Imbibing Knowledge

Food, drinks, education. A new SIAS lecture series takes the classroom to The Swiss.

For one Tuesday evening each month, the Swiss Pub and Restaurant becomes a classroom minus whiteboards but with hamburgers, fries and adult beverages. “The idea is to take knowledge and meet people whereUW Tacoma Associate Professor Jim Gawel they are,” said UW Tacoma Associate Professor Jim Gawel of the new lecture series sponsored by the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences (SIAS).

“Grit City Think & Drink” fills a void left by the Pacific Science Center’s popular “Science Cafe.” The Swiss hosted “Science Cafe” and the restaurant’s owner—Jack McQuade—wanted to keep the series going, so he contacted Gawel and SIAS Dean Anne Bartlett. “We thought this would be a great way to showcase the university and SIAS,” said Gawel.

“Think & Drink,” a name borrowed from and used by agreement with Washington Humanities, launched in December 2016 with a discussion about water quality in cities. Subsequent events have focused on a range of topics including bees and the healing power of music. “We’re looking for topics that are light and interesting to the general public,” said Gawel. In the coming month, speakers—typically faculty members—will lead talks on climate change, teen stress, and how Edgar Allen Poe literally shaped the American landscape.

UW Tacoma Lecturer Jeremy Davis is the speaker for May’s “Think & Drink.” He will be talking about insects, specifically how certain flies and beetles learn from each other. “We as humans recognize that we learn a lot from our teachers, our colleagues, our families and so on,” said Davis. “We might not think that other animals also have this ability.”

Davis checks on an experiment being conducted by his entomology students.

Davis, who initially planned to study primates, switched to insects out of practicality. “There are a lot more opportunities to study insects and they’re generally easier to work with,” he said. For Davis, pragmatism slowly morphed into genuine interest in his subjects. A quick scan of his office reveals cluttered shelves of gear, experiments in process and specimens. “You work with something a long time, you get to know them very well and you just start enjoying them,” he said.

Davis’s enthusiasm for his work comes across in conversation. He has an ability to explain complex ideas in a simple, straightforward manner. Davis colors the information with humor and a relatability that can be hard to find in an academic setting. This last part is something Gawel hopes “Think & Drink” can address. “We get too caught up in the jargon of our field, and we forget how to tell somebody who’s not in our field what we do,” he said. “This will be a good forum for faculty to practice and move out of their comfort zone.”

How social learning theory applies to bean beetles sounds like a heavy topic, one you wouldn’t expect to hear about between bites, but this is one aspect of Davis’s talk. Bean beetles lay their eggs on black-eyed peas. These beans are small and can only sustain life for a single beetle offspring. It’s reasonable to think bean beetles will avoid laying an egg on a bean that is already occupied but Davis wanted to test that theory using a tenet of social learning theory. “One of the predictions about social learning theory is that you should pay attention to what other individuals are doing when you have no idea what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said.

Specimens share space in Davis' office.

Davis designed an experiment using glass beads as stand-ins for the black-eyed peas. “We tried to think of a way to make the beetle uncertain,” he said. Davis took two beads, one with an egg on it and one with no egg, and gave them to a female bean beetle that hadn’t been exposed to the beads. She ultimately chose to lay eggs on the bead with an egg on it. Davis says this shows bean beetles are responding to cues from others in their environment. “It’s kind of like when you go to a new restaurant and don’t know what to order,” said Davis. “You’ll talk to other people to find out what’s good or maybe even ask the waiter what he or she recommends.”

Davis stops short at calling this behavior higher-level thinking. Instead, he sees this as insects engaged in adaptive decision-making. In terms of the bigger picture, Davis believes these findings are relevant to conservation, specifically how insects choose habitats. “They may be more willing to relocate if they see their friends are already doing it,” he said.

Faculty from SIAS make up the current list of “Think & Drink” speakers. Gawel and Dean Bartlett want to expand the program and bring in other voices from the university and the community. Gawel sees The Swiss as providing a needed space for relaxed conversation about important issues. “It’s basically a free event where you can learn something, ask questions and eat a good meal,” he said. “That’s a great combo.”

As for Davis, he’s hoping attendees will come away with a new understanding. “These guys [insects] are more like you and me than we might expect,” he said. “It’s generally the case; the more you know about an animal, the more you care about and value it.”

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Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / April 21, 2017
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu