Amid the low murmur of the crowd and clinking glasses at Chelsea’s Café, Dr. Javier Nevarez stood and asked a question.
“What do you think when you hear the word ‘alligators?’” he asked. “Teeth? Biters? Sauce piquant?”
A specialist in wildlife and exotic animals at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, Nevarez was standing on the stage where rock bands and folk singers usually perform.
But on the last Tuesday of every month, the Perkins Road bar and restaurant hosts the LSU Science Café, an informal talk about intellectual topics. There’s free food and lots of conversation.
Nevarez focused on the Louisiana alligator industry’s role in conserving the species and started by describing the real life of alligators, an animal most people think of as “fierce and coming at you,” he said.
“We either think of them like that or on the plate,” Nevarez said.
Most Science Café sessions draw about 70 to 80 people, said Ashley Berthelot-Arceneaux, who created the series, but the alligator talk attracted more than 100 who stood shoulder to shoulder in every free space with view of the projector screen.
Half of the audience comes to every cafe regardless of the topic — a few drawn by the free food. The other half, Berthelot-Arceneaux said, come specifically because of an interest in that night’s speaker.
“No matter what the topic, I think people love the search for knowledge,” she said. “And this is rubbing shoulders with the best experts in the world on these topics.”
Science Café events are less intimidating than a formal lecture, she said.
“The idea was that we wanted to take that research and take that expertise off of campus to create an avenue to take the science to the people,” she said. “We wanted to do that in an informal and engaging way so that it’s not just a professor lecturing to a bunch of people. It’s a talk.”
Ideas for LSU to offer such sessions have been kicking around since 2007 or ’08, but the series didn’t start until January 2013.
Last year’s talk on the science of the supernova probably drew the most diverse audience, Berthelot-Arceneaux said, with more children eager to learn. A few children attended the alligator talk, including one who brought her plush albino alligator toy.
“We get everything from little kids — and they sit up front and they ask questions and get really excited — and then you’ve got retirees who come, and everything in the middle,” she said.
Leaning against the bar and nursing glasses of beer, two LSU veterinary students, Renee Poche, 24, and Hayley Hanson, 22, were attending their first cafe. They wanted to learn more about the state’s alligator industry from one of the school’s favorite professors.
“The topic is interesting,” Poche said before looking at Hanson with a smile. “And the food. We were excited about the food.”
On this night, salad and hummus with triangles of pita bread along with trays of catfish and french fries were being dished up free.
And bartenders usually come up with a novelty drink special to complement the topic. For the supernova talk, it was a Cosmos, a take on a Cosmopolitan. For alligators, they concocted a sweet rum drink with amaretto and cranberry juice and called it Alligator Juice.
As for the actual topic of the night, Nevarez offered several interesting facts: Watch bands drive the alligator farm industry; alligator meat is kind of a by-product, sold after the skins are harvested, and there has only been one recorded human alligator fatality in the state.
He shared photos of alligator products, like key chains and necklaces.
“These are the trinkets that they sell in gas stations,” Nevarez said. “People from out of state are horrified, and they buy them.”
Insight like this brings the regulars, no matter the topic.
Jerry Trahan, the 53-year-old chair of the electrical and computer engineering department, said he loves learning about various subjects.
“I like the stories they tell,” Trahan said. “They can find something interesting and connect it to someone who doesn’t know anything about it.”