Nothing to fear about the ‘Big Bad Science’

By Eva Voinigescu

For a large portion of the population, science is just a scary seven-letter word that calls up memories of high school physics equations and chemistry experiments gone awry. Its position is second only to math in the annals of classes many take only because they have to.

Ben Lillie and Erin Barker of  The Story Collider on stage Thursday at American Junkie.
Ben Lillie and Erin Barker of The Story Collider on stage Thursday at American Junkie.

To others it’s a calling. For Jesse Dunietz (see accompanying video), a doctoral student in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, science was his “thing” and a high school Science Olympiad team competition where students compete in different scientific disciplines gave him the chance to shine.

“This was my chance to help a school team to victory,” Dunietz told a crowd of listeners Thursday at The Story Collider’s first ever show in Chicago. The independent live show and podcast that showcases personal stories about science was part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting.

The show’s creators, Ben Lillie and Erin Barker, know better than anyone that science touches all of our lives in one way or another, and that sharing our science stories can make the idea of capital “S” science a lot more accessible to the masses.

Northwestern neuroscientist Moran Cerf tells the audience about spending a week with a woman who doesn't feel fear.
Northwestern neuroscientist Moran Cerf tells the audience about spending a week with a woman who doesn’t feel fear.

Lillie, a former high-energy particle physicist, is The Story Collider’s co-founder and director. He and Barker, the show’s senior producer, planned for the Thursday’s performance to coincide with AAAS. “It’s a great opportunity to get some unique storytellers and an enthusiastic audience,” said Barker in an email.

This year, as an experiment, AAAS organizers agreed to list various associated events like The Story Collider show on their program as long as event organizers coordinated scheduling to avoid conflict with AAAS’s peer-reviewed scientific lectures, said Ginger Pinholster, AAAS director of public programs. The Alder Planetarium will hold an “Innovation Science Café” Saturday night as part of this partnership.

Among the five storytellers on Thursday were Rabiah Mayas, director of science and integrated strategies at the Museum of Science and Industry, and Northwestern neuroscientist Moran Cerf. Mayas told a story about how her identity as an identical twin was challenged when she learned that she and her sister may in fact be fraternal, while Cerf regaled the audience with a story about conducting an illegal experiment with a patient designated as “SM,” a woman in her 40s who doesn’t feel fear.

Barker also shared the tale of how she fell in love with the environment through a college course on plants and people.

Jesse Dunietz performs at #TheStoryCollider Thursday in #Chicago #AAAS #MedillAAAS

A post shared by Eva Voinigescu (@eva_voinigescu) on

While all the performers gave the crowd something to think about, it was Dunietz’s tale of Science Olympiad glory that had the best take-away science life lesson of the night.

Dunietz’s Science Olympiad participation amounted to throwing together a haphazard homemade banjo and mbera (a traditional African instrument) the night before the big competition and miraculously winning second prize. But as he shared with the crowd, he learned an important lesson about not being afraid to try new things.

“You know, I guess sometimes you can get surprisingly far just by showing up.”