Research in Focus
Spaghetti and Science Society Gives Students a Taste for Critical Thinking

Peter Mosconi, owner of Monte's Trattoria, site of the Spaghetti and Science Society dinners.

Dr. Ralph Katz, second from left, with Spaghetti and Science Society student participants.

When Canadian psychologists found that women who drink even moderately develop a reduced ability to rate attractiveness in male faces, they didn't know that their study would ultimately be judged by NYU dental students.

A dozen NYUCD students gathered one evening last December in Monte's Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village to evaluate the study, which was led by Dr. Kirsten Oinonen, a psychology professor at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The students were members of the Spaghetti and Science Society, founded in 2003 by Dr. Ralph Katz, professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Health Promotion, to provide extra helpings of science for students who hunger for more discussion than is possible in the classroom. The monthly dinners, which have become a forum to debate controversial research and public health issues, are open to second-, third-, and fourth-year DDS students from Dr. Katz's SAPL (Skills in Assessing the Professional Literature) classes. They often feature an invited guest, either a faculty member or one of Dr. Katz's oral epidemiology post-doctoral fellows.

Dr. Oinonen recruited 45 women for her study, measuring their ability to evaluate facial perception after an evening of drinking. Each woman was presented with pairs of male faces. One in each pair was more symmetrical than the other and the women had to identify it in each of the pairs. Male facial symmetry is considered to be a marker of attractiveness and an important factor in the choice of a partner.

Dr. Oinonen found that women who drank more scored lower on the symmetry test. Each additional drink led to a reduced score.

The findings suggest that alcohol has an effect on visual perception abilities controlled by the brain, said Dr. Oinonen, who published the study in the January 2007 issue of the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

At the Spaghetti and Science dinner, Dr. Katz challenged students to identify possible limitations in the research.

One potential issue is that the study evaluated attractiveness only in the context of facial symmetry, while discounting emotional attractiveness, said Hans Hsu, Class of 2013.

While agreeing that emotional factors can be important, Dr. Katz noted that the researchers had deliberately chosen to limit the study to the relationship between monthly alcohol consumption and facial symmetry perception. "Although it's true that this is just one grain of information that may not tell us the whole story, every research project gets down to a narrow question," Dr. Katz said.

"If you want the whole smear, you have to read 10 to 12 papers," Dr. Katz added, as a waiter doled out garlic bread.

"The study could have been strengthened by testing women's facial perceptions before, as well as after, they had been drinking," said Dr. Lin Li, an oral epidemiology postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Epidemiology and Health Promotion and a 2009 graduate of the MS in Clinical Research Program, who will enter the PhD in epidemiology program at Louisiana State University in August.

"The women had to make quick decisions about symmetry," she said. "I doubt how reliable that was."

Other students debated her point, remaining focused on the research even as a waiter went back and forth with plates of piping hot meatballs. "These dinners encourage us to practice what we learn in class," said Amir Daoud, Class of 2014.

While these Spaghetti and Science Society meetings always have a specific article at the heart of the discussion with the goal of reinforcing SAPL skills, the conversations always segue into a wide range of topics-this is, after all, a "chat and chew" social dinner-ranging from broad social issues, to personal experiences, to "hot topics" related to dentistry and/or other activities at NYUCD. "From my perspective," said Dr. Katz, "it's a chance to really get into deep discussions on a range of topics with a small group of students and to get to know a handful of students well. I'm amazed each month, month-in and month-out, that between 6 and 10 students find the time in their busy, hustle-bustle worlds to take on this socially oriented science meeting as an extracurricular activity and to share a plate of pasta and a libation with their fellow students and me. It's certainly been one of the highlights of my NYU experiences over the 11 years that I've been here."