At a Brews and Brains event at Costa Mesa's Fireside Tavern, Ceazar Nave, a second-year UCI doctoral student in physiology & biophysics, outlines how studying fruit fly brains might help jet-lagged humans reset their biological clocks. Steve Zylius / UCI

Where beer and science meet

Brews and Brains group translates complex research for a mass audience

Can glow-in-the-dark fruit fly brains help humans avoid Monday morning grogginess after a weekend of partying? As a crowd of 30 sip beer and gobble sliders at a Costa Mesa tavern, Ph.D. student Ceazar Nave explains how insect research at UCI might lead to a cure for the “social jet lag” caused by staying up late and sleeping in.

His 10-minute talk is part of Brews and Brains, a biweekly blend of science, beer and camaraderie organized by UCI graduate students. Think of it as Toastmasters for brainiacs, says Nayna Sanathara, who co-founded the group in 2015 while earning a doctorate in pharmacology.

The goal is to help graduate students and postdocs communicate complex scientific research to the general public – and have some fun in the process. “Grad school can be very lonely,” Sanathara notes. “With Brews and Brains, I got to know a good amount of people, which was refreshing.”

Brews and Brains co-leader James Pratt Jr., a fourth-year Ph.D. student

Brews and Brains co-leader James Pratt Jr., a fourth-year Ph.D. student in criminology, law & society, mingles with attendees on the venue’s patio. Steve Zylius / UCI

The gatherings have gained enough steam that students from UCLA and UC San Diego have asked about establishing Brews and Brains branches at their campuses. UCI’s club has nearly 1,400 followers on Meetup.com and sells beer pint glasses and coasters emblazoned with its logo.

Professors, students and curious civilians attend the mini-lectures, which cover such topics as sex workers in Indonesia, butterfly eyesight, intestinal immune cells, teen smoking, and sugar as a potential remedy for multiple sclerosis.

The idea for Brews and Brains germinated in a science communication skills course taught at UCI by writer/performer/radio host Sandra Tsing Loh. On the last day, Sanathara and two classmates – Mike Bryant, a mechanical & aerospace engineering master’s student who worked in UCI’s lasers, flames and aerosols research group, and Christian Herrera, a psychology Ph.D. student specializing in cognitive neuroscience – decided they wanted to continue honing their storytelling abilities.

Bryant suggested forming a Meetup group, Sanathara designed a logo, and Brews and Brains was born.

But the first meeting – held March 17, 2015, in UCI’s Anteater Pub – was a bit of a disaster. “We forgot it was St. Patrick’s Day,” Sanathara recalls. So the inaugural speaker found herself struggling to explain “the psychophysics of color” in a room filled with loud, drunk people. “After that, we looked for a quieter location,” Sanathara says.

A Newport Beach pizza parlor was the group’s next home, followed by an Irish pub, a Mediterranean diner and, currently, the Fireside Tavern in Costa Mesa’s Crowne Plaza Hotel. Slowly but steadily, the events caught on, growing from a handful of attendees and the need to arm-twist potential speakers to audiences of several dozen and a waiting list of folks wanting to deliver talks, organizers say.

On June 26, Brews and Brains will belatedly celebrate its second birthday with a big science party at The Cove, UCI Applied Innovation’s hip networking hangout. Food and drinks will be included, along with an expanded lineup of mini-talks, two by UCI faculty. The event is open to the public.

In coming months, the club hopes to launch a blog, propagate to other campuses and apply for nonprofit status, says James Pratt Jr., a criminology, law & society grad student who co-leads the organization.

And, of course, Brews and Brains will continue its every-other-week fusion of science and suds.

On a recent Tuesday, jet lag researcher Nave took center stage to discuss the use of disembodied fruit fly brains to study the side effects of flying cross-country (or staying up late and sleeping in on weekends). By manipulating the croissant-shaped organ’s biological clock and tracking the reaction of circadian neurons (bred to glow in the dark), UCI investigators discovered that a brief blast of light shortened the recovery time.

This summer, Nave – a second-year physiology & biophysics doctoral student – plans to experiment with the timing and intensity of the light to see if more instant jet lag relief is possible.

In the meantime, he warns Brews and Brains listeners that altering their sleep patterns on Fridays and Saturdays not only causes “social jet lag” on Monday morning, but increases vulnerability to heart disease and other ailments.

Reworking a line from Shakespeare, Nave concludes: “Partying is such sweet sorrow.”

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