For Brandon Shuck, the Friday before Spring Break was the day it finally sunk in that everything was about to change.
Earlier that day, classes had been cancelled following the shocking news that the wife of The University of Texas at Austin’s president had tested positive for COVID-19. Still, Shuck, and a handful of students and scientists from the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) gathered for their weekly Brewinar at one of Austin’s many breweries. The muted gathering was the last time they met in person.
“That was the last in-person interaction I had with my supervisor Harm (Van Avendonk) and the others,” said Shuck, a graduate research assistant at UTIG “I think after that it became more obvious that this was pretty serious.”
At heart, the Brewinar is a reading group for UTIG researchers that happens to be held in a bar. The group chooses a paper early in the week then meets on Friday at 4 p.m. to discuss the paper, usually over a beer or two.
According to Brewinar co-founder Dominik Kardell, another graduate research assistant at UTIG, the Brewinar was created to help break down some of the barriers between research groups and encourage collaboration in a casual environment.
“We managed to transform this pretty stiff academic reading group into a fun thing that people wanted to go to,” said Kardell, “not just for the papers but for a chance to get to know your collaborators, fellow students or professors on a personal level.”
Founded three years ago by Shuck and Kardell in the first year of their doctoral studies, the Brewinar has since become a staple. For both the founders and the researchers who have made it a regular part of their work and social schedules, being forced to cancel the weekly meeting was a significant blow.
Once the initial shock of life under lockdown had passed, the two founders began to float the idea of resurrecting the Brewinar.
Kardell remembers being reluctant at first. Surely the Brewinar’s real benefit was sitting together socially in a group of people? As the crisis deepened, however, the two realized that with everyone stuck at home, what people were craving were opportunities to interact with each other.
“I think the Brewinar is just a good way to keep that interaction,” said Shuck.
Two weeks after the Brewinar’s fateful last meeting in mid-March, Shuck and Kardell decided to take the Brewinar online. Uncertain what the response would be, they chose a short, easy paper to discuss and sent an invite to a small group. That Friday at 4 p.m., 12 UTIG researchers logged onto Zoom for UTIG’s first-ever virtual Brewinar. Several weeks later, the Brewinar’s online edition is going strong.
Obviously, taking a social event online presents its own problems. You have to be careful not to interrupt or talk over people, and side conversations are more or less out of the question. For the same reasons, however, the conversations are more focused.
“It actually worked out pretty well,” said Shuck. “I think it’s good to keep up the interaction and try and bring a little normality back into everyone’s life with all this craziness going on.”
Just as with the original Brewinar, talking about the paper was secondary.
“People are just happy to talk to each other again,” said Kardell. “It’s about keeping a sense of unity so that we don’t lose touch.”
Whether you drink beer or not, whether in person or online, what the Brewinar succeeds in is helping scientists at UTIG learn about each other’s personal lives and their research while staying up to date with the latest publications.
“It’s all the best parts about going to work, and we’re going to keep it alive until we can hopefully get out again someday,” said Kardell.
This story originally published in Texas Geosciences.