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Get inside the minds of scientists at the Chambana Science Cafe

After a successful inaugural year, Joe Toscano is continuing the Chambana Science Café, an event that brings scientists to the public to talk about their research and answer questions.

Published on Aug. 15, 2013

Joe Toscano is going above and beyond the call of duty as a postdoctoral fellow at the Beckman Institute. His primary job as a postdoc is to conduct leading-edge research for three years at one of the top interdisciplinary research facilities worldwide. But Toscano decided to bring a little bit more to the University of Illinois campus.

While completing his graduate studies at the University of Iowa, Toscano attended a Science Café in Iowa City, an informal gathering that brings scientists out of their labs to public areas to talk about their work and answer questions. Science cafés are a grassroots movement in the United States that have drawn inspiration from Café Scientifique, a network based in the United Kingdom.

The café in Iowa City was enjoyable and was a good addition to the cultural community, Toscano says, so shortly after arriving in Champaign-Urbana, he and a fellow Illinois postdoc (Jessica Love) decided to organize one for this community.

“Science cafés are meant to make science approachable to the general public. Oftentimes, many people feel like science is hard to understand. Most of what non-scientists know is that we conduct research and then tell them about what we find, but they don’t find out about how we do it or how it really works,” Toscano said.

“So we want scientists to come out to a nonacademic setting, like a coffeehouse, and have a discussion about their work and what they do. There is always lively and thought-provoking discussion, and we have a broad audience.”

Cafés encourage conversation, debate, interaction, and dialogue between the scientists and the public. Past presenters have even included interactive projects, such as oragami with a mathematician.

After a successful year, Toscano will continue this program for the 2013-14 school year and is excited about the four researchers who will present this semester: Bryan White from the Institute for Genomic Biology, Preethi Jyothi and Abhi Singharoy from the Beckman Institute, and Jana Diesner from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

The Science Cafés occur the first Wednesday of every month, starting September 4, at 5:30 p.m. at the Champaign Public Library in Robenson Pavilion Room C. For more information, visit its Facebook page at

More about Joe:

5 facts about Joe
1. Beckman Postdoctoral Fellow since August 2011
2. Received his Ph.D. in 2011 from the University of Iowa
3. Originally from Rochester, NY
4. Hobbies include astrophotography and brewing beer
5. He and his wife are expecting a baby in August

Why he came to Beckman
“Beckman is an ideal postdoc opportunity. Not only are there many people here who I can collaborate with, but there is also a high level of independence and flexibility to choose what you work on.”

His research
“I work on language processing and am specifically interested in speech recognition. How do we understand speech, and how do we learn to understand it? Humans are very good at this. The first time you meet someone, you are able to communicate with them almost instantaneously, learning their voice and the characteristics that differentiate it from other voices you’ve heard. Computer systems aren’t able to do this nearly as effectively. By figuring out how humans recognize speech, we can hopefully make computer systems better at it, too. We’re also interested in understanding how speech perception is affected by hearing loss so we can develop ways to improve devices like hearing aids and cochlear implants.”

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