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Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Science Cafe

Join us this month at OEB Science Café - a free event where scientists and community members meet to share ideas and pizza.

The physicist Philip Albelson once said, “Part of the strength of science is that it has tended to attract individuals who love knowledge and the creation of it… Thus, it is the communication process which is at the core of the vitality and integrity of science.”

The actor Kevin James once said, “There’s no better feeling in the world than a warm pizza box on your lap.”

If you live in the Pioneer Valley and these two quotes have you asking, “Where can I learn about recent scientific research and enjoy warm, delicious pizza?”, then you’re in luck! Enter the University of Massachusetts Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) Program’s Science Café, an event held one Thursday of every month during the college semester. Produced by graduate students, these events are informal discussions about science and are free and open to the public. Cafés are held at the Nacul Center in Amherst, Mass. from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., and feature a guest speaker who discusses and answers questions about his or her interests and latest research. And, as you may have gathered by now, free, delicious pizza is provided for the audience!


Fig. 1 Audience members listen as PhD candidate Anne Stengle discusses local rattlesnake populations. (Source: Lian Guo, OEB Science Café Facebook page).

The most recent café, entitled “Is it Hot in Here? Thinking about the Evolution of Menopause” featured biological anthropologist Dr. Lynette Sievert of UMass Amherst. Dr. Sievert has traveled to Slovenia, Mexico, Paraguay, Bangladesh, and the UK to study the human experience of menopause. At this event, topics included an exploration of other species that experience menopause (killer whales!), how women across the many cultures Dr. Sievert has visited experience and interpret hot flashes, and finally the evolution and possible adaptive value of hot flashes in humans. Dr. Sievert discussed the hormonal similarities in a woman’s body between menopause and the time period directly following a pregnancy. These similarities lead some researchers to speculate that hot flashes may have been selected for to warm newborns after birth, and are simply a byproduct of hormonal changes when they occur during menopause. However, Dr. Sievert conducted a study right here in western Mass. that showed otherwise: when compared with women who had not recently given birth, new mothers were not significantly more likely to experience hot flashes [1].

Another recent café featured Dr. Alexander Gerson of UMass Amherst, who studies the environmental physiology of birds. During his talk, entitled “Surfing a Heat Wave: The Challenges Faced by Migratory and Desert Birds in a Changing Climate,” Dr. Gerson discussed the immense physical challenges faced by birds as they embark on long, grueling migrations that can span thousands of miles. During these non-stop flights, Dr. Gerson reported, some birds have been found to burn their body’s organs and muscles for energy, and not just their fat. But how will these athletic feats be affected by a warming planet? Dr. Gerson answered this question by studying different bird’s responses to heat stress. Some birds, like doves, can sweat to cool off, while others, like quails, can only cool off by panting [2]. In the end, birds that sweat seem to be better able to regulate their body temperatures during times of heat stress.


Fig. 2 Dr. Alexander Gerson and MC Lian Guo take audience questions during last semester’s café on bird migration and climate change. (Source: Dina Navon, OEB Science Café Facebook page).

Next up, Science Café is hosting Dr. Michael Rosario for his talk “Stretching the Energy Budget: The Mechanics of Slingshots and Tendons,” where he will discuss how our bodies are similar to Slinkies, and how humans are able to punch way above their weight. Pow! It’s going to be a good one, folks.


Fig. 3 A huge, cheesy pizza from Route 9 Pizza in Amherst, just like the ones that will be waiting for you over at the Nacul Center. (Source: Zomato page for Route 9 Pizza).

Here’s a list of the upcoming cafés for Spring 2017:

4/13 – Stretching the Energy Budget: The Mechanics of Slingshots and Tendons, with Dr. Michael Rosario

5/11 – Dangerous Liaisons: Pollinators, Herbivores, and the Quirky Sex Lives of Plants, with Laura Doubleday, followed by Science After Dark - a meet and greet for the community and this semester’s guest speakers, accompanied by wine and beer!

For further updates, please join the Science Café mailing list here, or just check out the official OEB Science Café website here. Finally, if you live out of town, we’d still love to share our science with you! Check out our Facebook page for video re-caps here.

Science Café is a fun way for us graduate students to share our love of science, share some pizza, and make new friends in the Amherst community. Remember, cafés are held once per month on a Thursday, at 6 PM in the Nacul Center at 592 Main Street in Amherst, Mass. We hope to see you there!


[1] Sievert LL, Masley A. 2015. “Are menopausal hot flashes an evolutionary byproduct of postpartum warming?” The Journal of The North American Menopause Society. 22, 4. 377-383.

[2] Smith EK, O’Neill J, Gerson AR, & Wolf BO. 2015. “Avian thermoregulation in the heat: resting metabolism, evaporative cooling and heat tolerance in Sonoran Desert doves and quail.” The Journal of experimental biology, 218 (Pt 22), 3636-46.

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