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Evanston's Science Café offers an inside look into a menu of science buzz

by Julia Dilday
Nov 20, 2008


Ted Gram-Boarini and his mother, Rocky Kunz, settle in to their seats in the back room of Evanston’s Prairie Moon restaurant Wednesday evening. They’re not there for dinner or wine tasting but gather with about 60 other science buffs for Science Café.

Guest physician Dr. Quentin Young takes the floor casually, beer in hand, and paints a picture of the nation’s health care crisis. He calls it even “worse than the economic crisis.”

The audience gasps as Young says that the U.S. spends $2.5 trillion a year on health care, more than any other country, equal to one-sixth of the country’s gross domestic product. He reveals that, despite excessive spending, the U.S. still ranks 37th in terms of basic public health benchmarks, “right behind Slovenia.” His audience registered something close to shock. 

Young enthusiastically defends his staunch support for single-payer health care reform. “We don’t need co-pays and deductibles,” he says. “We need benefits and long-term care.” After his presentation, everyone deluges him with questions. Kunz says it's one of her favorite parts of each lecture.

Such is the lively atmosphere at Evanston’s monthly Science Café. Science Cafés are a national network of science lectures sponsored by Sigma Xi, an international honor society of research scientists and engineers. The cafés are held in casual environments, such as restaurants and bars, to help people and science connect. 

The international society has 60,000 members - scientists, researchers, postdoctoral students, graduate students in the sciences and more than 200 Nobel Prize Winners.  The Northwestern University Sigma Xi chapter co-sponsors the Prairie Moon events with research and technology VPs of the university.

Kunz and Gram-Boarini, in his mid-twenties, make a monthly mother-son date of the event they have attended since hearing about it in a local newspaper when the cafe was first offered last year.

Though the local Science Café is new, the NU Sigma Xi chapter is not. In 2006, with its 100-year anniversary quickly approaching, Northwestern's Morteza Rahimi, vice president of information technology, was looking for a way to revitalize the chapter. He enlisted the help of Suzanne Auburn, one of his colleagues.

Auburn had heard about Science Cafés and the success of the University of Chicago’s Café Scientifique. She says she thought the idea had potential in Evanston. After a successful “trial run,” with chapter members, Science Café opened to the public, free of charge in September 2007.

Auburn says the goal behind the lectures is a simple one: “Let’s explore science in a new way. Think about things or hear about something that you didn’t know about before," she says. "That’s what Science Café is all about.”

Past speakers have included prominent astronomers, transportation experts and researchers who specialize in the science of dating.

Gram-Boarini and Kunz are two of the “regulars.” 

“They are awesome,” Gram-Boarini says of the Science Café lectures he’s attended. “They open my ears to the world around me. Without that, the only information I would get would be from the radio or the TV news.”

Kunz adds that she likes the intimate setting which gives audience members an opportunity to interact with the scientists. “This is a chance to see some of these amazing thinkers and creators and policy-makers directly, firsthand,” Kunz says. “We like it. We really like it.”

They say two of their favorite lectures were the ones on transportation and dating. But they find most of the topics interesting and enlightening. Gregg Hodgson made his first trip to Science Café Wednesday evening. He and many other guests came solely to hear the ideas of Young, a man Hodgson calls “my hero.”

Young, a retired Chicago internist, has become a renowned advocate for health care reform. He is the director of Physicians for a National Health Care program and founder of the Health and Medicine Policy Research Group, as well as a regular on Chicago Public Radio.

The success of Science Café spawned Jr. Science Café, introduced this fall, which encourages middle-and-high school students to explore math and science, according to Auburn. Held at the Boocoo cultural center in Evanston. It is one of only a handful of regularly-scheduled Science Cafés for young adults in the U.S, she says.

The next Science Café at Prairie Moon is scheduled for January 21. Dr. Teresa Woodruff, an expert in fertility preservation in cancer patients and a professor at Northwestern, is scheduled to speak.

“I think it’s a great little slice of science in somebody’s life,” Auburn says.