What’s a “Brown Bag Lunch Recap”?

A “Brown Bag Lunch” is a seminar or colloquium that happens during a lunch break (or in the early evening right after the regular work day ends), where colleagues gather to learn about something that’s relevant to their field. Commercial companies use brown bag lunches as a chance to educate their employees about upcoming projects, squeeze in additional sales training, or boost morale. Universities use them to make science happen.

In pop science writing, we tend to talk about science as if it’s a body of “amazing” written-in-stone facts that isolated experts hand down to us from their lofty laboratories. There are good reasons for that approach; it makes for memorable headlines and gets people excited about scientific topics (and leaves them wanting to learn more).

However, any working scientist will tell you that science isn’t a simple process; it is a messy, complicated, ongoing conversation between people with widely varying backgrounds and opinions. Scientists ask each other a lot of questions. They challenge assumptions and statistical analysis methods, propose alternative explanations for observed data, and question the ethics of applying certain results in certain situations. These questions aren’t signs of political polarization or disrespect; questioning things is just what scientists do at the office.

Scientists also spend a lot of time explaining their research to a wide variety of audiences. They talk (and write) to other scientists, potential donors, students, educators, journalists, friends, and anyone else who wants to hear their story.  It confuses me when I hear people talking about scientists living in a bubble where they don’t want to talk to anybody, because in my experience, scientists are usually enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge with other people. It only seems like scientists don’t care because it’s hard to talk about science in a non-superficial way when your audience isn’t familiar with scientific terms and doesn’t know very much about the culture within scientific community.

I grew up in a town full of physicists and went to college with a bunch of biologists. I may not be a scientist myself, but I’ve been steeped in their culture for my entire life. I’m used to the way they talk and  find the back-and-forth process of questioning everything absolutely fascinating. But I feel like it gets erased from a lot of the mainstream scientific reporting.

So I decided that since I’m living in a city that has more scientists per capita than any other place on Earth, I would write about that back-and-forth on my blog by covering academic talks at colleges in the Boston/Cambridge area.

In each recap, I give a quick run-down of what the speaker talked about and follow it with a section about the questions and implications I thought about while I was listening to this talk.  And then I wrap up with some quotes and back-and-forth exchanges between the speaker and his/her audience. My goal for these recaps is to break down the complicated ideas expressed in scientific jargon in to terms that non-scientists can understand, while also giving them an idea of what conversations between scientists are like.

These recaps aren’t objective; they’re not meant to be. (They’re usually not short, either).  But I hope that by reading them, my web audience will learn more about both the topics scientists are investigating and how the scientists think about/communicate about those topics.


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