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Science comes alive with MSF - Maine Science Festival to mark fifth year

March 13, 2019
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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 – which marks the fifth year of the event – takes place March 13-17 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 via email 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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The Maine Edge: What led 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 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. As we planned the MSF, we realized that it was just as critical to have the arts as part of the Festival, and I'm deeply proud that we've had arts organizations as part of the MSF from the beginning.

I have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a masters 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. Trying to figure out how things work, and how we can use that knowledge to make the world a better place - that's an inspiration for me.

TME: What lessons have you learned from previous incarnations that have helped with regards to subsequent planning? What are a few of the biggest issues that you have needed to overcome?

KD: We are constantly thinking about how 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, and locations downtown – bringing science to places that people aren't necessarily expecting it, and having a whole host of different types of events and venues so that at least one of the 70+ events and activities will appeal to every Mainer.

As for [our] biggest issues, we've had two. [First,] explaining what a science festival actually is. The MSF is more like a film festival than anything else; we have more than 70 events and activities of all kinds, and there are a number of events that are great match for adults but not kids. The second issue is what every nonprofit in Maine has to deal with, and that's making sure we have the money we need to run the MSF. I am committed to having our events being available free-of-charge; knowing about all this great work in Maine too important to have it only for those who can afford a ticket. 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.

And, this year for the first time, we are asking festival goers to consider making a $5 donation when they attend the MSF. Many science festivals around the country charge anywhere from $10-30 for just one event like Tech Night or 5 Minute Genius. This is NOT a requirement, but it will help us ensure that the model we’ve put in place will be able to continue.

TME: What are some of the challenges – logistical and otherwise – that come with putting together an event such as this one? And what are some of the primary goals regarding MSF, both on a personal level for yourself and in a general sense?

KD: The biggest challenge for us at this point is making sure all the moving parts are in sync and going in the same direction. There are a lot of things to consider with a five-day festival, including making sure we're covering as many topics as possible to show the breadth and depth of what is happening in Maine. The truth is, most years it feels like we are just barely showing some of great work being done. In fact, that's one of the reasons we now have MSF Pop-up events outside of the festival month of March – we have so much going on, all over Maine that we want to have more events that highlight that work.

The biggest goal I have is for festival goers to understand that Maine really is “all that” in a number of different fields of science, engineering, and innovation. And, we don't need to look outside of Maine – or leave Maine – to find national and world leaders who are changing the world. With the Maine Science Festival, there is no better place to learn about, and be inspired by, Maine science – all in one place.

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 – could you share a little about this year’s headliner?

KD: Lining up headliners has been pretty organic; often it has come from a wish-list of ideas or people that the MSF Programming Team has bandied around, and then it's just asking them. We've been very lucky in that just about everyone we've approached has said yes with zero hesitation.

This year's headliner is a live show from the host/executive producer (Wendy Zukerman) and senior producer (Kaitlyn Sawrey) of Gimlet Media's podcast “Science Vs.” In addition to really researching and tackling a subject, the “Science Vs.” team is outstanding at explaining science in a way that makes sense to a wide-ranging audience. It is impossible to listen to Science Vs. and not learn something - and you'll be entertained! “Science Vs.” has covered a wide range of topics, and for the MSF Wendy and Kaitlyn will present “Science Vs UFOs” on Saturday, March 16th at 7:30 p.m. at the Gracie Theatre. Tickets will be $10 for students and $17 for general admission in advance, with a five dollar increase at the door.

TME: How much have the longstanding partnerships you’ve established with the City of Bangor and other varied organizations helped in keeping MSF vibrant? Are there any new partnerships for this year’s incarnation?

KD: 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. 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.

We do have some new downtown businesses on board – Queen City Cinema Club said yes almost before I finished asking if they wanted to be one of our venues. And we've had some new science-heavy business join us for some great events, Foundation Brewing and Nocturnem Draft Haus among them. A full list of our partners, many of whom have been part of the MSF for all five years, is available on our website; they are among the unsung heroes of the MSF.

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?

KD: We will have more than 70 events and activities open to the public; trying to pick just a few that I'm looking forward too is always difficult. When in doubt, I lean on the Showcase Events – those that happen every year (you can find them in our program listings). I would also like to at least catch part of Science of Aging and Science of Voice, for mostly personal reasons. I can safely say that I would be happy to go to any MSF event.

TME: The fifth year is something of a milestone; there’s a fair amount of MSF history at this point. Are there any events (anniversary-specific or otherwise) that are new for this year?

KD: We do have a new event this year! To celebrate our fifth year, we decided to expand to five days of events, and that expansion is taking root as an MSF Science Trivia Night on Wednesday, March 13th. What makes this event even cooler (I think) is that we've invited people and organizations from around the state to run our event that day. There will be events in Bangor, Kennebunk and Lewiston; we're still working on trying to have events in Portland and the Blue Hill area. All locations will be listed on our website, Facebook and app.

TME: What are some of your favorite/most memorable moments/events/what have you from past MSFs?

KD: That's another “which is your favorite child?” question! I have loved working with arts organizations like Penobscot Theatre Company, Bangor Symphony Orchestra and the University of Maine Museum of Art so that we can bridge the gap that has grown up between science and the arts - and because I have learned so much from them. I've enjoyed overhearing people say that they went to an MSF event and that they had no idea “we had this in Maine.” It's also been great fun to meet the scientists and presenters who give the MSF their time and expertise to make the MSF actually happen.

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”?

KD: What we really want is for festival goers of all ages and interests to see that science is the foundation for so many things that we rely on every day and that Maine is a leader in many different areas. There are Maine scientists and researchers who are really good at what they do and who are known all over the nation and world. And even if you aren't "into science" it is such an important part of our daily lives (mobile phones, computers, mapping, growing food) that it's important to know how it works and who is doing that work.

TME: Are there any other things that you’d like our readers to know about the Maine Science Festival?

KD: Some of our events require sign-ups, and the rest are first-come, first-served. We've identified the age-appropriateness of all our events both online and in our program and have also have suggested events based on topic areas.

Public MSF events take place in Downtown Bangor on all days of the festival. Specific trivia locations around Maine will be featured on March 13. The Cross Insurance Center will play host on Saturday (March 16), while the Gracie Theater will host the headliner on Saturday evening.

Mostly, we ask that you come check out an event (or two, or the whole weekend) and talk to our presenters and partners. This is your chance to be inspired, learn a little big, and have some fun!

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