Chicago Science Fest

Saturday, May 20th at 10:00am to 5:00pm at 1871 and Matter

Come for a day full of exciting science talks and interactive demonstrations aimed at people like you! Science Fest will feature hourly talks by fascinating Chicago-area scientists. Between talks you can visit any of our interactive demonstrations where you can learn about solar panels and GMO foods, try edible bugs, experience virtual reality in physics or a marine ecosystem, view the first-ever public demonstration of the Oleo Sponge, or test-drive an electric car! Here are some of the exciting speakers and demos we will be featuring:

MATTER Auditorium

10:00am – “Sleep and Memory: How Much are You Getting and How’s that Working Out for You?”

Sadie Witkowski, M.S., PhD Candidate, Northwestern University Psychology Department, Brain, Behavior & Cognition Lab, and host of the PhDrinking podcast.

How do you feel about your alarm clock? Hate it, or never need one? A large majority of people do not get enough recommended sleep. What difference does that make? Apparently, a lot. Scientists are learning that the brain doesn’t have a ‘sleep mode’ like our laptops. Instead, our minds are hard at work sorting and storing memories from the previous day. But how do scientists even study sleeping people, and isn’t it boring? Very carefully, and no! For something you spend a1/3 of your life doing, it’s worth understanding better. Come hear about research looking into how sleep affects memory formation.


11:00am – “The Biology of Human Mating”

Robert Martin, Ph.D., Emeritus Curator, The Field Museum 

Many people take it for granted that human beings are biologically programmed for monogamy. But is it true? Others, by contrast, favor the doggerel reportedly penned by Mrs. Amos Pinchot on awakening from a dream: “Hogamus, higamus, men are polygamous; higamus, hogamus, women monogamous.” In studies on human mating systems, two incompatible views are prominent. The first is that humans are biologically adapted to reproduce in monogamous pairs. The second is that a natural tendency for promiscuous mating is indicated by clear adaptations for sperm competition. At its extreme, this interpretation led to the twin notions of “sperm wars” and “Kamikaze sperm.” Bob Martin, PhD, will assess the relative merits of these two opposing explanations through a wide-ranging review of evidence from comparative studies of primates and other mammals. His overview highlights fundamental flaws in both interpretations and reveals that Mrs. Amos Pinchot was actually closer to the truth.

Bob Martin, PhD, Emeritus Curator at The Field Museum, is author of “How We Do It: The Evolution and Future of Human Reproduction” which will be available for purchase and signing at Science Fest.


1:00pm – “Understanding the Human Microbiome”

Jack Gilbert, Ph.D., Faculty Director, The Microbiome Center at the University of Chicago

Did you know your body contains about as many bacterial cells as it does human cells? Bacteria live all over your gut, in your saliva, and on your skin, and they do a lot more for us than we once thought. Is your reaction to that “Eeew!” or “Cool!”? Your microbiome aids your digestive system, prevents disease, and even affects your behavior! So what does that mean for our diets? Do our homes need to be more clean, or actually less?

Jack Gilbert, PhD, will take you into the world of the unseen to explore the hidden benefits of your microbiome. Dr. Gilbert studies how the bacteria in animals, plants, the soil, the oceans, and the air interact with each other to aid in human and plant health. He is releasing a new book June 6th, entitled “Dirt Is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System,” which you can pre-order here.


2:00pm – “Using Evolution & Viruses to Cure Disease”

Bryan Dickinson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the University of Chicago and Director of the Dickinson Group.

Modern biomedical research has lead to remarkable breakthroughs, such as sequencing the entire human genome and pinpointing the molecular basis for disease. However, translating this knowledge into therapies has in general been a frustrating SLOW process. How can it be done better and faster? Bryan Dickinson, PhD, uses a technique called directed evolution.

Evolution occurs very slowly in nature, so Dr. Dickinson’s lab is developing ways to take proteins and other biomolecules from natural sources and evolve them – on a very fast scale in the laboratory — to have exciting new properties. The idea is to create proteins with functions we desire, such as diagnosing or treating complex diseases. Similar to the way humans have created more crispy apples and healthier rice using biotechnology, our approach has the potential to speed up evolution to generate smart therapies promising more effective and safer treatments for complex diseases such as cancer and aging. Do you think you understand evolution? Come hear about fascinating work and get a whole new perspective!


