Arlington's Cafe Scientifique draws crowds to discuss technical topics with experts

By Annie Snider
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 28, 2011; 11:49 PM

A standing-room-only audience gathered in the atrium just outside Arlington's Front Page restaurant on an evening not long ago, many holding glasses of wine and beer. The hundred-some people weren't there for a concert or a happy hour. They were waiting to hear a talk on neuroscience.

"We're looking for cocktail party conversation here," joked Cathy Morper, a retired pharmacist who, like the rest of the crowd, had assembled for Cafe Scientifique, a monthly gathering where world-class scientists talk about their work with anyone interested. So if the conversation at Morper's next party turns to ways of preventing Alzheimer's disease, she will be in luck. One of the field's preeminent researchers - Mark Mattson, head of the National Institute on Aging's neurosciences lab - was the night's speaker.

Science cafes such as Arlington's have been cropping up around the country in recent years, from a Brooklyn hipster bar that serves themed cocktails such as "the Double Helix" to an art house theater in Portland, Ore. While people occasionally come for professional reasons, the cafes mostly draw the intellectually curious who may not know that much about science but are interested in whatever topic is on the evening's agenda.

The idea is to make science more accessible by featuring speakers who can talk about their expertise in plain English.

"You don't have to be an expert to understand what's happening in science and technology," said Kaye Sloan Breen, a trained geneticist who organizes the events as executive director of the nonprofit Ballston Science and Technology Alliance. "Things are changing so quickly in areas like stem cell research and climate change, people need to understand so they can participate in policy discussions that are going on."

Cafe Scientifique began in 2006 after the federal Base Closure and Realignment Commission recommended that a number of Department of Defense research agencies be moved from the Washington area. Arlington faced losing some of its anchor institutions, including the Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Army Research Office and the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, in the proposed military consolidation.

Employees of those agencies, local businesses and the county fought the recommendation; a fight they eventually won. One of the arguments they made was that moving the agencies out of the area would be a loss for scientific collaboration.

The coalition realized that the region could do more to build a community around its scientific expertise. Its leaders decided to start by hosting a cafe modeled on ones in Europe that got scientists from different disciplines talking to one another and to the general public. The first few events were organized by the National Science Foundation, and soon the county's economic development office created the Ballston Science and Technology Alliance, which took over the event.

The events are held once a month, in the National Science Foundation building's atrium, next to the Front Page. In May, the cafe is expected to move to the new Virginia Tech building at Glebe Road and Wilson Boulevard.

Over nearly three years, the cafe has developed a regular following. The wide variety of topics covered in talks and the Q-and-A period afterward can be as valuable to those in the know as to those merely interested in learning something new.

Richard Renfro, who works in the advanced technology division of the Office of Naval Research, said that although he comes for fun, he has taken ideas from the cafe back to work. "A few months ago, the talk was on bonobos, and during the discussion a question came up about the genetic difference between chimps and bonobos that I thought could have some connection with human performance," Renfro said. "The next day I brought it up at the office."

Questions during the post-talk discussions range from technical follow-ups to provocative challenges, and afterward a handful of attendees usually linger to talk with the speaker or one another.

After Mattson's neuroscience talk, titled "Use It or Lose It," Austin Smith, a senior at Osborn Park High School in Manassas who was attending with his parents, talked jovially with his mother's colleague, Greg Steigerwald, about what qualifies as the "good" brain stress Mattson mentioned in his talk.

"Maybe it's something like the stress you feel when playing basketball," said Steigerwald, who manages procurement for the National Science Foundation. "It's intense: You're thinking hard and quick, but then it's over and you go home and go to bed."

"Or it could be like Navy SEAL training: something that builds mental and physical aptitude," Smith added.

Carolyn Smith, Austin's mother, gave a dubious look, then laughed. "I don't know, but I bet we'll be talking about it the whole drive home," she said.

Snider is a freelance writer based in Washington.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company