. It was fun thinking of how to present a set of interesting questions with interesting answers, but in an informal setting, and in a way that did not necessarily depend on deep knowledge about music, psychology, statistics, or neuroscience. I hope I succeeded!” Halpern said.


Future direction


Currently, Zherka is working to find a new host and coordinator for Science & Cocktails to take his place when he graduates in the spring. “It’s an open-forum space where passionate professors are getting to speak about things. Students aren’t there because they have to be–they want to be,” Zherka said.


“I love that Alek has developed this Science and Cocktails series at Bucknell, and I really hope this is something that can continue after he graduates,” Stevenson said.


“Science & Cocktails is an amazing event that brings students with different backgrounds and ideologies together and unites them over meaningful scientific concepts that affect us all on a daily basis,” Garrett Gabianelli ’19 said.


“If people continue to attend these scientific events on important topics, then it starts a wave of information. People become involved with the topic itself and have the opportunity to go home and engage with the material they have learned and maybe do some of their own research on the topics that catch their interest,” Zherka said.


Addiction Summit


In April, Zherka is hosting an Addiction Summit, where he invites individuals to come and ask panelists from the National Institute of Drug Abuse questions surrounding drug addiction.


The topic of addiction is commonly misunderstood, and so Zherka explains that “in the context of the college lifestyle, it is nice for people to be informed because they can spread things with people that they know.”


Zherka hopes that the program will continue to grow to host larger events, like the Addiction Summit. One of the topics he would like for a future summit to cover is mental health, another important discussion for college students.


Currently, Zherka is working with the Psychology Department, the Neuroscience Department, and the Brain Club for support and advertising. To find out when the next Science & Cocktails is, and what that evening’s topic of discussion will be, go and check out the “Science & Cocktails at Bucknell University” Facebook page. If you have any direct questions for Zherka, you can contact him at [email protected].

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