Café culture (Day 121)

Café culture (Day 121)

25th September 2014

If I’ve said it once, I’ve repeated it many times – communication is key. At this time of year, there are hundreds of young, enthusiastic students leaving home, going to university to study chemical engineering. They’ve made a big step in a direction that has many opportunities.

In the first few weeks of university they will meet many new people, many of them studying different subjects. One of the first questions asked in these new meetings is “what are you studying?” – and in response to the answer “chemical engineering”, there will be a lot of people asking – “what’s that?”.

As I head to Australia for the Chemeca 2014 conference it reminded me again, that a big challenge is explaining what we do and how it makes a difference.

While having a drink, I thought about Café Scientifique – where anyone with an interest in science and technology can meet to listen, discuss and debate issues.

All it costs you is the price of a drink (tea, coffee or a glass of wine).

There are now local café’s across six continents, offering opportunities to talk about relevant issues.

In the last few weeks, the Wellcome Trust granted an International Engagement Award to support an existing café network in Uganda and support the development of new ones in Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. The Uganda programme is a ‘junior’ café scientifique scheme providing a forum for secondary school students to meet scientists from universities, research centres and medical facilities and learn about a wide range of topics.

Just a quick search of the internet reassured me that chemical engineers are involved in this – my colleague at Imperial College London and Chair of IChemE’s Energy Conversion Technology Special Interest Group Dr Paul Fennell spoke last year about his work in carbon capture and storage (CCS).

More recently, Professor Alison Lewis, head of the chemical engineering department at the University of Cape Town spoke about acid mine water; the environmental challenge is poses but also the resources it contains.

In North America, Dr Brent Peyton from the Chemical and Biological Engineering Faculty at Montana State University has also shared his knowledge of microorganisms in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park and how this can be used in new biotechnology applications.

Discussions at these cafés can raise awareness – something that is vital. In my Presidential address I mentioned that we must increase understanding of the difference between hazard and risk. Just a few days ago I mentioned that misconceptions about fracking are challenges we should tackle and embrace.

In the next few days I’ll be visiting Malaysia, Singapore and Australia and I think this is a good opportunity to encourage the chemical engineering community to share with the science and engineering community and those with an interest, what you do and how it makes a difference.