Nerd Nite Hong Kong: a meeting of beer and brains where scientists in a Central bar explain stuff in layman’s terms

No mumbo jumbo allowed as academics and experts ranging from stem cell researchers to opera buffs meet monthly to share insights into their fields – and hopefully promote science as a career path

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 June, 2017, 6:46am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2017, 5:49pm

Hong Kong’s Central district is known for its late-night revelry, but once a month it plays host to a group of international academics and self-confessed nerds, who (over a beer, or two) present “bite-sized” lectures to the public about advancements in their field. Think TEDx Talks meets open mic.

They each have 15 minutes using only layman’s terms – no scientific mumbo jumbo allowed – to spread the word.

It’s Nerd Nite and the crowd, in a tucked-away bar, is a mix of young Hongkongers and expats; some from the academic world, many from a range of professions. After each presentation the floor is opened up for questions.

Last month, the audience heard from lead researchers in the fields of philosophy, stem cell research and aromatherapy. On June 26, audiences can learn about opera, biodiversity and even the science of beer brewing.

The events are run by University of Hong Kong PHD student and neuroscientist Shawn Tan, who decided to bring the concept to Lan Kwai Fong after studying in Australia. “One of the things I did in Melbourne that got me to Nerd Nite here was I studied and worked as a science communicator,” he says.

Science can only survive through curiosity.
Professor Danny Chan

Tan hopes to bridge the gap between science and academics, and the wider population in Hong Kong. “My idea was to bring these academic topics to people who are doing jobs outside of academia to give them a chance to learn about it,” he says. “I think especially in Hong Kong, with a huge population working in the financial industry, they don’t usually get the chance to learn about the amazing research going on here. That’s something I am very interested in.”

Nerd Nite events are held in more than 100 cities worldwide but first appeared in the United States in the early 2000s. Billed as “the Discovery Channel just with beer”, it’s not hard to see how it caught on.

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Danny Chan, stem cell biology and regenerative medicine professor at HKU, was one of the first academics to be involved in the Hong Kong edition. His humour, sideswipes at the state of world politics and ability to explain and make relevant his research into stem cells grabbed the audience. Some squirmed in their seats as he showed diagrams of a planarian – a type of flatworm – being cut into pieces, only for each to regenerate.

Chan says Nerd Nite is a perfect forum for “people to begin to think about things differently”.

I think it is really important that we remove all sense of a formal lecture, like you have at universities, where a lot of people really have these bad connotations.
Organiser Shawn Tan

“It’s fun to be able to connect to the general public. It’s something academia doesn’t do very often,” he says. Academics also get the chance to learn about what those in other fields are researching.

“For many of us doing research, we tend to be very focused on what we do in the lab and communicating our findings to only the scientific community,” he says. “[Nerd Nite] forces academics to really think about how to present their data in an engaging way for the general public,” which he says can be a “tough ask”.

“Most scientists have a complicated mind, and to try and untangle that mind and say something sensible to the general public does not come easy to us. When scientists talk about science, we can lose you very quickly.”

Chan started his career looking at children with rare bone diseases at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, but moved to Hong Kong in the late 1990s to further his research. As a passionate supporter of science and innovation, he says in a city where the financial industry reigns supreme, careers in science can be overlooked.

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“There are students studying science, but fewer and fewer are staying in science after they graduate, because the nature of the Hong Kong environment is very financial-driven.”

Chan says forums such as Nerd Nite are an important way to help persuade more students to stay on; enabling barriers to be broken down in a casual setting, and lines of communication to be opened. “Science can only survive through curiosity,” he says.

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June’s edition will be the third Nerd Nite in Hong Kong and Tan says audience numbers are growing. “One of the problems with scientists is that we tend to stick to just our own field and we get trained really well in the technical aspects of how to talk to other scientists, but unfortunately, there is not much avenue for scientists to communicate their science to the public, or even just think about how to talk to a lay audience. The brief that I give them is to not use any jargon, technical details or any data to talk about their topic.”

The first event was held at Morrison Cafe & Bar, but now has a permanent venue, Mezcalito.

“It’s really important that we remove all sense of a formal lecture, like you have at universities, where a lot of people really have these bad connotations because they have gone to really boring lectures in their education,” Tan says. “I want this to be a night that is really fun and people really want to come down and learn something. Not because they are forced to, but because they are having fun.”

Mezcalito, 27/F, 18 On Lan Street, Central. When: Monday, June 26, 8pm. Free entry