By Jennifer Freer, Public Engagement Intern, British Ecological Society
What happens when six biology societies come together to celebrate International Coffee Day 2017? Well, when it’s the inhabitants of Charles Darwin House, it results in a two-day coffee extravaganza where science discussions mixed with cold brew coffee Martinis, and a cake-filled coffee morning took a double shot of biology know-how. Hosted by (deep breath!) the British Ecological Society, the Biochemical Society, the Microbiology Society, the Royal Society of Biology, the Society for Applied Microbiology and the Society for Experimental Biology, “Darwin’s Coffee House” brought together the best of current scientific research with the tastiest brews over the 28th and 29th of September.
As a public engagement intern for the British Ecological Society, it was my job (along with a host of others) to bring the whole thing together, so here I’m going to give a brief insight in to how Darwin’s Coffee House unfolded.
A coffee team involving each of the six societies was quickly formed and the brain storming begun. What activities could we deliver? Which partners should we try to get involved? How to coordinate the communication and marketing channels? Espresso Martinis: shaken or stirred?
Three months of planning went by in a blur…partly due to too much caffeine (the market research had its perks) but mostly due to the excitement and scale of the events we were planning. Never before had the six societies come together to deliver a public engagement event, and with such a complex topic like coffee, the avenues to explore were endless.
Once we had an excellent line up of researchers confirmed, ideas became refined, interest soared, and local cafés, businesses, and well known ethical coffee brands started to approach us. Meanwhile, our team was expanding to involve the events team to help with practicalities, press officers to increase communications, and designers to give our ideas a brand.
One week to go. Bunting, cake, and coffee donations arrived in their plenty. Activities were prepped. With a last minute offer of some coffee plants from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the stage was set.
Our first event was an evening discussion on “Science and the Future of Coffee”. Four coffee scientists introduced their research and took questions from a packed audience of academics, society staff, coffee experts, and members of the public. We started off with Dr Aaron Davis (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) who gave an insight into how in depth climate change data can help to build a climate resistant coffee sector in Ethiopia. The next step in the journey was Professor Jeremy Haggar (University of Greenwich) who outlined the different sustainability standards in use by the coffee industry and highlighted how these have different priorities and what that means for the consumer. Moving onto the health benefits, Dr Charlotte Mills (King’s College London) explained to an increasingly reassured audience about the challenges involved in nutritional research and how media reporting can often muddy the waters. There was a sigh of relief around the room when she shared the British Heart Foundation’s recommendation that drinking 3-5 cups of coffee a day is not harmful to your cardiovascular health. The final step of the journey from farm to cup was presented by Dr Claudio Avignone-Rossa (University of Surrey) who demonstrated how we can use “the best chemists in the world – microbes” to convert coffee waste into electricity using microbial fuel cells. The evening was rounded off with questions to the panel, with additional support from Dr. Krzstina Szalai (Taylors of Harrogate) and Pippa Henderson (bio-bean) all ably coordinated by chair John Steel, CEO of Cafédirect.
It was fantastic to see everything come together after months of planning, with such a great interest from both the public and the industry. Throw in some cocktails courtesy of Cafédirect and the night was a lively and engaging success!
The following day, we explored the science behind coffee in the ultimate fusion of science fair and coffee morning. As well as delicious cake and incredible Wild Forest Coffee from Union Hand Roasted Coffee, each society delivered an activity to demonstrate the biology involved in putting coffee on the menu. The Royal Society of Biology invited people to explore the global locations of where coffee is grown and the Society of Applied Microbiology challenged visitors to a taste test – could you pick out the taste of different fermentation processes? At the BES, we exposed the vast number of animal species that help pollinate, grow and protect the coffee we love to drink. Alongside us were the brilliant Article Number 25, a company that re-farms mushrooms in urban spaces using spent coffee waste. For the Microbiology Society, Dr Claudio Avignone-Rossa was back to demonstrate his microbial fuel cell, and the Biochemical Society were running experiments to see if our taste sensations are mostly genetic or environmental. Last but most certainly not least, the Society for Experimental Biology were collecting some Citizen Science data on the coffee drinking habits of our guests (perhaps an unrepresentative sample!).
Overall our coffee celebrations raised over £175 for Macmillan Cancer Support, built lasting links between science and industry, and put science at the forefront of our coffee-loving minds. These events required an immense collaborative effort from all within Charles Darwin House and would not have been possible without the generosity of our external partners. We thank everybody involved for a truly stimulating few days.