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A celebration of all things science

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The Maine Science Festival set to mark its third year

BANGOR – Too often, we think of science as SCIENCE, some far-removed thing that has little connection with most of our everyday lives. We allow ourselves to be intimidated by this notion that science is something far too complex for any but the most specialized among us to truly understand it.

And nothing could be further from the truth.

Science is EVERYWHERE, a fact that is celebrated annually by the Maine Science Festival. This year’s MSF takes place March 16-19 at locations all over the greater Bangor area. Scores of events aimed at bringing science to joyful, relatable life – as well as finding those connections to the world we live in everyday – are happening over that span.

And at the risk of sounding cliché, it really is fun for all ages. There will be plenty to do and to learn for young children, teenagers and adults alike. Seriously – if you have even the slightest bit of curiosity, you’ll find something to fascinate you at the Maine Science Festival.

Oh, and the vast majority of events are absolutely free.

You can find more information and a full schedule at www.mainesciencefestival.org. And you should absolutely do that, because any effort on my part to convey the vast and varied sweep of offerings over MSF weekend would be lacking. There’s just SO MUCH SCIENCE.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.

Kate Dickerson is the Director of the Maine Science Festival and one of the driving forces behind turning it into one of the most anticipated events on the cultural calendar. She was kind enough to engage with The Maine Edge for a Q&A that was not only incredibly informative, but also illustrative of the passion she carries for this project.

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TME - What prompted you to create something like the Maine Science Festival? What is your background in science and/or education?

Kate Dickerson - In April 2012, I read an article in the New York Times about a person from Scotland (John Durant, now at the MIT Museum) who was championing science festivals across the country. I thought “What a cool concept.” And my son, who was a freshman in high school at the time, is an avowed geek, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great for Conor and his friends to have a celebration of the things they love? Someone should start a Maine festival. I should do it.”

To this day, I’m not sure how or why I made the leap that it should be me, but once I decided that, I was in. I spent the next four months talking to people who run festivals in the area, as well as the major science research organizations in the state: University of Maine, The Jackson Laboratory, MDI Biological Laboratory and Bigelow Laboratory. All four of these institutions have scientists who are world leaders in their fields, and all readily agreed that a festival celebrating Maine science was a great idea. Even more importantly, all four told me that they would help us with the programming – meaning, they would help me connect with their scientists and researchers, so we could put together a dynamic festival.

I have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s in environmental management and policy. I’ve always loved science and hearing about the scientists who have helped to make our world a little more understandable. I’ve used my science background to inform my work in the energy and environmental field, and in policy work – the areas I worked in before the Maine Science Festival.

TME - This is the third year of MSF – what lessons have you learned from previous incarnations that have helped enhance this year’s experience? Any big issues that you have needed to overcome?

Dickerson - We’re still learning! I would say that some of the biggest lessons have been to ensure as balanced a schedule as possible: workshops, hands-on activities, forums, presentation, exhibits, films, and to have events in bars, meeting rooms at the Cross Center, stores and locations downtown – bring science to places that people aren’t expecting. This is a model that many festivals around the country use, and we’ve applied it here.

The biggest issue, in all honesty, is raising the money needed to cover the festival costs. We are committed to having our events being available free-of-charge; scientific understanding and literacy is too important to keep it behind a paywall. Luckily, we have sponsors and granting organizations who understand the value of science, engineering and technology to Maine and Mainers, and who appreciate the way the MSF provides that science: in a festival atmosphere, where you can’t help but learn and be amazed at the remarkable people we have in Maine!

TME - What is the general timeline when it comes to planning MSF? At what point do you start planning the next year’s festival? Or is it pretty much a year-round deal?

Dickerson - Our planning is done year-round – actually longer! We already have some events lined up for the 2018 festival. Once this year’s MSF is done, we’ll catch our breath for a week or two, and dive right in to the planning for 2018.

TME - What are some of the challenges that come with putting together an event such as this one?

Dickerson - There are a lot of logistics in keeping track of programming balance, partner involvement, sponsors, events, presenters, volunteers, getting the word out – you name it. The MSF has a fantastic team, including some who have been with us from the beginning. One of those crucial to our success has been the staff of the Maine Discovery Museum – the MSF is (now) an independently-funded program of the MDM, and we would not be able to do what we do without them.

TME - What are some of the primary goals regarding MSF, both on a personal level for yourself and in a general sense?

Dickerson - In a general sense, the biggest goal is for people to better understand and appreciate all the things that are based in science that are around us every single day. It’s one of the reasons our tagline is “Science is everywhere.”

On a more personal level, I hope that people who join us at the MSF are able to be as amazed as I am at the remarkable science that is being done right here in Maine. I wasn’t lucky enough to grow up here, but I have been lucky enough to settle here, and I would put Maine’s science and scientific research up against anyone, anywhere.

