Pokrywka chosen as guest expert

Host Chris Duffy will lead comedians Josh Sharp, Gary Richardson and Obehi Janice through a series of question-and-answer games in order to guess a Vassar professor's area of expertise. / Photo by Michael Chung

“There is a scientist out there somewhere who is dedicating their entire life to just studying how ostriches make love. There’s another person studying what would happen if monkeys used bananas as currency. There’s a team of scientists in Japan investigating ‘whether things look different when you bend over and view them between your legs.’ How are those people not famous?! That’s all I ever want to talk about,” expressed NYC-based comedian and host of “You’re the Expert” Chris Duffy.

Duffy will be gracing Vassar’s Skinner Hall stage on Thursday, March 9, at 7 p.m. in a live recording of his acclaimed podcast, which tours the country challenging a panel of three comedians to figure out what exactly a special guest “expert” devotes their time to investigating and researching through a variety of games and question-and-answer segments.

“[T]here’s a classic comedy setup of a ‘straight man’ and the comedian that’s been making people laugh for hundreds of years,” Duffy explained. “Scientists can serve up information and our comedians make it funny. It’s a classic comedy trope, just used in a new way.”

The special guest on the upcoming episode of “You’re the Expert” will be Vassar’s own Professor of Biology & Director of Science, Technology and Society Nancy Pokrywka, and comedians Josh Sharp, Gary Richardson and Obehi Janice will be tasked with guessing what it is that she does every day.

Just so the audience knows beforehand, here is how Pokrywka described her work: “In the Biology Department, I teach intro biology, genetics, cell biology and 300-level courses on topics like stem cells. My research uses genetic techniques to try and understand cells, using Drosophilia (fruit flies) as a model organism. In the STS program, I teach a course on the bioethics of reproductive technologies and also a course on the interplay between culture, society and the recent prominence of genetic information on our lives.”

The idea to pair Duffy’s comedic and informative platform with one of Vassar’s professors was born when Duffy—a former fifth-grade teacher—visited as a guest artist last spring in the Creative Arts Across Disciplines (CAAD)-sponsored course FILM 283: Producing Audio Narratives.

As Assistant Professor of Film Shane Slattery-Quintanilla, who taught FILM 283, described: “[None of] the other potential guest artists…had much live radio experience, and no one had developed their own successful show from scratch, as Chris did, so he brought a useful new perspective. Plus I immediately loved the show itself—the way it playfully uses comedy to celebrate important academic research…is delightful and satisfying and very ‘liberal arts’ in the best sense of the term.”

Following Duffy’s hugely popular visit, a discussion was sparked with Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator for CAAD Tom Pacio to bring “You’re the Expert” to Vassar, which was met with enthusiasm on all sides. An event like this is right on par with CAAD’s ever-evolving lineup of events that showcase intellectual pursuits in creative and engaging platforms.

Chris Duffy, host of the podcast “You’re the Expert,” which approaches scientific research from a comedic perspective, will present a live recording of the show next Thursday, March 9, at 7 p.m. in Skinner Hall. / Photo courtesy David Andrako via Chris Duffy/CAAD.

“My impression of Vassar students,” Duffy wrote in an email, “is that they think about the world in creative, cross-disciplinary ways … That kind of wide-ranging curiosity is what I think will make the show fun for Vassar students. Also, it’s really funny. I hear you have good senses of humor.”

Slattery-Quintanilla agreed, stating, “In addition to just being very entertaining, I feel like the show also champions the kind of curiosity and intellectual engagement that we value here on campus.”

The next order of business was choosing who to interview on the show. For this, CAAD turned to the Asprey Center for Collaborative Approaches to Science (ACCAS). ACCAS representative and Assistant Professor of Physics and Science, Technology and Society Jose Perillan helped conduct a campus-wide nomination to narrow down one “expert,” starting with a large student and faculty poll. The producers of “You’re the Expert” interviewed the top five candidates and chose Nancy Pokrywka.

Perillan stated that in Science, Technology and Society, “We are constantly talking about the fact that science is a human practice…not just this abstract, cold, robotic, logical procedure … [‘You’re the Expert’ takes science] down a notch, it brings it out of the ivory tower a little bit.”

“[A]t the end of the day,” he continued, “it gets people talking about science in a very different way than we normally engage with it. So just even coming at science from a new perspective can really cause people to stop and think a little bit, and that’s always good.”

The fresh comedic perspective that “You’re the Expert” presents is in many ways uniquely suited to exploring the many sides of science, a discipline that from the outside can be viewed as scary or unwelcoming to the uninitiated.

“Most people don’t want to feel dumb and it can be intimidating to ask the basic questions,” Duffy explained. “But comedians don’t care about being laughed at—in fact, they want to be laughed at—so when we talk to a nuclear physicist, they’re totally comfortable saying ‘What IS nuclear power?’ and also ‘What is physics? I zoned out during most of high school.’”

“On a higher level,” he went on, “I think scientists are almost never given a platform to speak for themselves. It’s so rare to hear directly from them about what they do. But comedy can bring people in and keep things accessible. We try to do for science and research what ‘The Daily Show’ or John Oliver do for the news.”

Pokrywka, especially due to her work in the STS Program, appreciates the transparency and openness that the podcast fosters. “I believe scientists need to be in conversation with the public, and that science really needs to be de-mystified … I think it’s important to be informed and to understand the ramifications of the technologies we adopt and how they are regulated.”

What’s more, Pokrywka expressed, increasing specialization within scientific research has barred even other scientists from closely following each other’s work, so any attempts at providing a clarity of information and a dismissal of the esotericism of the field is a step in the right direction.

Moreover, Perillan pointed out, “Science has a public relations problem … That’s what we’re facing politically, is this backlash against science … The march on Washington in April is really critical, and this [podcast] resonates with that message that science is human and we should really be thinking about what science is, and not this mythological image of how science is portrayed.”

Pokrywka spoke to these sentiments as well, saying, “It’s hard to get interested in a subject that feels incomprehensible,” Pokrywka said. “I hope I can show that science is not an elitist pursuit, that scientific issues are worth thinking about and that we need multifaceted, multidisciplinary approaches to answer the questions raised by scientific work.”

Free tickets are available now at the Vassar Creative Arts website for this special event, a testament to the distinctive and interdisciplinary ways this campus approaches academics and to the hard work of CAAD and our faculty in promoting this engaging kind of learning.

“The biggest misconception about science and researchers that we address,” Duffy summed up, “is that they’re boring or don’t know what they’re talking about. Every episode of our show shines a spotlight on the passionate, eccentric, brilliant people who are improving all of our lives with their knowledge.”

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