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Friday, February 27, 2015  |   Madison, WI: 5.0° F  
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Madland: Chris Balakrishnan makes science of evolution accessible via Nerd Nite
Balakrishnan: "People want to learn, and this is a new way to learn."
Credit:Alan Talaga

Chris Balakrishnan is an assistant professor at East Carolina University, where he researches evolutionary and behavioral genomics. He will be giving a talk titled "Invasion of the Parasites: Birds!" on Friday, Feb. 7 for Darwin Day 2014 sessions hosted by the J.F. Crow Institute for the Study of Evolution at UW-Madison.

However, Balakrishnan may be better known as the founder of Nerd Nite, a casual lecture series accompanied by beer that has now spread to 75 cities around the world, including an active Madison chapter. Isthmus caught up with Balakrishnan as he was getting ready to give a presentation to a packed Nerd Nite crowd on Wednesday evening at the High Noon Saloon.

Isthmus: Can you tell me a little about how Nerd Nite got started?
Balakrishnan: Yeah. I was a graduate student at Boston University. I hung out at a bar near there regularly, and then I'd go away to do my field research for a third of the year. Then, when I came back, everyone wanted to know where I was and what I was doing. And so one of the bartenders, after hearing my stories, said maybe I should go up and give a talk at the bar. I said, "that's kinda a weird idea." I went home and thought about it. I decided it would be better if I got some other people to talk besides me to put on a little bit of a show about what we do. I realized that not even my friends and family really knew what I did in my job, so I thought this would be a good way to tell people.

The show opened with one of the local organizers, a.k.a. bosses, giving the history of Nerd Nite. How does it feel to be the subject of an origin story?
It has been really fun. I'm a scientist and I work really hard to do good science, but no one gives a shit about my science -- everyone knows me for this. It's really good to see it grow.

Have you had a chance to visit some of the other cities that do Nerd Nite?
Not as many as you think. I've been in Boston and New York, and we did a tour in California. I've been to less than one-tenth of all the Nerd Nites. There are just too many and that's a good thing. 75 cities now, wow.

Why does it have such an appeal?
People really enjoy drinking, obviously, but maybe they are sick of the bar scene. Maybe this is also a different way for them to engage with challenging topics. People want to learn, and this is a new way to learn.

Here's the important question for local media -- How does Madison stack up to the other Nerd Nites?
When [Nerd Nite Madison founders] Lee and Elena were starting out, I was talking to them a lot to help them. My wife went to vet school in Madison, so I was in town constantly. But we left before I had a chance to go to the first Madison one. To see that it is still going three years later -- it is amazing. The biggest ones I had been to were in New York, and they are on the same scale here in Madison. This is an audience of two hundred-some people, really high energy. This is definitely more than I ever thought Nerd Nite would be.

Obviously, it is what your PhD is in, but is there any other reason why you decided to give a talk about birds?
The reason for this whole visit is because on Friday I'm speaking at the University of Wisconsin's Darwin Day celebration. Maybe the reason I was invited was less because of my research and more because of my Nerd Nite thing -- they know I can give an accessible presentation. The two talks are linked together because of the theme of parasitism. This is kind of the down-and-dirty Nerd Nite version; some of the subject matter wouldn't be acceptable at Darwin Day. But I'll go into more detail with some of the science at Darwin Day.

Why is it important to make science, other topics of knowledge, accessible to the general public?
Sure, there's a couple reasons I can think about. With evolution in particular, there's a big controversy whether it occurs or not. And I think it is important to show people that it does occur. At this point, there's extensive evidence for it. It's not just something we care about in our labs and our ivory tower. It impacts us as people. It impacts how we treat disease and how we grow our crops, so having a basic understanding of science is important in how we decide to live our lives. Hopefully, Nerd Nite and Darwin Days can do something about that.

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