Tufts alumni promote science literacy through ‘Breaking Science’ lectures

The logo of public lecture series "Breaking Science," organized by alum Jim Sampson (LA '09, SK '15), is pictured. via Facebook

The world of science may often feel inscrutable for people who are not practicing scientists or engineers, or who have access to few scientific resources. Tufts alumnus Jim Sampson (LA ’09, SK ’15) launched the “Breaking Science” public lecture series in 2016 with the goal of breaking down those very barriers to understanding science, research and technology for the masses.

For Sampson, science has always been a passion. Sampson, who is a double Jumbo, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2009 and earned a Ph.D. in immunology from the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences in 2015

“I thought it was really important to make cutting edge science accessible to non-scientific crowds,” Sampson said.

Sampson has made accessibility a priority, noting that each of the lecture is and always will be free. The series started in Medford, but has since branched out to the greater Boston area, with Sampson hoping to eventually expand it to Dorchester and Roxbury.

Some of the recent lectures have covered the Zika virus, renewable energy, genetically modified organisms and vaccines. The vaccine talk, given by Sampson himself, was warmly received by the audience.

“People came in with a lot of information they read from [social media sites] like Facebook,” Sampson said. “I tried to walk them through how to assess what they read critically. The most important thing we can do is get people to appreciate critical thinking, really about anything.”

Christian Irwin (E ’09), a professional mechanical engineer and Tufts alumnus, gave the talk on renewable energy. He described how he approached his lecture as a basic talk, aiming to give his audience foundational knowledge on topics such as coal-fired power plants.

“I tried to start with the most complex topics and then work it down a bit,” Irwin said.

For Sampson, audience engagement during the talks is extremely important. Irwin, who was a roommate and good friend of Sampson’s at Tufts, was able to achieve this by asking the audience a lot of questions and allowing them to ask questions throughout his lecture.

According to Irwin, Sampson’s talk attracted a fairly diverse audience.

“There were really people of all ages: kids, college students, older people. [Sampson] wanted that to be sort of the catchphrase.”

Sampson noted that each lecture consistently gets around 30 attendees, from all walks of life, with different levels of knowledge in each topic.

“There is usually a good group of retirees who are really interested in science but didn’t have the opportunity to learn about it otherwise,” Sampson said. “We have also had a lot of students who want to learn what it’s really like to do science beyond just what they learn about in textbooks.”

Sampson added that even some Tufts students have attended these lectures.

Protein engineer Vinodh Kurella gave the talk on GMOs. Kurella said he focused on the details during his lecture by going into specific real-life examples of GMOs.

“I talked about some GMOs that did well and made it to the market, and then some that were pulled from the market over safety concerns.”

Kurella, who works at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Mass., attempted to cover both sides of the debate on GMOs.

“I wanted to cover why there is fear and why there is excitement, as there are legitimate points to make on both sides,” he said.

Kurella was also pleased to hear from some of the audience members after his lecture. One attendee, who was a farmer, spoke about their personal experience and the public perception that GMOs are harmful. Another attendee, who was a high school biology teacher, hypothesized to Kurella that GMOs could have something to do with their students becoming gradually less active and social over the years.

“In general, people said they really enjoyed the talk.” Kurella said. “I was happy to help demystify the science.”

In addition to giving his renewable energy talk, Irwin said that he was present at the other lectures as an attendee too.

“I was fascinated by the lectures that I attended,” Irwin said. “They were very clear and conveyed a lot of information in a small amount of time.”

As for the future of Breaking Science, Sampson hopes to expand the horizons of the topics.

“My background is in immunology, so I was originally very focused on disease-related topics,” Sampson said. “But we got a lot of requests and suggestions for other fields of science, such as astrobiology. My goal is to gradually branch out [in topics] based on what people want.”

Kurella was very grateful for the opportunity to give a talk and commended Sampson for his project.

“[Sampson] is doing amazing things by organizing such events, as it takes a lot of time to connect people, invite them and bring it all together,” Kurella said. “He is not only helping the science, but helping give back to the public what he has learned through his network.”