Lectures in bars

Culture & Science
5 March 2020, 00:01

It is Saturday evening. Small Opera in Kyiv is full. Ulana Suprun is joking on a stage, telling the audience how to “destroy the Sovietism in science”. People are laughing. This is how the Science Slam, a public lecture, set as an “intellectual battle” between scientists, begins. 

According to the slam rules, each participant can only talk about their own research and not longer than 10 minutes. Their speech must be short, simple and right on point. In fact, this is more of a scientific stand-up show, during which academics are telling the public about their work. Fossils and bird-dinosaurs that populated Earth millions of year ago. Symmetric derivatives. Usage of nuclear magnetic resonance to fight the measles virus. Transformation of fibroplasts into cardiomyocytes using the CRISPR editing system. The range of the topics is genuinely wide and the audience are the one who get to choose winners. Organisers measure the volume of applause using the sound level meter and hand in the prize to the winner – the boxer gloves. It is a real “battle” after all. Moreover, some guests’ research is out of scope of the contests – such as former minister of Health of Ukraine, Ulana Suprun and Yevhen Dykiy, director of the National Scientific Antarctic Centre.


In a non-scientific space

This format has its origins in American “Poetry Slams” – young poets’ contests, which were held in bars. Instead of poetry we are dealing with science here, though. First scientific slams were held in German bars, destroying the boundaries and perception of science as something distant and boring, something concealed in the depth of laboratories. Afterwards, this format became incredibly popular, its audience reached few thousands and the lectures were moved from bars to concert halls. 

“France has a contest. You have to explain the topic of your dissertation in 180 seconds,” says Stefania Ivashchenko, who holds PhD in biochemistry and is a contestant in Science Slam. “Unfortunately, while I was studying in Grenoble, I simply did not have any energy left to prepare for those lectures. I received my PhD several months ago. I figured I would want to generalise results of my work and share it with a non-academic audience. Two weeks before this event I saw and ad on Facebook and I immediately contacted the organisers. I sent them a short funny story of the project, then the video, where I did explain everything in a very simplistic way. When they confirmed my participation, I sent them a presentation, which I was gradually improving as I prepared. In my lectures I focused on objects and methods of my studies – viral non-structural proteins and nuclear magnetic resonance. I have also thrown in some jokes in order to make it easier for the audience to absorb this complicated information.” 

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Another format of such lectures, adopted from the West is TEDx. This format originated from American conference TED Talks (short for Technology Entertainment Design). This conference’s slogan was “Ideas Worth Spreading”. Since 2009 there has been more than 100 lectures held in more than 15 cities across Ukraine. TEDx events pay less attention to science and focus more on motivational speakers and stories of success as well as projects with a strong social background. Former minister of economy, Pavlo Sheremeta, historian Yaroslav Hrytsak, TV host Yanina Sokolova, aforementioned Ulana Suprun as well as Yevheniya Zakrevska, the lawyer for “Heavenly Hundred” families, all gave their speeches here.

“Once I was organising TEDx, and I thought it would perfect to make an only science-based conference. This is how we founded our former project, Brain&Ukraine,” explains Olena Skyrta, who established INSCIENCE along with Anna Oryekhova. Olena Oryekhova has spent more than two years trying to popularize science and combine it with business. Last year they organized one of the biggest conferences in Ukraine – speakers from NASA, Mars Society, Polish Copernicus Centre were invited to this event. 

“Even before this event we’ve established regular happenings named Science& Wine, where scientists tell their stories accompanying it with a glass of wine. They talk about creativity, intellect and love. We held those events in the Central Observatory of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, combining these talks with guided tours and looking at stars together. We have then been based at Closer and IZONE art spaces,” tells us Olena Skyrta. 

