On a Saturday evening in July, Amy E. Hyduk-Cardillo ’04 and her husband heated up the ribs they’d smoked a few days earlier, booted up Zoom, and sat down to learn more about their meal.
The Science of BBQ virtual event was just the latest in an ongoing series of similar food-centric alumni gatherings. Butler University Chemistry Professors Mike Samide and Anne Wilson, in partnership with the Office of Alumni Relations and Engagement, have been teaching small groups of alumni about the science behind their favorite foods—think beer, cheese, wine, and chocolate—since 2018.
“These events allow alumni to feel like they are back in class engaging with faculty, learning something new, and talking with one another,” Wilson says.
Each lesson covers the basic history, science, and production process of the featured food item. Hyduk-Cardillo, who attended several of the Science of… events held in-person at local businesses before the start of COVID-19, says virtual events have provided some relief during the pandemic.
“What’s been the silver lining around COVID-19 is the ability to see how organizations and businesses create new events, environments for hosting events, and ways of doing business that have been unique and fun to participate in,” she says. “The virtual Science of BBQ alumni event was a perfect way to spend our otherwise very rainy Saturday evening making new Butler connections.”
Prior to the BBQ event, participants received a video covering basic methods for choosing, prepping, and cooking different kinds of meat. The event itself focused on themes like the difference between grilling and smoking, whether you should use sauce or rub, and tips for achieving the best results. Jeffrey Stroebel ’79 says he plans to use the trick of applying a dry rub beneath the skin when cooking poultry, which directly seasons the meat while taking advantage of flavorful fats that escape the skin as it cooks. Stroebel didn’t have time to buy or prepare a BBQ meal to enjoy during the event, but he’s glad he took part.
“We are more than 2,000 miles away in Bellevue, Washington,” he says, “so it’s nice to be able to stay connected.”
About 100 Butler community members from across the country attended The Science of BBQ. It was the first virtual event of the series, allowing for a bigger audience that extended beyond alumni and also included parents, faculty, staff, and trustees.
Now, Samide and Wilson are getting ready to kick off the AT HOMEcoming 2020 event schedule with a virtual Science of Beer presentation—complete with an at-home tasting experience.
“Food provides an easy way for anyone to connect with science,” Wilson says. “For some reason, food is non-threatening—probably because we handle it every day. And that offers a good entryway into being able to talk about science.”
Space is limited for the 7:00 PM EDT event on September 22, so make sure to register here if you want the inside scoop on at-home brewing.
How it all began
When the Butler Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry first introduced short-term study abroad courses in 2015, alumni got jealous. Why weren’t those trips offered back in their college years?
So, Wilson and Samide decided to make it happen. They planned an inaugural Alumni Travel Tour that was scheduled to take place in summer 2020, incorporating topics with mass appeal: beer, wine, cheese, and chocolate. With a variety of European destinations on the itinerary, the curriculum aimed to combine interdisciplinary science with societal and historical perspectives.
To help spread the word about the trip—but also just to engage with alumni in a new way—Wilson and Samide launched the Indianapolis-based Science of… event series. Each of the in-person gatherings involved local businesses: Science of Chocolate with alumnus-owned DeBrand Fine Chocolates, Science of Beer with Metazoa Brewing Co., Science of Cheese with Tulip Tree Creamery, and Science of Wine with Sugar Creek Winery.
Modeled after the Butler classroom experience, the sold-out events all started with about 30 minutes of teaching, followed by discussion and an experiential component (AKA, a food or beverage tasting). Samide says the educational portion is taught in layperson terms, skipping some of the complexities that would be part of a regular science class and focusing more on things like how various chemical compounds make up different flavor profiles, or how growing conditions and aging times affect the taste of wine.
The chemistry professors enjoy providing these opportunities for alumni to connect with faculty and one another, having meaningful conversations while learning something new. While COVID-19 forced the Alumni Travel Tour to be postponed until 2021, virtual versions of the Science of… events have opened doors (or web browser windows) for broader participation.
“Events like these show that the University is not just a degree mill,” Wilson says. “It really is a place where we value learning and conversation. We are living the ideals of a liberal education—that there’s always something you can learn.”
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