WICB Feature: Science on Tap

The Science on Tap Series is a monthly event where community members can learn about the latest research and technology updates at Cornell University. WICB correspondents Elena Piech and Bridget Bright went to the first event—listen to the full story, and read the transcript below:

BOHR: Let’s please welcome Drew Harvell.

PIECH: With freshly poured beers in hand and a venue left to standing room only, Dr. Drew Harvell, a professor of ecology and biology at Cornell University, begins her presentation on tiny, glass sea creatures.

HARVELL: That art is an amazing vehicle for inspiring and translating about nature. And this is something that I have learned along the way, as I have done this project. So how many people here are actually scientists?

PIECH: Harvell was the first speaker for Science on Tap, a new monthly event designed to make the happenings at Cornell University more accessible to members of the entire Ithaca community. The free event is typically held on the last Wednesday of every month at Northstar’s Casista Del Polaris. The event is open to community members of any age and educational background, and people who are over 21 can purchase an alcoholic beverage.

BRIGHT: The beer, the bar and the informal setting make for an atypical learning experience. Tisha Bohr is a post-doctoral researcher at Cornell University and the founder for Ithaca’s Science on Tap Series. Bohr says she got idea for the event because she really wanted…

BOHR: I really wanted to start bringing the faculty at Cornell down into the Ithaca community. And exposing people to relatable scientific role models and also allowing people to get an idea for the kind of research that’s going on at Cornell.

BRIGHT: The event was held in conjunction with Graduate Women in Science, or GWIS. Michelle Kelly is the Website Chair for GWIS, and she says she was excited when Bohr approached the group about hosting this event. Kelly is a 3rd year PH.D student at Cornell who believes…

KELLY: Science just isn’t thought of being accessible to the whole population. Actually, everyone is capable of science. And people use science on a day-to-day basis. So when Tisha came to GWIS and said, “Oh I have this new event we want a organization to promote,” I thought this was very aligned with our values of making science more accessible to everyone.

PIECH: Drew Harvell is an ecology and biology professor, and she’s the curator for the Cornell Collection of Blaschka Invertebrate Models. Harvell was the first speaker for the series, and she spoke about her research on ocean biodiversity and about her book “A Sea of Glass: Searching for the Blaschkas’ Fragile Legacy in an Ocean at Risk.”

PIECH: In case the name Blaschka doesn’t ring a bell, Harvell says Leopold and his son Rudolph…

HARVELL: …were master glass craftsmen that produced over 10,000 models of glass marine animals.

BRIGHT: Harvell has a strong background in marine biology, and she discovered her love for the Blaschka glass models after starting to oversee Cornell’s collection. After she got more and more interested, she decided that she wanted to find sea creatures now, that match the ones in the Blaschka glass.

HARVELL: Well, I was talking about our project called a Sea of Glass, that’s the topic of a book that I’ve recently written and a film that we’ve produced searching for the matches to the Blaschka glass. I’m the curator of Cornell’s collections. We have over 570 models that were made over 150 years ago. And I’m going back and looking to find the matches in today’s oceans to see how they’re faring.

PIECH: And Harvell wants to use this medium to as a way to inform others about about changes in the ocean.

HARVELL: Well, what I love about this project is it’s about both glass and biology. And I have as many people that love glass as are interested as biologists. And for me, what’s really important, is I can use this collection to awaken interest in the biology and the living organisms because my passion is the ocean and conservation of living biodiversity.

PIECH: Another person who attended the inaugural Science on Tap event was David O. Brown, who worked with Harvell to produce a 30 minute documentary titled Fragile Legacy. This documentary covered Harvell’s search for these modern-day living creatures.

BRIGHT: Brown first learned about this glass work after finding a squid in a glass case at Cornell’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. At first, Brown thought this was a live creature, but then he learned it was a piece made by the Blaschkas.

BRIGHT: He began researching the craftsmen, and then he went to a science cabaret at an old cafe downtown. It was there that Brown learned about Harvell’s research. He approached Harvell and said he wanted to make a documentary about her search.

BROWN: It’s really interesting as a marine filmmaker. It’s easy to get people excited about a shark or whale—something big, something that bites something. Something that jumps out of the water and makes a big splash. That’s easy. Get them to think about a half inch long nudibranch, most people will say, “what’s a nudibranch?”

PIECH: If you don’t know what nudibranch is, it’s a tiny, colorful creature that is like a sea slug with gills. That’s okay, we didn’t know either. Still, Brown says it’s important for people to learn about these creatures and glass models.

BROWN: If they even get that far. Their eyes will glaze over. They just don’t pay a lot of attention to the little things. And this is an opportunity to get down and take a look at the little things. For whatever reason, people like things that are made by people. And these glass models are made by people, and they are made exquisitely.

PIECH: Yet, it wasn’t just about the glass and the sea creatures. Brown also just enjoyed working with Harvell.

BROWN: Working with Harvel is a blast. That’s the only way to put it. She is one of the most interesting and engaging human beings on the planet. She’s pretty much unflappable, which is great in the field. She’s done more than her share of field work and, consequently, she can handle whatever comes down the pike. She always maintains her sense of humor, and we’ve just had a ball doing this.

BRIGHT: That’s another thing that Tisha Bohr likes about series. Attendees get to know the personality of a scientist, as opposed to viewing them as a strictly academic person.

BOHR: I think Dr. Harvell did a very good job at interacting with people and giving a good talk, and an engaging talk. And also showing her personality, how unique she is. And that’s really what we scientists are. We are unique people.

BRIGHT: Bohr says the audience members were engaged, and asked questions to Harvell. But the majority of the crowd seemed to be people in their mid to upper 20s. Kelly hopes GWIS can broaden their audience in the future Science on Tap events.

BOHR: I am very happy with the number of the turnout for tonight’s event. Just from a glance, I think there were more academics and more scientists even. I’ve been putting posters downtown, but for the subsequent events, trying to reach out to the more general community. To really bridge the gap between the science that’s being conducted at Cornell and the general community of the Ithaca area.

PIECH: Keeping in mind that this is just the first event, Bohr says that she is pleased with the turnout.

PIECH: As for Harvell, she says she was honored to be the first speaker at the Science on Tap series.

HARVELL: What an incredible honor. This is an awesome series. What a beautiful venue. I think we all had a great time. Partly just because it was such a comfortable, great place. But it was also very nice to be able to talk about ocean biodiversity and conservation in the context of the inspiration from art.

BRIGHT: Bohr eagerly awaits next month’s event and hopes that the momentum continues with future events.

BOHR: Yeah, there’s a lot of really interesting talks that are coming. Next month we going to have a professor in aerospace engineering who’s going to give  a talk about how to build your own space craft and democratizing space travel. So that should be really exciting. And then, in future months, we have talks ranging from vaccines and stem cells and immunology to soft-robotics and studying the evolution of the universe. So it should be quite interesting.

BRIGHT: Science on Tap will occur on the last Wednesday of every month , besides December, at Northstar’s Casita Del Polaris. More information on this series can be found on Graduate Women in Science’s Facebook page.

BRIGHT: For Elena Piech, I’m Bridget Bright—WICB News.

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