According to Anna Oryekhova, some of the funniest events of INSCIENCE were science parties held in museums – Science After Dark. “Those ‘smart’ parties were held after the museums were closed and were carried out up until midnight. We prepare those together with our friends from the ‘Kunsht’ magazine. We are preparing interesting talks and lectures, and we are also getting various Ukrainian academics involved; we create thematic quests and even compose songs about the science. All of this is done while sipping some wine, cocktails and listening to the sounds of a DJ set. People come here in groups, hoping to meet new friends, party all night and learn a lot of new things about themselves and the world around them.”

Starting from October 2019 co-founder of the project initiated a set of lectures aimed at teenagers named SCIENCE TEEN PLATFORM. These lectures won a scholarship offered by the International Visegrad Fund. According to Anna Oryekhova, the scholarhip provides a half-year long promgram for children aged 13-17. Various European and Ukrainian academics and scientist hold different interactive lectrues and workshops on three topics – the space, the man and the environment. “Children create comets, which look so natural and real; they discuss Steven Hawking’s books and design plans to fight global threat to environment. In April 2002 we plan to hold a big science festival for the children; they will be able to meet and talk to various scientists and learn about the science in Ukraine and across the globe. Our aim is to make science an irreplaceable part of their lives regardless of a career path they pick for themselves.”

According to organisers, when one decides to create a popular science project in Ukraine, they have to be ready to be constantly looking for funding. Some of the events, such as the aforementioned Science&Wine and Science After Dark usually paid off because of the sale of tickets and sponsors. Some of the free projects, such as lectures for teenagers were funded thanks to grants and sponsors. “We can see that businesses becomes more and more interested in science, – says Anna Oryekhova. – This way businesses can give back to community and create an image of a smart brand.”


Timing does matter

TED conferences inspired another Ukrainian project – 15×4 Talks. The name itself has been designed to reflect the format of these events – there are 4 lectures lasting 15 minutes each. According to the organisers, the 15×4 project aims to popularise the idea of science popularization itself. A 15-minute lecture is held in a way to give its audience the basic knowledge regarding certain scientific problem and encourage them to learn more on their own, after the lecture; for example by advising the listeners on further reading materials or other interesting sources of information.  This project is also an excellent example of self-organisation – each 15×4 centre holds rehearsals for young academics and scientists, teaching them public speaking and how to deal with criticism from other members of scientific community. According to the 15×4 rules, everyone must speak at least twice. This also includes experienced lectures. Volunteers usually provide administrative and operational support – they shoot and cut videos, record lectures, put on ads. For instance, organisers from Khmelnytskyi partnered with the local TV station, which is recording the sessions and airs them on their channel, while the 15×4 team has a good material for their YouTube channel. Until today this channel has had nearly 70,000 subscribers, while the most popular videos received more than one hundred thousand views.

“I’ve held many similar lectures and at some point I realized that preparing this lectures has never been more tiring. I have therefore decided to gather other enthusiasts of these events and we would share the event among the four of us – this way it’s easier”, says Oleksandr Hapak, a Kharkiv-born founder of 15×4. “In August 2015 we held our first set of lectures in Kharkiv, and then eventually came to Kyiv and Lviv. We usually host up to two hundred listeners on our regular events, and we’ve always struggled to find an appropriate platform for this. Right now in Kharkiv we are based in National University of Karazin, and before that we organized our lecture in the Institute of Single Crystals.”

“Our first event was held in Kyiv in October 2015,” says Oleksandra Malevych, founder of Kyiv branch of 15×4. “It took us one month to prepare until we managed to find a proper location, lecturers, editors and we were morally ready to begin those events. For instance, out of all our five locations, only one platform agreed to provide us their premises for free – because the project was non-commercial. Of course, we had to spend some of our own money in the early stages of this project and pay the rent or the filming crew ourselves, because we believed that taking money from the audience goes against the philosophy of our project. Sometime later, when 15×4 became a well-known undertaking, we were invited to different art-spaces and there were also volunteers willing to help us with filming or cutting the videos. Our events have always been full and there were queues of people willing to participate, so we were constantly looking for a space that could host more people. We wanted to get people interested in science and we’ve made it. When I opened 15×4 in Kyiv, there hasn’t been a single free open public lecture here. We would tell people all these curious captivating stories after which they would come home and start looking for more answers, using Google and doing research themselves; learning more about what thermonuclear synthesis was and how logical mistakes can affect people’s lives. In a way, it has also been a therapeutic project for the young scientists. This has become a place for them to tell the audience about their work and feel that their research is important for society and does make sense. After several years working at our project we can proudly claim that we’ve helped many people to stand on their own two feet, train their skills and find colleagues.”

