4.4.17 Science Speed Dating

Written by: Damien Bérubé

Last week, The Exchange held its popular Science Speed Dating event at Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and it was no ordinary speed dating! Starting at 7 p.m., seven scientists rotated among seven groups to make the most of 7 minutes to explain their life’s work. Suffice it to say, luck would be on their side! The fast-paced presentation is a challenge of self-discipline for both the speakers and the audience. Was it love at first sight? Let’s find out…

This authentic experience began the minute attendees stepped through the glass doors leading to the vast and elegant lobby of CAA. Each of them fished a vintage style motel keychain out of a metal bucket before joining a convivial reception on the second floor. The night’s attendance of about 150 was as varied as the science menu. Some were screenwriters, others were producers, and they spanned about everything in the entertainment industry, from documentaries and animation movies to television series and video games.

After a while, Rick Loverd, The Exchange’s program director asked the attendees to gather as he described how the evening would unfold. He celebrated the diversity of the night’s crop of scientists: it mostly included underrepresented minorities and also featured five women. One by one, Loverd called the seven groups and invited attendees to join their own. The keychains—and the numbers they bore—were the participants’ tickets to the conference rooms that would serve as the speed dating venues for the night.

Dr. Gregory A. Cajete

In group 5, the night kicked off with Dr. Gregory A. Cajete who spoke eloquently about his love for native science. He described it as a discipline connecting human knowledge and cosmology while integrating the spiritual dimension and embracing both observation and participation. One minute before the end, a mysterious voice distorted by speakers stated in a Big Brother style: “you have one minute!” Cajete concluded with what he described as a “saying of my people: ‘we are all but kernels of the same corn cob.’”

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, an engaged and dynamic physician who opened a clinic in one of San Francisco’s most underserved areas, followed Cajete. Within a few months of starting her practice, Harris realized there was a strong correlation between early childhood adversity such as psychological and sexual abuse and long-term health outcomes. Partnering with researchers, she investigated the impact of early stress on general health factors and in 2012 she opened the Center for Youth Wellness to tackle the adverse effects of such trauma. Ending her presentation on a hopeful note, she passed the torch to the next speaker, Karishma Shah.

Karishma Shah

An employee at X (formerly Google X) Shah picked up on the hopeful vibes of Dr. Harris to speak of dreams fueled by Google’s innovation. She described how her team attempts to solve “grand grand challenges” through radical solutions. Ideas like beaming Wi-Fi in remote areas from weather balloons and making smart contact lenses that monitor glucose levels for diabetes patients. Crazy concepts that seemed impossible 15 years ago, she insisted, are now being deployed all over the world. Soon enough, the countdown had already begun and much like Groundhog Day, the group had to start all over again with a new expert.

Dr. Tshaka Cunningham and Dr. Risa Wechsler

Enter Dr. Tshaka Cunningham, a charismatic molecular biologist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Cunningham himself dreams of a world of precision medicine, where individual genomes are used to design personalized drugs. With enthusiasm, and a bit of courage, he describes his wish for a future where the powers of biotechnology are unlocked for good.

As the talks progressed, while speakers were certainly challenged to fit their career’s work into a few minutes, what was truly impressive was that the audience continued to hunger for more. But the clock was inflexible. “3, 2, 1,” the steady voice invariably stated as the session drew to a close and the next scientist approached.

Dr. Risa Wechsler

This time, Dr. Risa Wechsler, an astrophysicist, summarized 13.5 billion years of the universe’s history in 6 minutes and then used the last minute to address current mysteries in the physics of the cosmos such as dark matter and dark energy. Just as for every other presentation, the audience was entirely absorbed by Wechsler’s talk. While some frenetically took notes about the captivating mysteries of the universe, others sat there mesmerized by the topic.

Dr. Aida Awad

The following speaker, Dr. Aida Awad, a geologist and science teacher, described her initiative to develop student-led programs in high schools to empower students with their own experimental methods. She spoke of hopes to change lives, one student at a time, and insisted on science’s engagement in society—in particular when it comes down to education and politics.

Dr. Raychelle Burks

Last but not least, Dr. Raychelle Burks inspired wild ideas for police procedurals all across the room as the chemist formerly involved in crime scene investigations recounted some of her craziest tales on crime scenes. She talked about improving tests for opioids and finding bodies in burnt houses. She described the impressive progress of CSI and insisted on the relative background role these experts play in real investigations.

After all presentations were done, attendees gathered in an auditorium where the panel of speakers, moderated by Kieran Fitzgerald (Snowden’s screenwriter), answered questions from the audience. The panel deplored the shortcomings of the entertainment industry in portraying scientists. Rightfully so, none of the evening speakers abided by the crazy, confused, and socially inept stereotype so often portrayed in movies. Nevertheless, they saluted the efforts of The Exchange in tackling these flaws, with some recognizing movies for which the program had sparked connections, like Thor, and Doctor Strange, as being significantly beneficial.

In all, this was an evening full of passion: scientists spoke from their hearts and attendees fell in love. Whether this love at first sight will last well into an entertainment project is a story for another time.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.