Above: Event organizer Niki Thomas separates strawberry DNA for a drink concoction during Hilo’s first Science Café held at Kuku’au Studio on Nov. 17. 

Early on a Friday evening, a mixed audience of college students and adults are learning about the inner workings of one of the most advanced telescopes in the world. It’s an unusual audience for Kuku’au Studio, a colorful lounge space nestled in Downtown Hilo filled with mural art and (usually) the vibrant sound of live musicians, poets and other performers.

Tonight, the studio is mostly quiet despite a full house of about 50 visitors who have come for Hilo’s first Science Café. Organized by former PISCES intern and University of Hawaii at Hilo student Niki Thomas, the event is a talk-story style forum designed to engage the public with local researchers and educators.

“For the past two years, I have wanted to try and have an event like this in Hilo,” said Niki, who funded the event out of her own pocket. “The Big Island is full of scientists in almost every STEM field and I am lucky enough to know many of them personally. It really is the perfect place for a Science Café – this is where the research actually happens!”

PISCES Planetary Geologist Kyla Defore plays a geology wordplay game with attendees.
PISCES Planetary Geologist Kyla Edison plays a geology wordplay game at the first Hilo Science Cafe.

Local researchers discussed a range of topics including geology, conservation, astronomy, robotics, molecular biology, mathematics, agriculture and medicine. Science came to life in the projects they shared—everything from saving endangered native birds to cultivating Hawaiian taro (kalo) varieties; the latest astronomy discoveries and cutting-edge breakthroughs in regenerative medicine. PISCES planetary geologist Kyla Edison brought some fun to the evening with a humorous wordplay game that had the audience laughing while learning geology terms.

Science Cafés have been held in other U.S. cities for years. More forum than lecture, they give participants an opportunity to meet scientists as everyday people outside their formal roles while learning about the work they do and how it impacts the community. In particular, Niki felt that holding a Science Café could offer more transparency between the scientific community and the public.

“This first trial proved there is interest in this kind of event and that it is worth having,” said Niki. “I am hoping to make it a monthly event.”

Niki is seeking sponsors for the next Science Café in Hilo to cover expenses and continue offering it for free to the community.