A global initiative of academics holding court in pubs and bars is returning to Auckland this year in remote form

The insidious and powerful ramifications of word of mouth, the inner workings of the brains of top athletes, and the effect of climate change on the world of wine – these are some of the topics academics from the University of Auckland will tackle in a series of digitally-streamed live talks over the next two months.

The event known as Raising the Bar, a New York-born initiative that sees academics presenting their latest research to the public in the convivial setting of their local, is going back online to safely reach bigger crowds.

Six speakers will give talks over six weeks, covering a range of fields such as genetics, neuroscience, marketing and the future of democracy.

Professor Andrew Shelling will kick off the proceedings with an exploration of just how much responsibility genetic predispositions have on people’s lives. The associate dean of research at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences will discuss some studies that have been reported in the media as real links between specific genetic profiles and life events, such as the day a person loses their virginity, and ask whether association is being confused with causation.

Can we really tell from DNA who is going to get cancer or diabetes, or does fishing for answers in the genes catch red herrings? Find out at 8pm on April 27.

The next week Dr Matheson Russell will uncover the nascent forms of democracy that are evolving alongside periodic elections, and may come to be the new way that decisions are made as issues like climate change grow in prescience. The associate professor of philosophy will examine how citizen-led models of policy-making such as citizen’s assemblies are flowering around the world.

“Democracy doesn’t just have to be organised around periodic elections,” Russell said. “There are other ways in which democratic politics can work, and we are beginning to see real world examples that should broaden our imaginations and raise new questions around what we want our democracies to look like.”

He pointed to situations like the standing body of citizens making choices alongside the city council of Paris, and other jury-like groups selected to represent the population who may be able to learn about issues and make choices while insulated from the “cut and thrust of politics”. Find out more about this with Russell at 8pm on May 4.

This will be followed by Dr Helen Murray, who has combined her research into neurodegenerative disease and her role as captain of the national women’s ice hockey team by studying the effects of contact sports on the brains of top athletes. To this end she’s part of a first for New Zealand – a brain bank collecting neural tissue from deceased sportspeople in the hopes of finding out more about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the progressive brain condition that dogs many contact sport veterans.

“It’s a form of dementia that affects people who’ve had exposure to repetitive head injury,” she said. While brain donations have been de rigueur for some decades for scientists studying diseases such as Alzheimer’s or motor neurone disease, she said CTE has only recently come under significant scientific scrutiny.

“It’s all very new as CTE itself is a disease that we’ve only started raising awareness about relatively recently,” she said. “We need to learn more about it.”

Find out more about the effect an impact to the skull can have at 8pm on May 11.

Then it’s chemical scientist Ali Lowrey speaking on the future of the wine industry. Her research has linked factors that affect wine-making across the board – from research into the chemicals found in vineyard soil to examining the human and historical factors of the industry.

“It’s kind of linking all of these things together,” she said.

It all comes from her experience putting together her PhD on vineyard soil chemistry and its effect on the vines, grapes and wine itself. She’ll use examples from Marlborough and her native Hawke’s Bay to explore the delicate balances of chemicals in the vineyard and the influence of external factors like climate change and the use of synthetic chemicals – as well as what people can do as wine-drinkers to make sure they make sustainable choices in the bottle shop.

Lowrey said it’ll be a good talk to enjoy with a glass of wine. You can do that at 8pm on May 18.

Next up is Justin O’Sullivan, who will be talking untapped potential of DNA to personalise healthcare and extend your life. The deputy director of the University of Auckland’s Liggins Institute said people often ask him why we can’t use DNA information to help with disease.

In this talk, he will discuss how DNA contains a wealth of useful information about disease risk, but finding the right treatment or mechanism is not always an easy task. He will set out how DNA research is pushing forward and making the DNA easier to use with the goal of extending human life and improving wellbeing.

Join him at 8pm on May 25.

Rounding out the speakers is Bodo Lang of the Faculty of Business and Economics, who will be speaking about something that happens organically every day and affects people’s thoughts and behaviours, but often flies under the radar: word of mouth.

His examination of word of mouth from a marketing perspective shows it can be a powerful force for affecting people’s behaviour, especially in the internet era.

“What’s interesting is that word of mouth and viruses have a lot in common in the way they spread through the population,” he said. “We even use similar words to talk about it such as the r-factor.”

He will also talk about ‘opaque word of mouth’ – when advertising comes via conversation or social media in the disguise of regular communication, often with the deliverer not even aware they are complicit in spreading a marketing message.

“There’s a blurring between traditional and paid-for word of mouth,” Lang said. “After the first wave, people often don’t realise it’s a message that’s been paid for. If a friend received some information second-hand, do we know exactly where it came from?”

It’s a topic that’s particularly germane in these days of misinformation and rumour. Get to the bottom of word of mouth with Bodo Lang at 8pm on June 1.

While the talks are free, punters are encouraged to register for a space here to avoid missing out.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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