3:00pm – “Mapping the Human Brain’s ‘Connectome”

Bobby Kasthuri, M.D., Ph.D., Neuroscience researcher, Argonne National Laboratory and Assistant Professor, University of Chicago

Your brain contains about 37 billion neurons and which all come together to form about one quadrillion (billion billion) connections between them. What is neuroscientist Bobby Kasthuri’s mission? To map all of them. For many neuroscientists, this ‘map’ of all your connections – called the ‘connectome’ – is the blueprint of an individual’s memories, skills, fears, and hopes.

Dr. Kasthuri has developed new electron microscopy and x-ray technology to map the “connectome,” the entire group of connections in the brain. Join him has he shows his 3D models of the brain, which show all of the cells in your pristine detail. They are guaranteed to dazzle your mind. Recently, Wired Magazine challenged Dr. Kasthuri to explain the concept of the connectome to five individuals at five different grade levels. You can see the video here.

1871 Auditorium

10:00am – “Bionic Limbs: What’s Really possible and What’s Science Fiction?”

Todd Kuiken, M.D., Ph.D., Director, Center for Bionic Medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

From Steve Austin in The Six Million Dollar Man to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, we have seen countless examples of robotic prostheses that rival or exceed our own biological limbs; but, how close are we to making these devices a reality?

Join Dr. Todd Kuiken, MD, PhD, as he shares his team’s research on advanced prosthetic limbs. This research includes surgical techniques remapping severed nerves onto new muscles, sophisticated algorithms to control arm prostheses by detecting patterns in muscle signals and leg prostheses by predicting a user’s gait, and a prosthetic arm designed to fit smaller adults and even the average 12 year old child.


11:00am – “Battery Development and Electric Cars”

Brian Ingram, Ph.D., Materials Scientist at Argonne National Laboratory

Americans use a lot of energy. All our daily activities, including our electronics, heating & cooling homes, transporting goods and ourselves, require a lot of energy derived from fossil fuels, nuclear, and “renewables” — all with benefits and drawbacks. The environmental advantage of renewables gets a large amount of scientific and technological focus, yet the transportation sector accounts for nearly a third of the U.S.’s energy demand, consuming the equivalent of 200 billion gallons of gasoline in petroleum products annually. In the cases of renewables and electric vehicles, an energy storage system is the critical technology required for widespread adoption. Batteries allow us to efficiently transport usable energy, drive electric motors, and bridge the gap between demand for energy and inherently intermittent renewable sources. But what are the limitations for storing energy and using it for transportation? How long can we drive our cars on electrical energy alone? Will charging stations replace gas stations across the country? What are the newest ideas for batteries in our cars? Dr. Brian Ingram will discuss cutting-edge research at Argonne Lab focused on the next generation battery as well as our society’s relationship with the battery looking towards the future.


12:00pm – “Science of Marijuana: What’s Really Known and What’s Just Rumor?”

John Herrmann, D.V.M., M.P.H., Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Things sure have changed for marijuana’s reputation in recent years! Any experience with it used to disqualify candidates from office. Now, it’s legal for medical or recreational use in many states, but it still strictly regulated at the federal level. But what’s the actual

But what’s the actual science behind it? What’s an endocannabinoid and why is it important? Some claim marijuana, smoked or eaten, can alleviate or cure an extraordinary array of diseases, and yet the medical community isn’t its biggest proponents. How come? What science research has been done about its physiological effects and possible therapeutic benefits, and what’s just anecdote? How good is that research?

Prof. Jack Herrmann of the University of Illinois will address these issues as well as provide an overview of Illinois’ law in comparison with other states’ and federal regulations. Come get straight answers on a hot-button topic, and get your questions answered by an expert.


