Saturday, November 05, 2016

Expert Entertainment: Eva Strawbridge on differential equations, spread of diseases, and worm movement

As most of you already know, Demystifying the Expert is a program hosted by Dr. Anca Constantin and Dr.  Feitosa that’s purpose is to introduce the public to science through comedy. The event involves a guest speaker, who is an expert in their field of science, and a group of JMU comedians who attempt to “demystify the expert”. There are questions, games, trivia and improvised skits in the humorous event that makes science fun. Examples of previous Demystifying the Expert events can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

October 28th saw the second Demystifying the Expert event of the year, with JMU comedy group “New and Improv’d” members Alan Chen, Diego Salinas, and Mairin Duffy. They caused quite a few laughs while “demystifying the expert”, Dr. Eva Strawbridge, of the JMU Department of Mathematics & Statistics.

The event starts with a game of 20 questions, during which the comedians ask the expert yes/no questions. It did not take long for the members of New and Improv’d (as well as the audience) to become confused about what worm movement and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases – two subjects of study for Dr. Strawbridge – had in common. She explained that both worm movement and the spread of diseases through a population can be modeled using differential equations.

Needless to say, the game was full of jokes and funny stories, such as when Dr. Strawbridge joked about one of her students wanting to store disease samples in the closet. Later, Diego Salinas asked Prof. Strawbridge if she had studied the spread of STDs at JMU specifically. The entire audience cracked up when she replied with, “I’m sure you are very diseased.”

Another joke, which came up a few times during the event, was related to why it was important to study worm movement. Dr. Strawbridge explained that the worms could be, for all intents and purposes, biologically engineered to have certain diseases, such as Parkinson’s, which could then be studied. The comedians were curious if this bio-engineering was done by throwing the worms in the microwave, but it turned out a very tiny needle was used for injections instead.

The second game involved the comedians trying to fill in the blanks for headlines related to the subjects Dr. Strawbridge studies. With a clever hint, they were able to figure out that there is a new worm strain to facilitate study of Alzheimer’s disease. The members of New and Improv’d, as well as the audience, were also very impressed that there are new smart gloves to monitor Parkinson’s disease patients.

This was followed by a game of jargon guessing. The comedians were a little unsure of the acronyms, claiming that PDE and ODE stood for “private display of effection” and “outside display of effection”.  Actually, PDE and ODE stand for for Partial Differential Equation and Ordinary Differential Equation respectively. They had more fun with the term “Slender Body Theory”, going on tangents about Slenderman and wondering if there were obtuse body theories. It was eventually revealed that it is related to the forces acting on a long, thin object (such as a worm) in a viscous fluid.

Next, we found out a bit more about Dr. Strawbridge outside of her work during a game of “Two Truths and a Lie”. The comedians found out she is an avid hiker, has built a life-sized carousel horse, and plays the mandolin, amongst other interesting facts.

Then, the New and Improv’d comedians acted out a scene based on a day in the life of Dr. Strawbridge.  During the skit, the comedians had to pull quotes from a bucket and incorporate them into the skit. The audience appreciated the spectacle from the start, as it was immediately decided that the setting should be a bar. Seeing the members of New and Improv’d play two students and a professor at a bar, in the middle of the week, randomly inserting quotes from the movie Rounders (with Lester “Worm” Murphy) caused quite a bit of laughter from the audience.

The second Demystifying the Expert of the school year went great. Everyone learned a lot about the different subjects to which differential equations could be applied, learned about worms and sexually transmitted diseases, and had a lot of laughs along the way.