Series aims to polish science’s image

A science program in Michigan inspired the MU series’ creator.
Friday, September 10, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:12 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Science can be cool.

That’s the message behind Saturday Morning Science, an MU lecture series designed to broaden an understanding and appreciation of the natural world.

The second annual series begins at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the new Life Sciences Center at MU.

Series creator Wouter Montfrooij, an assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy, was inspired by a similar weekend lecture program in physics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he worked as a postdoctoral fellow before coming to Columbia.

”I just loved going there,” Montfrooij said. “I was always learning something new about black holes and things like that because I know nothing about these things even though I am interested in them.”

At MU, however, he wanted to broaden the horizon for such a series.

“I wanted to try something similar here, but more general,” Montfrooij said.

Although the inaugural series’ first event only drew an audience of 20, the 2003 event gradually grew in popularity with nearly 100 people attending the final lecture.

Montfrooij hopes to draw even bigger crowds this year with additional help from co-organizer Bruce McClure, an associate professor of biochemistry, and a change of venue to the Life Sciences Center.

Faculty and staff members at the Life Sciences Center and across campus have promoted the events, which are drawing enough interest to require a waiting list of volunteer speakers for another series in the 2005 winter term.

Although last year’s talks focused primarily on the physical sciences, this year the focus broadens to life sciences.

Scheduled topics include the question of life beyond Earth and the debate over stem-cell research. Speakers are allotted one hour on two consecutive Saturdays to explore their topics in depth.

Although the series is an opportunity for scientists from unrelated fields to learn about one another’swork, both Montfrooij and McClure are eager to give people outside the scientific community insights into the scientific fields.

“If you watch The Discovery Channel, you don’t really come away with an insight into the way things work, but you get exposed to them,” McClure said. “And I want to try that — show the exciting stuff but also show what is so cool about it.”

Montfrooij said he hopes to infuse some enthusiasm for scientific research into middle and high school students.

“Essentially, I want to make sure that high school students come here and consider seeking a degree in the sciences,” he said. “When we get them that far, then I hope maybe even consider pursuing astronomy and physics.”

Both organizers are also concerned about scientists viewed as being isolated from the rest of the community.

“There are these artificial divisions between the public and scientists because they don’t normally cross paths,” McClure said.

McClure said he thinks that science is a public endeavor and hopes that the series will be a venue for the public and scientists to cross paths.

“Unless science is shared with everybody, it is missing a lot of its value,” he said.

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