TME - You’ve had some pretty phenomenal headlining events at previous festivals; this year is no exception. How do you go about choosing the sorts of presenters/performers that fill that slot each year? Also – tell us a little about this year’s headliner, the live taping of “You’re the Expert.”

Dickerson - We have a programming team made up of volunteers, many from organizations who recognize the value and importance of the MSF, including MDM, the Challenger Center, and Girl Scouts of Maine; these volunteers do the heavy lifting of screening programming ideas, and making sure we have a balance of science and events that will work for the MSF. In the past, we tried to come up with all the programming ideas, using the resources of the networks we all brought to the table. Sometimes the ideas are time-dependent – for example, one of my advisory board members put together a panel about opioid addiction last year – and sometimes it’s a result of a presentation or event that we’ve seen and that we want to bring to Bangor.

This year, we changed it up a little bit and asked for “pitches” from scientist and others from all over the state – an “Intent to Present” call-out. That resulted in some great ideas, ones I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have thought of because we don’t have the background knowledge. One that comes immediately to mind as a great example is the forum “Why parasites control the world” which I think is a fascinating thing to think about on a Saturday in March!

We’re switching gears a little bit for the headliner and bringing in a show – “You’re the Expert” – which in the science festival world is known as “edutainment.” Our programming team thought it would be fun to have a different type of event than what we’ve had in the past, and also have something (and some people) that may not otherwise make an appearance in Maine. “You’re The Expert” is a public radio show and podcast out of WBUR in Boston which uses comedy to make academic research more accessible and exciting. Through game show segments and hilariously misguided guesses, a panel of comedians get to the bottom of what a distinguished scientist studies all day. “You’re the Expert” is hosted by Chris Duffy, who I met at a science festival conference in 2015, and we’ve been trying to figure out how to have him be part of the MSF ever since. The panelists that will be joining him are among the best comedians working today: Roy Wood Jr, Jo Firestone, and Michelle Buteau. Although I can’t divulge the mystery researcher, I will say that it is someone from the University of Maine who is doing some really innovative research that I bet most Mainers don’t even realize is happening at UMaine.

TME - How much have the longstanding partnerships you’ve established with the City of Bangor and other varied organizations helped in keeping MSF vibrant?

Dickerson - Our partnerships are vital to the MSF. Not only do our downtown partners graciously open their doors and welcome us and our events with open arms, we have partners throughout the whole state, covering all areas of science and engineering, and all types of organizations including businesses, non-profits, universities, and the arts, all of whom are committing to spreading the word about science in Maine. Many of these partners are also key people in our programming, which I believe is just as important, since it helps festival goers see the many areas where science is critical for Maine and Mainers.

TME - How many events can festival goers expect this year? And – while you’re obviously excited about them all – are there any events to which you yourself are particularly looking forward?

Dickerson - We’ll have about 60-plus events and activities this year open to the public. And, while picking an event does feel a little bit like picking a favorite child, there are a few I’m going to try and carve out time for: 5 Minute Genius, Science on Tap, You’re the Expert, science board gaming, and the Papermaker Talkback come to mind. The truth is, if I could figure out a way to go to every event, I would – every single item in our program is appealing to me.

TME - What would you like to say to people – especially kids – who don’t see MSF as something for them because they’re “not into science”?

Dickerson - The most important part of the MSF is that we aren’t a regular classroom and you won’t walk away from the weekend ready to go get your PhD. What we really want is for festival goers of all ages and interests to see that science is the foundation for many things that are important to us everyday.

Here’s one example: I would guess that over 90 percent of Mainers have a cell phone or smartphone, and I bet that most of us would now say that we can’t imagine doing all we need to every day without that small computer in our back pocket. Have you ever wondered how it actually works? How you can take it out of your pocket and connect to people and places and business in the next town or halfway around the world? At the MSF, you’ll have your chance to find out: there will be an exhibit at the Cross Center and a talk on Saturday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. at the Cross Center, both presented by Redzone Wireless – another Maine company that is a leader in their field – that will explain how science and engineering makes this happen. I think finding out how wireless networks work, and what people are doing to make that happen, is pretty cool to know. And it makes the world around us a little less mysterious.

We have tons of other events with different focuses, including art (Help Sculpt the Skull), or popular culture (Science in Popular Culture), or manufacturers in Maine who rely on science to make their products (Made in Maine).

TME - Are there any other things that you’d like readers of The Maine Edge to know about the Maine Science Festival?

Dickerson - Some of our events require signups, and some events we recommend signing up to ensure your spot. We’ve identified the age-appropriateness of all our events both online and in our program. Mostly, we ask that you come check out an event, or two, or the whole weekend – it’s a ton of fun.

(For more information, a schedule of events or to purchase tickets for the Maine Science Festival, you can visit their website at mainesciencefestival.org. You can also find out more on their Facebook page or follow them on Twitter at @MEScienceFest.)

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