2:00pm – “Smart Grid Technology and Its Impact on Chicagoans”

Dara Randerson, Senior Engineer, Reliability at ComEd

Our lives, thanks to what we consider necessary devices, are constantly “plugged in” and “turned on” today. Yet is there any service we take more for granted than consistently reliable electric power? But where does it actually come from and how confident are we it might not be there when we need it? The electricity that powers all our devices isn’t magic behind those holes in the wall that become precious spots of real estate when you’ve got a dead phone battery. Blackouts still happen after storms, but why? It wasn’t that long ago rolling “brownouts” happened when electricity supply wasn’t adequate. Could that happen again or is the real concern now terrorists disabling our grid?  What is the grid, anyway? You probably want to know why the “smart grid” is all the buzz now; was it “dumb” before; and why understanding about smart power technologies can save you money and aggravation. Drones are actually a part of it. If you couldn’t explain electricity to a child, come to this talk. Dara Randerson, a Senior Reliability Engineer and STEM educator, will explain where our electricity really comes from and why and how its delivery keeps up with our technology.


3:00pm – “Neuroscience of the Addicted Brain”

Celeste Napier, Ph.D., Professor of Pharmacology and Director of the Center for Compulsive Behavior and Addiction at Rush University

You’ve probably heard, or used, the term “addicted” – “I’m addicted to my morning coffee,” “You’re addicted to that TV show.”  But how does a preference or strong desire become an addiction?  In the brain, what is the difference between a caffeine addiction and a cocaine one, or between a substance addiction and a behavior addiction, like gambling or internet gaming?  The neuroscience of addiction is a fascinating and challenging field that is finding answers to these questions.  Dr. Napier will explain addictions, discuss how the brain changes during addiction, and what can be done about it.

4:00pm in the 1871 Auditorium

So You Think You Can Science?”

End your day with our science-y happy hour where you can test your science skills at science trivia games!

Cool demos all day:

Ride & Drive Electric Cars

Come test drive the latest plug-in electric cars and learn about local efforts to make Chicago the EV capitol!  While there, check out the all-electric Formula Race Car brought to us by the University of Illinois’ Formula SAE Team! All on the front driveway of The Merchandise Mart.

Experience Prosthetic Limbs

Scientists and engineers are making incredible advances in building prosthetic limbs. You can test out examples of different types of prosthetic arms and get your questions answered by folks from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University.

The Oleo Sponge

The Oleo sponge was invented at Argonne National Laboratory. It is the only reusable sponge in the world that can selectively pick up oil from water and leave all the water behind. The first public demonstration of the revolutionary device will be at Science Fest – come see for yourself!

Taste-Test Edible Bugs

Bugs are full of protein and they are much more sustainable than livestock. Taste-test some fried meal worms or cookies made with cricket flour and learn how bugs are the superfood of the future.

Solar Panels

Solar power is one of the most sustainable forms of energy, and solar panels are becoming cheaper by the day. Check out a solar panel up close to see how they’re built and really understand how the sun can power your home and save you money.

Subatomic Virtual Reality

Researchers from Fermilab will take you into a virtual reality experience of neutrino research. This is an extraordinary opportunity to learn about particle physics research in an entirely new way!

Genetically Modified Potatoes

Many people have questions about genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), particularly food. At Science Fest you can see up-close an ordinary baking potato that’s been genetically modified for the consumer benefit to avoid browning that contributes to food waste. Get your questions answered from researchers at UChicago and Biology Fortified who know how to explain synthetic biology to the rest of us.


At Science Fest you can boggle your brain and mess with your mind while learning neuroscience. Students from the UChicago neuroscience department will introduce you to your brain via the “Illuminoggin” and show you about color constancy in the brain and neuroplasticity with fun and clever activities.

Environmentally Friendly Light Bulbs

Consumers now have an amazing — and confusing — array of options for light bulbs. This is your chance to finally see the light (couldn’t resist!) and understand the variety of light options and how much electricity they use, which impacts both your electric bill and the planet.

The Chicago Science Festival would not be possible without generous contributions from our partners and sponsors:

ISEIF, Fermilab, Argonne, Feinberg Foundation, Xfinity, Conlon & Dunn, 1871, HomeAdvisor, MATTER, DIRTT, theMART, Drive Electric, Blommer, Bai logos

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