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A Weeknight Out on the Town for Booze & Brains
On the first Wednesday of every month, guests might get turned down at the door up to half-an-hour before the stage opens in the underground bar at the trendy Park Slope yuppie hang out, Union Hall. A crowd of asymmetrical hairstyles, retro shoes, 90s styled black-framed glasses, tight pants-wearing young people pour into every open space available in the basement, not to swing their hips or bob their heads to the latest underground music phenomenon, but to hear scientists speak for two hours.
The bevy assembled on February 6, 2008 to hear Bruce Stillman give a two-hour talk on the future of molecular medicine.
Bruce Stillman is the president of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, CSHL, which is dedicated to molecular biology research and scientific outreach dedicated to educate the community and collaborate with scientists around the world about DNA. The lab is known for its groundbreaking research in cancer, plant-genetics, neurobiology, and bioinformatics, and has engaged with 85 Nobel Laureates over the course of a century. In the 1940s and ‘50s lab, Barbara McClintock’s discovery of genetic transposition, and its role in the repression and expression of physical characteristics in maize, earned her the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983. James D. Watson won a Nobel Prize in 1962 for discovering the double helix structure of DNA, and for noting that nucleic acids carry genetic information. He did his work at the CSHL and attracted Bruce Stillman in 1979. At that time, Dr. Stillman was a post-doctorate student from Australia looking to further investigate his own genetic research, originally only for a year or two.
“However,” he affably told his audience after finishing his third Double (Make that a triple!) Helix, “I met an American and stayed for the next 29 years.”
Dr. Stillman very clearly navigated his listeners through the history of genetics beginning with Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin, to unraveling the code written in the 6 feet of coiled DNA, and ending with the future of genetics and its increasing prevalence in how we approach medicine. Within this narrative, he neatly wove the results of CSHL research to the concepts and theories behind what might cause autism, schizophrenia, and cancer. He mentioned that he was not a genetic determinist and emphasized the importance of everyone keeping themselves informed, especially when it comes to their own health and how doctors would treat it. He wants people to understand that the environment, like smoking and asbestos, play a critical role, too.
When a member of the Secret Science Club asked Dr. Stillman who is responsible for the privacy of one’s own DNA scan results, he replied, “You are responsible.” Dr. Stillman points out that a DNA map, which can point out any genetic markers, like mutations, indicating what diseases the individual is susceptible to, is just as private as the results to a blood test, or any lab test.
Dr. Stillman had canceled a trip to speak with scientific peers in Boston on the latest in DNA studies to enjoy a few glasses concocted by the Secret Science Club Mixologist, and instead chose to speak to a more informal audience of students, professionals, and drop-outs alike. It was, nonetheless, a sophisticated audience—a comfortable balance of non-isolating (and rather sociable) intellectuals and hipsters who were not too repulsively hip.
The Union Hall Secret Science Club acknowledges that being intelligent, imaginative, fun, and open-minded makes for a swanky profile. Their meetings bring together experts in the hard sciences with people who are not experts in the field, without any pretense. Past guests in this free science lectures and arts series included an NYU neuroscientist by the name of Joseph LeDoux and his band, the Amygdaloids, and some Nobel Prize winners, such as Dr. Harold Varmus and Eric Kandel.
The club’s MySpace page insists, “Just bring your own smart self.”