In addition to Ukraine, 15×4 opened branches in Germany, Estonia, Italy, Russia and Israel. Anyone who adheres to the rules of the community, such as free entry, prohibition of commercial or political sponsors, academic content, and obligatory rehearsals, can open a 15×4 branch in their city. Every year 15×4 holds a festival in Otrokiv palace in Khmelnytskyy region – this includes several days of lectures, workshops, discussions, debates as well as a laser show  held to celebrate the Independence Day of Ukraine.


Nobel conversations


Since 2013 many cities in Ukraine were organizing Days of Science. This is a full-scale set of lectures, held twice a year in the same weekend in several platforms, which include research institutes, NGOs and even Kyiv Observatory. Lectures, which are present at these events, include students, PhD candidates and academics from various Ukrainian research institutions. Similarly to 15×4, this voluntary project is free and does not seek funds from commercial sponsors. In 2019 the project received some funding from the City of Kyiv municipal budget. Dr. Serhiy Sharapov, one of the lecturers, physicist and mathematician, believes that popularization of science is one of his duties as an academic and he “has to show to the taxpayer exactly what he pays for”. He acknowledges that, as opposed to regular professional conferences, it is usually quite difficult to come prepared for this type of events; rather frequently audience is unpredictable and too diverse, the lecturer needs to know how to draw analogies known to his public.

Set of lectures called Nobilitet focuses on research works, which won Nobel Prize. “When we founded Nobilitet, we wanted to unite the best experts from different fields of science and create a multidisciplinary community. We aimed to show to, let’s say, physicists that literature may be interesting to talk about, while we wanted to show to literaturists that the chemistry can be captivating and practical,” says Valeriya Loshmanova, a co-founder of this project. Along with Olha Maslova, a PhD candidate in biology, she held her first “Nobel” lectures set three years ago. “In addition to a massive event, which we organized before the actual awards, we hold separate lectures on a number of topics mentioned in Stockholm. For instance, there is a behavioural economics master-class hosted by the PhD candidate Benedict Gerrman or a lecture about the discovery of DNA by Oleksandr Kolyada.”

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According to Olha Maslova, because of the unique themes for these lectures, it is not always easy to organize everything. “NobelPrize winners are announced in October, while the awards are handed on the 10 December. Hence we only have just a little less than two months to prepare. We really can’t start working with lectures until we are certain, what topics will win this year. It also complicates the search for sponsors, because each company wants to support its own topics, while we can’t really predict what those are each year. Bigger organizations also have their own specifics of financial planning, which don’t really allow them to spare some extra money in October for an event held in December.”

Science Night Show is another project by Maslova and Loshmanova. This is held in the “night show” format, similar to the shows by Michael Schur and Yaroslava Kravchenko, popular TV hosts of “Toronto Television”, who ask academics tricky questions and expect academics to provide a sharp, smart and yet simple answer. So far there has only been one similar event – and the concert hall was full. 

In the West similar events are called edutainment – education via entertainment. The whole idea of this conception is to give people some skills and knowledge using the popular entertainment as a tool. This is also done in a relaxed, easygoing atmosphere. Edutainment includes also lectures, educational shows, interactive exhibitions, master classes or workshops. Ukraine does follow the global tendencies in this sphere and if demand for an intellectual leisure will keep growing, so will the variety of possible offers on a scientific market. 

By Oleh Feya

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Oleg Feya

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