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Members of the UT chapter of Ask-A-Scientist pose by their booth on the Humanities Plaza in November.

From potato chips to penicillin, many modern ideas have come out of happenstance occurrences. Thanks in part to a group at UT, the stories behind those events and others are being brought to light in a more approachable way.

Ask-A-Scientist started when scientist Matt Bishop was having his car towed in Los Alamos, New Mexico, last summer and the tow truck driver and his son asked him questions ranging from robotics to genetics.

By the time they reached Bishop’s house, the driver thanked him, saying that he’d never met a scientist before and that he was grateful to get answers to things he’d always wanted to ask.

“His statement got me to thinking about how everyone has the right to know how science impacts their daily lives,” said Bishop. “We hope to not only advocate how important science is to everyone’s life, but to also create a forum so people can ask questions they might have never been able to ask before.”

While Internet search engines such as Google are frequently used to get answers, they lack a human element and can be frustrating when trying to seek a more nuanced answer. The “but why?” factor, if you will.

That’s where Ask-A-Scientist comes into play.

The group recognized the importance of putting a human face on science, with UT being one of the early adopters.

“We were the first one to host an ‘Ask-A-Scientist Day’ event,” said Callie Goetz, chief operating officer of Ask-A-Scientist’s national operations and a graduate student in nuclear physics at UT’s Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education. “We didn’t know what kind of response we’d have, but it was a really great turnout.”

In addition to UT, chapters have now sprung up across the country, including Ivy League members Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.

The group can tackle questions across the spectrum of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines. Questions raised at UT’s event ranged from how gravity works to how cancer develops and spreads.

“Scientists converse a lot with colleagues or team members, but we really need to talk to people outside our fields more,” said Kristine Cabugao, UT chapter president. “There is a clear disconnect between scientific knowledge and public understanding, so one of the things Ask-A-Scientist aims to do is to bridge that gap.”

An offshoot of making that connection is bringing together people who might not otherwise cross paths.

A researcher at UT, for example, could wind up tackling the same question as someone from Harvard, inadvertently finding out their shared interest along the way and opening up new avenues for collaboration.

“The whole goal is to get people talking together who might not otherwise do so, whether that’s scientists and the public or whether it’s professors and students from different departments,” said Amanda Haglund, vice president of UT’s chapter. “It can also serve to give undergraduates the chance to see what research is like for graduate students.”

Haglund said that one idea is doing events with school-age scientists, reaching out to kids at a time when they are beginning to form their ideas about what they want to be.

Among the ideas they’re considering: hands-on demonstrations for children at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Science Saturday and question-and-answer booths at events like First Friday, farmers markets, or on Market Square.


David Goddard (865-974-0683,