As the novel coronavirus continues to proliferate across the world, we are all being asked to do our part in preventing the spread — whether that be wearing a mask in public, maintaining a 6-foot distance from others, or staying at home.

Many businesses have resorted to postponing or cancelling their regularly scheduled events. But one organization, called Science on Tap-New River Valley (NRV), refuses to let the current situation stop them from celebrating scientific thought in the Blacksburg community.

“Science on Tap NRV encourages fun and engaging science-related conversations, and right now our goal is to go full steam ahead as we’ve been doing, with local needs and interests serving a timely forefront,” said Cassandra Hockman, one of the organizers for Science on Tap and a Ph.D. student in rhetoric and writing in the Virginia Tech Department of English. “I think having and engaging in some form of community is really important right now.”

Science on Tap NRV is a monthly event that invites science-inspired speakers, performers, and educators from across the New River Valley to talk about scientific research in a relaxed setting. The goal is to create mutual support between the local and scientific communities through open conversation and a glass of beer. 

Around this time of year, the gathering occurs at the lively Rising Silo Brewery, a semi-outdoor farm brewery. But as the events of the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold, the organizers had to decide whether to cancel the event or push forward by virtual means. They chose the latter.

Hockman figured that now is a better time than any to hold a Science on Tap about viruses and viral transmission. In preparation for the event, Hockman collected questions about the coronavirus from the entire Science on Tap community. She then posed those questions to virus spread and airborne disease transmission experts Linsey Marr, the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering, and Kaisen Lin, a newly minted Ph.D. and former graduate student in Marr’s lab.

“Our events are meant to provide a community space for welcoming, genuine curiosity, as well as encourage conversation between researchers and community members,” said Hockman. “I had seen some coverage about air transmission, but not much, and I also saw Linsey Marr entering these public conversations online. Since I had met with her and covered her work a few years ago, I knew her expertise and public contributions were highly relevant and timely.”

On March 23, Hockman hosted the first virtual Science on Tap via Zoom.

During the interview, Marr tackled questions related to virus survival in humid conditions, viral transmission in small and open spaces, and what it truly means when a virus is “airborne.” And although uncertainties still remain about the novel coronavirus, Marr was very grateful for the opportunity to help clear the air. “We just want to spread good science and help people understand what’s going on,” said Marr.

Science on Tap NRV was the brainchild of Katie Burke, a digital features editor for the American Scientist. When she first moved to the Blacksburg area in 2015, Burke was on a mission to find local science communicators. Soon enough, she met Patricia Raun and Carrie Kroehler of the Virginia Tech Center for Communicating Science in the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment.

“I noted to Patty and Carrie that there was no science outreach event in Blacksburg at the time, and that events like that are where locals, STEM researchers, and science communicators often can meet and discuss ideas,” said Burke. “Patty and Carrie encouraged me to start one and gave me a lot of the advice, connections, and moral support I needed as impetus to make it happen.”

The first Science on Tap event launched in the spring of 2017 with great success — and an even greater turnout.

“We have had incredible attendance from the get-go, with our first event bringing in well over 100 people and filling up Rising Silo, which indicates to me that Blacksburg really needed an event like this,” said Burke.

Every night kicks off with a trivia game, a comedic routine, or a demonstration. Then, an invited guest scientist speaks about their research, which is followed by a Q&A session.

Over the course of its three years, Science on Tap has featured research about lighthearted topics, such as animal flatulence and scientific humor, as well as more pressing issues like water quality and climate change.

“We’ve had so much fun, and you know, while we were at it, we brainstormed some ways to save the world and make it a better place,” said Burke.

Along with donations from attendees, Science on Tap receives support from the Virginia Tech Center for Communicating Science and the Virginia Tech chapter of Sigma Xi, a nonprofit honor society for scientists and engineers. Both organizations are large proponents of science outreach, and they provide a generous amount of support by promoting events, bringing in speakers, and supplying volunteers.

“Our guest speakers are generally volunteers, and the show wouldn’t exist without researchers and artists willing to come in front of a bunch of people in a bar,” said Burke. “We are, by nature, a pretty low-budget operation, and much of what we do is volunteer-driven. That allows us to offer the event for free and open to everyone.”

For now, Science on Tap will continue to follow a virtual layout to not only ensure the safety of the public, but to keep that insatiable love of learning and science enthusiasm rolling until it can be safely moved back into locations in the community.

“Our next virtual events will incorporate more opportunities for personal interaction and audience participation,” said Raun, who both directs the Center for Communicating Science and serves as a professor of performance and voice in the Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts. “We’re looking forward to helping people connect during this time of social isolation.”

Science on Tap’s next virtual event will take place on May 7. For more details, visit the organization’s Facebook page.

If you have an idea for a Science on Tap event, or if you want to join the mailing list, contact scienceontapnrv@gmail.com.

Written by Kendall Daniels