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The Carletonian

Bringing science into the Northfield community

<ay, Feb. 13, Carleton Psychology professor Sarah Meerts presented “What is Love?: A Neuroscience Perspective” as part of the monthly Conversations on the Wonders of Science (COWS) talk series.

Meerts, along with Carleton Biology Professor Rika Anderson and St. Olaf Biology Professor Laura Listenberger, is part of the team responsible for organizing COWS.

The series convenes on the second Tuesday evening of each month. They meet at a number of Northfield locations—often the Hideaway, but also Imminent Brewing and the Northfield Library, said Listenberger. 

The talks are cost-free and open to everyone. COWS’s purpose, as described on its website (, is “to engage with the public to increase scientific literacy and spread excitement about new scientific discoveries.”

The talks are brief—usually between 10 and 15 minutes—and are followed by 30 to 45 minutes for questions and conversation. COWS topics cover a range of scientific fields, including astronomy, chemistry, ecology and psychology.

“Just about any topic in science is fair game!” said Anderson. “We try to find an even balance of speakers from Carleton, St. Olaf, and community members in town who aren’t affiliated with the colleges.”

“We try to have a balance of speakers on a variety of topics,” added Meerts. Recent topics include vaccines, composting, space travel in movies, the chemistry of brewing, and the solar eclipse. Sometimes the group solicits specific people; other times, speakers approach them.

In selecting speakers, the three consider whether a given talk is “of broad interest” and “easily understood by people with a variety of backgrounds and a variety of ages,” said Meerts. “We [want] individuals from children to retirees to feel welcome.”

Anderson, Listenberger and Meerts first met in April 2017 while organizing meetings around the March for Science.

“As part of that conversation, we realized that we wanted to keep the conversation about science going in a way that was accessible to all members of the Northfield Community, not just Carleton and St. Olaf folks,” said Meerts.

“Many of us in the scientific community have been worried about how scientific ideas are sometimes distorted or vilified in the public sphere,” said Anderson, “especially around topics like climate change, vaccinations and evolution. Science communication is an important part of creating an informed voting population.”

The three envisioned working locally. “We were trying to figure out how we could bring science communication to the Northfield community in a meaningful way,” said Anderson. “We wanted to engage the community and welcome everyone into a conversation about science without seeming condescending and preachy.”

After being denied a “Broadening the Bridge” grant, which supports collaborative projects between the Carleton and St. Olaf communities, COWS secured funding from the two college’s Dean’s offices. This money goes towards space rental and occasional provisions. The group receives additional financial support from St. Olaf College’s Hardy fund.

According to Meerts, “a great COWS night is when the audience has lots of questions.” Likewise, Anderson said that the best COWS talks involve “an engaged audience, a fun scientific topic, and lots of questions from the audience.”

“I love how eager everyone is to learn,” said Listenberger. “I love that it’s a community where questions about science are encouraged.  I love that interest in science is bringing people from the colleges and the community into the same space.”

COWS’s audiences are diverse. “It’s been shifting,” said Anderson. “There have been a lot of professors or staff members from the colleges, many of whom bring their children, but lately we’ve been seeing more members from the broader Northfield community join us. We’re hoping that trend continues.”

“We view the purpose of COWS as a way to increase conversation between scientists and the community,” said Meerts. “Most science in our country is supported by taxpayers, and we think it is important that there is direct communication between the people paying taxes and the people doing the science. We also want to help people realize that science is around us, affects us in many ways, and that it should be shaped by the needs of everyday people.”

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