Science Cafe NH is coming back, to discuss genes, genealogy and cold cases

Granite Geek
Published: 3/18/2019 5:56:46 PM

One of the most surprising big-picture changes that has taken place during my life is the way biology has taken the mantel of “most interesting scientific field” from physics.

When I was a kid, all the little geeks wanted to become physicists. Physics had relativity and quantum mechanics and atomic energy, everything from the esoteric to the apocalyptic. Who could resist that?

But after the structure of DNA was determined, genetics has allowed biology to slowly became more quantified and predictive while physics bogged down in hunts for yet more particles and dark energy. Especially since the arrival of the supercharged gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, biology has been bristling with deeply interesting questions about genetics and protein expression and ontogeny, as well as wildly useful and potentially dangerous technologies like personalized medicine and modified organisms.

And now it’s got Science Cafe N.H. in Concord.

Yes, the monthly discussion-in-a-bar series is returning next week after a bit of a hiatus while we found a new home.

Our topic for discussion March 27 will be what perhaps is the most unexpected byproduct of the genetic revolution: The way DNA analysis has combined with genealogy databases to upend crime-solving, especially for long-unsolved cases.

I was prompted to set up this Science Cafe by the NHPR podcast “Bear Brook,” which took a long look at how technology has partially solved the state’s grisliest cold case, which involved four bodies found in barrels in 1985 in Allenstown, near Bear Brook State Park. The key breakthrough was hunting through online databases from places like 23 & Me to find connections to DNA of the unidentified bodies.

That same process has been used to solved dozens of cold murder cases around the country but also, as the podcast made clear, raises serious questions about our genetic privacy.

Neat stuff, which is why I borrowed somebody from the podcast for our discussion: Albert “Buzz” Scherr, chairman of International Criminal Law and Justice Program at UNH School of Law, who has studied this matter.

But Science Cafe N.H. will not limit our questions and discussion to the Bear Brook case. The two other panelists will be Kimberly Rumrill, who has the interesting title of Criminalist II with the State Police Forensic Laboratory, and Beth Wilkes, professor in the Department of Natural Sciences at NHTI in Concord. We can talk about what is happening in genetic research in general and what effect it’s having on forensics.

As always, Science Cafe is free and open to all and the discussion will be driven entirely by your questions. Nothing is too simple to ask – I might get the ball rolling with “What exactly is the difference between a gene and a chromosome, anyway?” – or too detailed. You’ll definitely learn something.

You’ll eat and drink something, too, I bet. We have moved to Makris Steak and Lobster House, a family-owned Concord institution for many a decade on Route 106, which has put together a special menu for us.

If you’ve never attended a Science Cafe, what’s wrong with you? Science Cafe New Hampshire is approaching its eighth anniversary and is flourishing in Concord and in Nashua, where they also discussed science and forensics this month and had to turn people away.

Over the years, we’ve had well over 2,000 people show up for discussions about everything from 3D printing to Lyme disease to the mathematics of polling. Judging from all the calls and emails I have gotten from people wondering when Concord’s session was returning, we’ll have thousands more in the years to come.

The discussion starts at 6 p.m. on March 27, and will wind up by 8 p.m. You can learn more at the website, sciencecafenh.org, where you can sign up for email alerts or see some videos of past events, filmed by ConcordTV.




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