To introduce the public to science in a combination of comedy and education, Dr. Anca Constantin and Dr. Klebert Feitosa host the event . The program brings together a guest speaker, who is an expert in their field of science, and comedians from JMU’s very own , who attempt to “demystify the expert.” Questions, games, trivia and improvised skits all contribute to the fun as the audience learns about the expert’s work. Podcasts for previous Demystifying the Expert events can be found on SoundCloud!
On November 8, 2018, Drs. Constantin and Feitosa welcomed our final guest for the 2018 term, Dr. Kevin Caran from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry as our guest expert for the evening. He received his Bachelors Degree of Science in Chemistry from Cologne University and his doctoral degree from Emory University. After a post-doctoral position at Georgia Tech, Dr. Caran came to JMU, where he has remained since 2003.
The members of JMU’s New and Imrpov’d who participated in the event were: Abigail, a sophomore theatre major whose fish acts like a dog, Kat, a freshman SMAD major who jumps out of planes for fun, and Noah Etka, a junior ISAT major who spends most of his time explaining to potential employers what ISAT is.
The night kicked off with the twenty questions game, where each comedian took turns asking Dr. Caran yes or no type questions to help them deduce what area of science she studies. Our comedians were scattered in their questions, unable to deduce much from Dr. Caran beyond how he didn’t study plants, animals, or humans. However, near the end, our comedians were able to deduce that Dr. Caran studied chemistry, and from there were quickly able to discover that he was an organic chemist.
As he explained with open ended questions, there are many different fields of chemistry, from organic to analytical to materials, and he also explained that organic chemistry studies molecules based off of the element carbon. In particular, he was involved with a process called organic synthesis, or the creation of new molecules that have never been created before.
In his elevator pitch, where he gives a brief overview of his work and how it relates to the greater world, Dr. Caran explained that the types of molecules that he is interested in creating are amphiphiles, which have unique antibacterial properties that are able to kill bacteria in ways that most antibiotics currently do not. Unlike most orally taken antibiotics, the molecules that Dr. Caran tries to manufacture are polymers, long carbon chains that form the basis for, in his study, plastics. These plastics are potential key players in the fight against antibiotic resistance, as he says that if we are able to mass produce these plastics efficiently, we can create materials that bacteria cannot grow on at far lower costs. The current regime utilizes many rarer metals like silver and costly to manufacture plastics, so if these materials are cost effective, they may be more accessible worldwide.
The second game was the headliner game, during which the comedians guess words that complete titles of articles that relate to Dr. Caran’s research. Here, our comedians were very quick to guess the correct words, and the articles in question mainly talked about antibacterial properties, from the efficacy of current antibiotic medications to the solutions through antimicrobial plastics and shapes of these molecules that give them these resistant properties. Dr. Caran also mentioned that the place where cheap antimicrobial implements were most needed was in the medical industry, where cross-contamination is a very dangerous scenario, especially if so-called ‘super-bugs’ with antibacterial resistances were to be spread.
The comedians and Dr. Caran briefly discussed what a day in the lab looked like, with Dr. Caran also mentioning his collaborations with the biology and physics departments at JMU, including with our own host, Dr. Feitosa, in the manufacturing of molecules. This came into play when he explained that his work involved taking current molecules, analyzing their shapes and trying to see how to edit them to produce different qualities that we may want, including antimicrobial properties. With biology, he is able to test their efficacy, and with physics, he is able to see just how these molecules can be created more effectively.
Next was the jargon game during which the comedians guess what certain acronyms or terms mean in the expert’s field. Here, the comedians learned about colloids, or systems where different items are mixed very finely, and how it is used in Dr. Caran’s work to see how molecules hold on to each other. We also learned some of acronyms used, such as MIC, or the minimum inhibition concentration, or the lowest concentration of wasted materials used to produce Dr. Caran’s molecules, and his favorite acronym to say, SOPAR, or the sum of pi bonds and rings in a molecule.
Finally, the audience got to learn more about Dr. Caran outside of his life as a chemist with the Two Truths and a Lie game. During this game, the comedians and audience learned that Dr. Caran’s father had a family dog, Jilli, who was able to play poker to great effect! And, we also learned that Dr. Caran not only plays guitar, but also writes songs about chemistry to help his students remember the material, such as his ‘Alkane Song,’ which we got to hear in its entirety!
The final planned event of the night was the improvised skit with quotes from chemistry related pop culture like Back to the Future and Medicine Man. We had the typical student-professor scenario where students in Dr. Caran’s lab are trying to clarify some point in their work, but eventually goes into a sing-off between the students and Dr. Caran. As an unexpected encore presentation, Dr. Caran sang his song ‘Fishy, Oh Fishy,” for us, and the comedians and even some of the audience members joined in during the chorus!
We’d like to thank you all for a great fall showcase of Demystifying the Expert, and we hope to see you at our next show in the spring on Thursday, February 7, 2019 at 7:00 PM at Taylor Down Under!