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DIY medicine on tap as researchers share their work at this week’s Science by the Pint

Cambridge quiets down in the late summer, but one corner of the Tavern on the Square was buzzing on Tuesday night.  People gathered tightly around five or six tables in the Porter Square pub, chatting away, drinking beer and talking about science. No blackboards here – just the Red Sox game on a giant screen.

The topic for this week’s “Science by the Pint” was “DIY medical technology.” Organized by Harvard students, the monthly gathering invites lay people to share a drink with a researcher.

“You get your very own scientist for a while and you get to bombard them with questions,” said Kelly May, who works in marketing. She usually attends with a group of “kind of geeky” friends.  

At a nearby table, an order of barbeque chicken tenders arrived soon after Jeff Schmitz, who described himself as a computational neuroscientist.  He works at the MIT Media Labs, in part on a project that aims to “break down data silos.”

“We’re taking a lot of data collected passively though cell phones…,” he said. “We’re trying to understand potential markers of disease onset or healthcare problems.”

This launched a conversation about big data and privacy concerns, until it was time for the Schmitz to play musical tables and move on.

Next up, Andrew Warren, a grad student at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. A biomedical engineer, he explained a project designed to send refrigerated vaccines on demand to nearby satellite clinics without the capacity to store them. The proposed solution – small unmanned planes controlled by health care workers with cell phones. In other words, drones – a term Warren prefers to avoid.

“The gas is cheaper than even sending someone out on a motorcycle,” No staff needed beyond the clinic working accepting the delivery, he said: “The plane itself handles the launching, landing and drop off.” He’s working on the drop mechanism.

One of Kelly May’s “geeky” friends, Susan Wyssen, said they were intrigued by the topic of DYI medicine. They joked about building and x-ray device at home. But they also said they seriously learn from the events because the sessions are designed to help scientists talk about their work in everyday language. That’s one of the key goals of the sponsor, a student group called Science in the News.

For Wyssen a librarian — the events serve another purpose.

“I’m drowning in humanities where I work, she said. “It’s really nice to see a whole other academic culture and a whole other intellectual culture.”

The students are finalizing the topics of fall Science by the Pint events – which takes place on the third Tuesday of every month. They do know that they’ll be moving the venue from Porter Square to The Burren, a pub in nearby Davis Square. Check back on their site for more information and the group’s similarly purposed lecture series.

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