Tasty, Scary, Punky Ways to Enjoy Science

College of Sciences serves up two new mind-expanding activities at the Atlanta Science Festival

March 5, 2018

By Mallory Rosten, Student Communications Assistant, College of Sciences

We’ve all had that feeling. Maybe it was in your A.P. Bio class, or while listening to a calculus lecture. The feeling that begs you to ask Why should I care?

From March 9 to 24, Atlanta will explode in a burst of activity. Thousands will gather for robots, performances, and live demonstrations. It can’t be Music Midtown – it’s too late for that. And it’s too early for Shaky Knees. It’s the Atlanta Science Festival, a celebration of science in over 100 events across Atlanta that culminates in a blowout in Piedmont Park.

The 2018 Atlanta Science Festival offers a kaleidoscope of cures for boring science including two new events from the College of Sciences. Taste of Science and Silver Scream Science Spookshow will spark enthusiasm, joy, and curiosity through nerdy exploration of food and ear-shattering, hard-rock rendering of scientific concepts.

Hosted by Georgia Tech students, Taste of Science uses live demonstrations and food tastings to explore concepts in biology, biochemistry, chemistry, genetics, mathematics, and physics.

“It’s going to be a weird mix of food,” says Jennifer Leavey, the College of Sciences’ integrated science curriculum coordinator and one of the advisors to the event.

One example is Dragon’s Beard, an East Asian candy that’s like taffy, except this candy is coated in confectioners’ sugar. So as the strands are pulled apart, they stay separate and grow exponentially – a living and edible exponential function. Members of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers will demonstrate the pulling, often seen on Asian streets.

“It’s exciting because exponential functions have all kinds of science and engineering applications,” Leavey says. Who would’ve thought math could be so sweet?

From Asia, participants travel to the world of science fiction by just walking over to the next booth. Straight out of Willy Wonka’s factory, the miracle berry does something weird: It turns sour into sweet. At this booth, participants will find sour cream and lemon juice to try before and after eating the berry.

“It really works. I took a bottle of lemon juice and chugged it, and it tasted like candy,” says Michael Evans, the coordinator of freshman chemistry laboratory in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry and another advisor to the event.

So how does it work? The berry contains the protein miraculin, which binds to sweet-tasting receptors. The receptors, however, respond to acid, so the acid will taste like sugar.

Kombucha, bagels, and nitrogen ice cream are just some of the many other foods with hidden science that students in Leavey’s VIPSTEMcomm class will demonstrate in Taste of Science. Other groups involved are SMaRT LLC, Club Math, Graduate Association of Physicists, and Molecular Gastronomists.

Leavey and Evans are also members of a science punk rock band featuring their genetically modified clones.

When Leavey took biochemistry in college, she learned about DNA-binding proteins called leucine zippers and zinc fingers. “I thought that would be a great band name,” Leavey recalls. The chance to create a band came in 2014, the first Atlanta Science Festival. Leucine Zipper and the Zinc Fingers now is a staple of the Atlanta Science Festival, headlining variety or comedy shows.

In 2018, they’re performing in the Silver Scream Science Spookshow, marrying their outrageous punk rock with an equally outrageous alien movie from the 1950s, “It Came from Outer Space.” Hosted at the historic Plaza Theater, the audience will be transported to the campy world of science fiction.

On stage, Leavey becomes Leucine Zipper, and Evans transforms into X.O. Therm. Alongside them are Gringo Perdido (Joe Mendelson, an adjunct associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences), and Sonic Hedgehog (Ben Prosser, an A.P. Biology teacher and former student of Leavey’s).

For Evans, punk and science are a natural fit. “One of the reasons I got into science was this don’t-take-anyone-at-their-word attitude,” he says. “You verify things independently. That plugs into the punk mindset, making it easy and fun to write songs.”

The band’s song “Let’s Test It” encapsulates this attitude. The lyrics encourage listeners to perform their own experiments to learn about the world and not blindly accept what others say.

The band hopes to teach people that science isn’t just the domain of professors writing on a chalkboard. It’s everywhere, and the very act of performing experiments can be revolutionary.

“The essence of science is looking around you and asking questions,” Leavey says. “I think a lot of students stop asking questions once they get in the classroom. I really want people to be curious everywhere they go. To ask why. The more questions they ask, the more we’ll learn about our world.”

So far, the punk-rock-for-science experiment is working. People come for the fun, loud music, Leavey says. After shows, many nonscientists come to ask them questions. And maybe, just maybe, a young student will take an interest in the field.

“I think a lot of young people in high school or middle school don’t see themselves as scientists,” Leavey says. “Most scientists don’t look like them or talk like them. As a result, they don’t think they can become one.”

As Leavey talks, Evans sighs in exasperation. “That makes me sad,” he says, “because when you’re young you still have the energy, the time, and the mindset to be as scientist.”

On March 3 and 4, the band recorded in a studio for the first time, so that their songs can be available online. A grant from Georgia Tech made this recording possible. 

Taste of Science will take place on Tech Green, right next to Kessler Campanile, on March 10  at 12:00 – 4:00 pm. Silver Scream Spookshow will take place at the Plaza Theatre on March 17 at 12:30 – 3:00 pm, with an additional midnight performance.

For More Information Contact

A. Maureen Rouhi, Ph.D.
Director of Communications
College of Sciences