Science Speed Dating

Written by: Meeri Kim

Upon walking into the expansive lobby of the California NanoSystems Institute on the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus, guests were treated to a warm welcome of drinks, appetizers, and mingling. Greeters seated at a nearby table handed each individual a small petri dish with a piece of paper inside, depicting luminaries of color like Octavia Butler and Geordi La Forge.

This slightly remixed version of The Exchange’s recurring event, Science Speed Dating, split everyone into small groups that dispersed throughout the labyrinthine nanoscience research building. The petri dishes replaced the usual numbered vintage motel keys as the sorting method, and the event was co-presented by Fathomers, the Afrofuturist Podcast, and UCLA’s Art|Sci Center + Lab. The format stayed the same—researchers each had 7 minutes to speak about their work before moving onto the next group, round-robin style—but uniquely, all of the speakers were people of color.

As with every edition of Science Speed Dating, the evening culminated in a panel discussion with all six researchers moderated by Ahmed Best, host of the Afrofuturist Podcast.

The topics of the mini-lectures ranged from oceanography to space exploration to games research. Our group kicked off with a talk by theoretical physicist Clifford Johnson, who discussed his research on black holes. “The one thing that I think is the most mysterious thing we’ve ever found is a black hole,” he said. While black holes often serve as a source of terror and death in science fiction, Johnson wanted to emphasize the beauty of them as well. For example, at the core of almost every galaxy is a supermassive black hole, hundreds of millions of times the mass of our sun, that is essential to that galaxy—and by extension, any life within the galaxy.

Going from outer space to the depths of the ocean, oceanographer Bethanie Edwards spoke about her work on phytoplankton, which are photosynthesizing microscopic organisms that inhabit water-based ecosystems. They sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the ocean. Even after the phytoplankton die, some of that carbon stays in the ocean. “Since the Industrial Revolution, something like 40 percent of the carbon that we’ve emitted through fossil fuel burning has ended up in the ocean,” she said. Edwards works from a shipping container on the ocean, collecting water samples and analyzing DNA of the microorganisms she finds.

Shifting gears once more, next was artificial intelligence researcher Philip Butler, who is actively constructing the first black artificial intelligence (AI) agent with mental health capabilities. “It’s meant to be this container of black consciousness,” he said. “[Seekr can help] people to really think about the ways in which they are a part of the world and the way the world sees them, but also the ways in which they see themselves.” The AI includes three psychotherapeutic approaches in its framework: family systems therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and narrative psychology. Butler hopes to provide an alternative to Siri or Alexa that black people can relate to and utilize for improving their mental health.

Next, UCLA alumnus and co-creator of the Afrofuturist Podcast Lonny J. Avi Brooks took the podium to speak about his research on gaming. Rather than looking at games as simple diversions or superficial entertainment, he sees the vast potential of games to heal trauma and create alternative solutions for the future. As an example, Brooks describes how many visions of the future—particularly from an academic viewpoint—only include an upper middle class, white perspective. He believes that games that actively involve people of color and their visions of the future could help expand that narrow focus.

After Brooks rushed off to the next group, RAND Corporation engineer Maynard Holliday took over with a discussion about artificial intelligence and our rights with respect to AI used by corporations and the government. He argues that we should all be informed about these rights and be advocating for them because they can affect our lives and well-being from multiple fronts. “They include explainability—companies and municipalities should be able to explain what an AI is doing—and transparency,” he said. “You should know if you’re dealing with an AI on the phone or through a web application.” Other rights include consent, reportability, and having an AI that is free from bias.

Last but certainly not least, aerospace systems engineer Tracy Drain from the National Aeronautics and Space Administrations’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory rounded out the series of quickfire talks for our group. She’s working on a mission currently in development to reach a metal asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter called Psyche. “The thing that’s so cool about Psyche is that it’s so big for a metal asteroid,” she said. “If it were perfectly spherical—it’s not, it’s a bit irregularly shaped—it would be about 226 kilometers in diameter, which is like the distance from Los Angeles to San Diego.” Her team wants to study it with a spacecraft that has instruments on board to measure the magnetic field and find out what the surface is really made of. The results will help determine whether Psyche is the core of an early planet. The spacecraft launches in 2022 and will arrive in the asteroid’s orbit by 2026.

Photo by Lance Williams

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.