Alan Alda, Scripps Research join forces to improve science communication


– The first time that legendary actor Alan Alda conducted an interview for “Scientific American Frontiers” on PBS, an award-winning series that ran for more than a decade, he remembers learning a lesson in humility.

From left, actor Alan Alda, Dr. Laura Lindenfeld, and Dr. Peter Schultz. Doug Brunk/MDedge News

From left, actor Alan Alda, Dr. Laura Lindenfeld, executive director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, and Dr. Peter Schultz, president and CEO of Scripps Research.

“I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was,” he told a crowd of largely scientists and medical professionals who gathered in a small auditorium on the campus of Scripps Research on Jan. 16, 2020. “I didn’t realize the value of ignorance. I have a natural supply of it. I began to use it and say [to interviewees]: ‘I don’t understand what that means.’ Sometimes it would be basic physics and they’d look at me like I was a school child. I am a very curious person. What I discovered was, I was bringing out their humanity by my own curiosity, by the way I related to them, which I developed through studying improvisation as an actor, and relating as an actor to other actors.”

Mr. Alda, 83, appeared on the research campus to announce that Scripps Research is the new West Coast home of Alda Communication Training, which will work in tandem with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, a nonprofit organization that Mr. Alda helped found in 2009.

Immersive training experience

“This will be a center where people can come to get training in effective communication,” said Mr. Alda, who is the winner of six Emmy Awards and six Golden Globe awards. “It’s an experiential kind of training. We don’t give tips. We don’t give lectures. We put you through exercises that are fun and actually make you laugh, but turn you into a better communicator, so you’re better able to connect to the people you’re talking to.”

To date, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science has trained more than 15,000 scientific leaders in the United States and other countries. The location at Scripps Research makes it more convenient for West Coast–based researchers and industry leaders to participate. “One of the things we wished, for years, we had was a place where we could train scientists and researchers and medical professionals all up and down the West Coast,” he said.

Recently, more than 30 of Scripps Research scientists participated in Mr. Alda’s training program, an immersive and engaging experience that helps participants learn to empathize with an audience and present their work in a way that connects with different stakeholders. The skills and strategies can help participants relate to prospective investors and philanthropists, government officials, members of the media, peers across scientific disciplines, and the general public.

Earlier in the day that he spoke on the Scripps campus, Mr. Alda encountered some of the Scripps researchers who had participated in that training. “One group of scientists came in and we shook hands,” he said. “They introduced themselves and said: ‘We’re working on infectious diseases.’ I said: ‘Oh my God; I just shook hands with you!’ No matter what I asked them, they had a clear way to express what they did. Then I realized they had studied with Alda Communications.”

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