Demystifying science, one drink at a time

By Zurairi AR

KUALA LUMPUR, April 2 — It was a rainy Wednesday evening, and dozens were gathered at The Bee, a casual cafe bar and neighbourhood joint in the upscale Publika shopping mall in Solaris Dutamas here.

Some were nursing pints of stout and lager, others held glasses of wine in their hands, while familiar faces chatted and newcomers made friends as they shared the seats in front of a stage in the outlet.

There were the local middle-class who just got off work, expatriates, students in headscarves, families with kids squeezing in dinner before bedtime — and all were there to enjoy the display on stage.

Unlike other nights, up on stage was not an indie singer or open mic debutantes, but a woman named Aduwati Sali. Ir Dr Aduwati was an associate professor from Universiti Putra Malaysia, and she was there to speak about satellites.

As soon as Aduwati introduced herself, the chatter stopped. All eyes were on her as she started explaining the differences between Low Earth orbit, Medium Earth orbit, and geostationary orbit — kicking off March’s session of Science Cafe KL.

A remedy for curiosity

Science Cafe KL organisers say the event simply wishes to foster scientific dialogue among the curious, instead of an exclusive meetup of scientists. — Picture by Choo Choy May

The monthly event held every second Wednesday was the brainchild of Yeoh Liu Yi, a business development manager in a local infrastructure giant by day, and a science evangelist by night.

Yeoh lived in the United Kingdom and Singapore in the last 15 years, and had previously frequented science cafes there — casual events where the audience gets to explore scientific topics guided by experts themselves.

She came back to Malaysia early last year, and immediately realised the void here.

“There’s a gap in the market. There is a lot of really curious people out there,” Yeoh told Malay Mail Online as the event wound down.

“When you grow older, you always want to know more. You’re a bit more ‘eh, how does these things work?’” Yeoh said, relating her experience chatting with engineers at work.

Yeoh did not know many scientists at first, so she just decided to make cold-calls. She said she was glad that, so far, none among those she called — save for one senior scientist — has turned down her invitation to speak.

“I think it’s because scientists want to share their work, and it’s fun ... It makes you appreciate the value of the work more,” Yeoh said.

Science enthusiast Yeoh Liu Yi (right) had started Science Cafe KL last year, and Shawn Keng helps her in their quest to make science cool. — Picture by Choo Choy May

Science Cafe KL’s first event started out with a bang, with a presentation delivered by Dr Wan Wardatul Amani Wan Salim, an expert at bio-sensors and a public science speaker, now an assistant professor at the International Islamic University Malaysia.

The topic? Her experiments on fern spores in microgravity conditions, her research project while working on micro spacecraft SporeSat with the US’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Yes, that NASA.

From elephants to zebrafishes

A year on, Science Cafe KL has tackled a diverse array of topics, from quantum physics to the link between human genome and cancer, from nano-technology to the importance of elephants, on how your food is inhabited by microbes, and even how the zebrafish would one day may save human lives.

On the night with Aduwati, just shy of 30 people turned up because of the weather. Yeoh said usually between 50 to 80 people would attend.

Fiona, an 11th grade science teacher at an international school in the capital, said she frequented the event as it educates the public about the subject at a level that most in the audience would understand.

“It’s like going back to university, but without needing to do hard work,” she said, laughing.

Meanwhile, Dr Suhaimi Napis, an associate professor focusing on molecular biology and bioinformatics, was there to support his colleague, Aduwati.

“We are very much lacking in science communication … It is time for us to reach out to the public,” Suhaimi said.

During Science Cafe KL, audience can engage directly with speakers, promoting dynamic, two-way interactions with the public. — Picture by Choo Choy May

Science Cafe’s open format, where audience can sometimes interrupt and ask questions on the current topic at hand, lends it the air of a relaxed class.

Aduwati dealt with so many upraised hands, including a young boy who asked about the frequencies occupied by mobile phone network, on the radio wave spectrum.

When Aduwati was explaining the role played by satellites in the case of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, someone asked about how much detail a satellite can track from the skies.

“So where is MH370?” asked another later.

“I don’t have the answer,” Aduwati shrugged, without resorting to any supernatural claim.

Among Science Cafe’s largest turnout, Yeoh said, was in January this year when Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s post-doctoral researcher Dr Jaysuman Puspanathan came to speak about drones, arguably a popular hobby among geeky youths.

What was Yeoh’s favourite session so far? Yeoh declined to pick just one, but said she had worked the hardest on a talk by geologist Dr Aaron Shunk, where he had addressed climate change scepticism by “challenging it with facts”.

Descending from ivory towers

However, none of the talks would be possible without the help of the Young Scientists Network (YSN), a platform for scientists below the age of 40, launched in 2012 under local think-tank Academy of Sciences Malaysia.

To be a member of YSN, one must be an academic or a researcher in natural or physical sciences, and looking to contribute to the society, including in science outreach.

The network’s face with Science Cafe KL was Shawn Keng, a PhD student who was also a co-founder for BioMed KL, a network for biomedical professionals.

When the topic of communicating science came up, Keng dismissed the stigma that the laymen would not get the talks given by Science Cafe KL’s guest speakers.

“A lot of our speakers were eloquent, they can hold themselves very well,” Keng told Malay Mail Online.

Science cafes across the world welcome those who do not typically get involved with scientific discussions and held in informal venues. — Picture by Choo Choy May

However, Science Cafe KL is adamant that the speakers should not dilute their key messages. The speakers are also expected to be experts in their fields, and have data to back up their presentations — preferably first-hand, or primary data.

It is only then that the speaker can engage with discourse with the audience, at the same time empowering the public to learn, the organisers said.

YSN’s role has been invaluable in reaching out to scientists who are willing to step down from their ivory towers, Yeoh suggested. And the event already had the speaker for April lined up, and probably their most famous yet: Prof Datuk Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, the University of Malaya’s Dean of Medicine and a prolific activist.

Keng hoped Science Cafe KL can serve as a way to combat the negative reputation science have among the public as a boring subject, but most importantly combat a worrying trend plaguing Malaysians.

“There is just too much pseudoscience around,” he said.