Night Lab: The Science of Coffee

By Patty Wetli | Friday, June 10, 2011

Night Lab: The Science of Coffee will take the mystery out of brewing the perfect cup. Flickr photo/Nate Steiner.

Stephanie Levi wants you to know that you don’t have to be a scientist to understand chemistry. Or physics or biology, for that matter. Oh sure, easy for her to say. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in molecular genetics and cell biology.

“I actually wasn’t a really good student,” Levi says. “I didn’t think I was smart enough.”

In fact, that’s how most Americans feel about science: that you have to be an Einstein to understand it. “There’s an image of who a scientist is, and it’s not a good one,” Levi says. She’s making it her mission to change that.

In 2008, while still a graduate student, Levi, who is now coordinator for the Student Center for Science Engagement at Northeastern Illinois University, began a series she called Night Labs. Aimed at adults, Night Labs, which are free, take everyday topics, like sex, and explain the science behind them.

An upcoming Night Lab, scheduled for Sunday, June 12, 7-9 p.m., at Schuba’s, 3159 N. Southport Ave., demystifies something most people are wildly familiar with but only vaguely knowledgeable about: coffee.

Like any good scientist, Levi has chosen an excellent lab partner for the presentation. Sarah Kluth of Intelligentsia will help trace the life of coffee from bean to cup, taking attendees through the chemistry behind brewing and roasting and even providing pictures of the molecules that contribute to good and bad flavor.

“We’re teaching people how to make better coffee through science,” says Levi. Where most might think quality begins and ends with the bean, Levi says it’s actually the opposite. “A lot depends on the person preparing the coffee at home. We’ll show the difference in the kind of water you use, how the grind matters.”

While it’s safe to assume that the average coffee drinker hasn’t given much thought to the chemistry involved in their morning cup of Joe, Levi sees science everywhere, which offers ample inspiration for future Night Lab themes. She’s already brainstormed potential Night Labs based on the science of fear, taste, weather and even traffic. (Sign up for Levi’s newsletter to receive info on upcoming events.)

“Science really does touch everything, it’s what I see as I move through my day,” she says. Her goal is for the rest of us to start doing the same.

“I think science is this gorgeous, inspiring, fascinating thing. It’s really creative; it intersects with art, writing and law,” says Levi. “I’d like to get

Who knew a plain cup of Joe was full of chemistry, physics and biology? Flickr photo/Jennie Faber

people to take a second look, to help people bring science back into their world. You don’t have to be a genius, just have fun with it.”

But why aim her efforts at adults, most of whom wrote off science at about the same time they outgrew Lite Brite? “There’s a voting public,” Levi explains. “People are fighting about global warming, people are fighting about evolution. Science is critical right now and there’s an increased need for funding.”

So far, the response to Night Labs has been overwhelmingly positive. Not surprisingly, Levi had to turn people away from the Science of Sex. But in order to expand her outreach further, Levi will likely need a financial backer. Currently, she produces the events out of her own pocket. “Sometimes I ask for donations, but it’s really a labor of love for me.”

This from the girl who was once convinced she was destined to become a princess or ballerina, until her elementary school class paid a fateful visit to the high school science lab. “It was like a playground,” Levi recalls. “Well, actually it’s acid and fire, it’s not really a playground. But I saw it that way. You just couldn’t get me away from it.”

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