The Café Scientifique Experience

Subcommittee Co-chair Emily Milko (middle) with cafe facilitators Randi McCabe (right) and Debbie Nifakis (left)
Subcommittee Co-chair Emily Milko with Cafe facilitators Dr. Debbie Nifakis (left) and Dr. Randi McCabe (right)

As co-chair of the student subcommittee this academic year, I had the unique experience of applying for and planning the first Café Scientifique series funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) for the McMaster Health Forum Student Subcommittee. The Cafés were a new event style for the student subcommittee. Whereas in the past we focused on lectures, debates, panel discussions and workshops, we decided as per our Strategic Plan (released in October 2012,) that we wanted to explore innovative event types to engage students in diverse and meaningful ways. When we received notification about a funding opportunity from CIHR to run a Café Scientifique series, we worked hard to meet the deadline because the cafes matched the style of “student discussion” events we wanted to run for the 2012 – 2013 academic year. A Café Scientifique begins with a moderator introducing the topic and experts, the experts speaking for five to 20 minutes on their topics of expertise, and then the majority of the event consists of discussion and questions between the audience and the experts. The event always takes place in a casual setting, where refreshments are provided, to create a welcoming, non-threatening environment in which audience members are not intimidated by the topic or the experts.

As Principal Investigator on the funding application, I had the exciting opportunity to create the theme for the series of Cafés. As this was the first student discussion style event the subcommittee was running, I wanted to ensure that students would find the topics both interesting and easy to discuss. After much deliberation, it was decided that the overall theme would be ‘A Healthy Culture? The Health Woes of Student Life’, and each of the three Cafés would tackle a health issue specifically related to student life. Securing experts for each event was often challenging, but in the end it was rewarding, as we were able to attract six ideal speakers. There were two experts for each of the three events: How much is too much? Stress and student life with Debbie Nifakis and Randi McCabe; Drugs, Deception & Diets: Falsehoods of the Health Industry with Tim Caulfield and Steven Hoffman; and, Putting the Patient First: Patient-Centred Care with Nick Kates and Charles Cunningham.

In retrospect, I believe the three Cafés were some of the student subcommittee’s most successful events this year. We attracted many students to each event (a highlight was the standing-room-only crowd at the Drugs, Deception & Diets: Falsehoods of the Health Industry Café), and received only positive feedback from both students and the speakers about the events. The success of the series was due, in part, to the advanced planning, incredible amount of logistics and marketing work from student subcommittee members and Forum staff, and the student-oriented themes of the Cafés. Most importantly, I believe it was both the high quality of the speakers and their willingness to engage with students, and the high calibre of students attending the events that made each one so rewarding. After each event, which ran for two to three hours, the experts were willing to answer the students questions, and students and experts often would converse for up to an hour after the formal event had finished. I believe it was the intimate environment of the Cafés which broke the often intimidating barrier between experts and students, and allowed such easily flowing conversation.

The Café Scientifique series introduced the student subcommittee to a new avenue for engaging students in discussion about health challenges, and I am confident that the success of the series will carry through in future years as the student subcommittee continues to organize and execute more student discussion style events such as the Café Scientifique series.

For a glimpse of the most recently held Café Scientifique, view or listen to the interviews with speakers and student participants as they reflect on their experience and insights gained – on the topic of patient-centred care – available on our YouTube channel at

By Emily Milko, Student Subcommittee Co-Chair 2012-2013

Students engaged in the discussion on the falsehoods of the health industry
Students engaged in a lively discussion with Tim Caulfield and Steven Hoffman about the falsehoods of the health industry

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