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S.B. Zoo Unites Science and Improv Comedy

Mountain Lions and Stinging Insects Inspire Instant Laughs on June 15


Ready to roar with laughter? On Thursday, June 15, the Santa Barbara Zoo is bringing together humor and science for an evening of IMPROVology. This family-friendly program combines the knowledge of animal experts with the comedic talents of Los Angeles–based Impro Theatre Company to create an experience that’s fun, interactive, and educational. Dean Noble, the zoo’s marketing director, described IMPROVology (formerly known as Zoos Line Is It Anyway?) as “a TED Talk meets Second City,” adding that “nowhere else is learning about animal behavior so funny.”

The evening begins with leading zoologists sharing stories and research findings regarding their specific field of study. The comedians then come up with amusing, on-the-spot skits based on zoological tropes: sea otter movement, parasitic worms, and parrot languages, for example. Their efforts are supported by the unsinkable music of Konrad Kono, a renowned S.B. performer, composer, arranger, and music teacher, and the spoofs are judged by area TV and radio personalities, giving the comedians competitive incentive.

An impressive array of scientists are slated to appear, including California Director of the National Wildlife Federation Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, who is an expert on urban wildlife, most notably the infamous mountain lion who resides in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park; and Cal Poly biological sciences professor, Gita Kolluru, who will talk about evolutionary fitness in animals. Also on the slate is entomologist Justin O. Schmidt, who Discover magazine called the “world’s leading authority on the nature of stinging.” Schmidt received the Ig Nobel Prize, which is awarded for unusual and imaginative research, for creating the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. What is this pain index? It is a one to four scale of the level of pain felt from various Hymenoptera ​— ​e.g., wasps, bees, ants ​— ​stings. Most small bees are at level one, for example, while tarantula hawks and bullet ants stings hit level four. “It’s not a formalized mathematical relationship between the numbers,” Schmidt explained. “It’s more like a rule of thumb.”

Schmidt has received stings from about 83 species of Hymenoptera insects in the course of his research; needing to collect the venom of hundreds of insects, being stung was expected. “Chances are, they’re going to get a little riled up, and your defenses and alertness are not going to be sufficient,” he said. “No matter what, one of them is going to sting you.” But in pain, Schmidt found opportunity: “I just got stung, might as well make the best out of a bad situation. So I recorded how much it hurt and put it on a number scale.”

The pain index has garnered Schmidt media attention, as well ​— ​he appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and thoroughly terrified the host with a showcase of the insects he studies.

In conversation about the role of programs such IMPROVology in promoting interest in the sciences, Schmidt affirmed his desire to invigorate the youth. “What I’m trying to do is instill a love of science,” he said. “Why stinging insects? Because they’re the most colorful, spectacular, and they capture your attention,” he continued. “If you make them fun and scientifically interesting, and try to use that as a vehicle to inspire people to think that science is cool … whether it’s changing the genome of malaria or you’re sending rockets to outer space, it doesn’t matter. Science is cool, and [IMPROVology] is one example in your own backyard of how science is cool.”

IMPROVology is Thursday, June 15, 7:30-9 p.m., at the S.B. Zoo (500 Niños Dr.). Call 962-5339 or visit sbzoo.org.



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