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UMass making the hard sciences a little softer

Medical school moves to make its research more accessible to potential donors

A gathering of UMass Medical School’s Hudson Hoagland Society listened to a scientific lecture last month.JOHN BLANDING/GLOBE STAFF

WORCESTER — It could have been a dull, dense lecture, unpleasantly reminiscent of a tedious college seminar.

Instead, it had energy, humor, a slide show of cartoons, and a charming personal story about two colleagues marveling at the mysteries of science over glasses of wine. There was no mention of Drosophila melanogaster; the simpler term “fruit fly” was used instead.

And by the time associate professor Mary Munson of the University of Massachusetts Medical School had finished her presentation to a group of donors on how molecules move in and out of cells (“It’s so awesome,” she gushed), her complex topic seemed clear and understandable.


That clarity was no accident, and Munson has her school’s fund-raising office to thank for that.

With government funding for scientific research on the decline, UMass has added two people with an unusual credential — a doctorate in science — to its medical school fund-raising office. They are there to play a dual role: not just raise money, but help faculty members like Munson, who runs a lab and teaches biochemistry and cell biology, explain their work to potential donors in plain, uncomplicated language.

“The research our scientists are doing doesn’t always present itself well to a lay philanthropic audience, which is another way of saying it’s way over people’s heads,” said John Hayes Jr., UMass Medical School’s interim vice chancellor for development, “and you don’t typically support what you don’t understand.”

So UMass, along with a handful of other medical schools and hospitals, is turning to science PhDs who can speak the language of both fund-raising and research to train its scientists to communicate with philanthropically inclined nonscientists.

That is a much different skill than writing government grant proposals that will be peer-reviewed by fellow researchers. But it is critical know-how as decreasing federal funding for scientific research makes philanthropic support increasingly important.


“Our role is to coach the scientists to present their work in such a way that a nonscientific audience can understand it, grasp it, and find the relevancy of it,” Hayes said, “with the end hope that the lay audience will give more money.”

He said it is too early to tell whether this new fund-raising effort has resulted in more financial support, although he said UMass researchers are increasingly receptive to getting pitching lessons from his staff.

“But how that will translate into philanthropic dollars,” Hayes added, “I don’t know yet.”

Mary Munson.John Blanding/Globe Staff

For Munson, coaching has involved working with Connie Johnson, the medical school’s director of individual giving for research, who has a doctorate in organic chemistry from Princeton. Johnson worked in a laboratory and did sales and marketing for a scientific instruments company before applying her science training to the fund-raising realm.

Munson said Johnson advises her to streamline and simplify her presentations, add visuals, tailor her talks to the knowledge level of her audiences, and explain how her research could affect human health.

“She’ll say, ‘You’re still writing for scientists, you’re not writing the big picture, you’re not writing for the right audience,’ ” Munson said of Johnson. “A talk I would give to junior scientists and a talk I would give to donors are completely different, and before I spoke with [Johnson] I had no idea how to explain my research to nonscientists.”

That training came in handy, Munson said, when she recently had dinner with donors from the Paxton-based Bassick Family Foundation, which has funded her research. The foundation’s wealth comes in part from the David Clark Co., a Worcester manufacturer whose products include spacesuits for astronauts.


At that dinner at the UMass chancellor’s home, Munson, keeping in mind the fund-raising office’s advice to make her research accessible, drew a parallel between the impermeability of a cell’s nucleus and the impermeability of gear for outer space.

“It’s not a bad analogy for having a tight barrier and getting things across it,” Munson said, “and I thought everyone would laugh at that, and they did.”

The other science PhD on the UMass Medical School’s fund-raising staff is Tracy Schmidt, who has a doctorate in biomedical sciences and has worked in several laboratories. Her current job, she said, is to be “a bridge to interpret the language of science to people who aren’t scientists.”

“Many foundations and corporations don’t necessarily have members with science backgrounds, so you have to make the language accessible to everybody,” Schmidt said. “You can’t use the same jargon and terminology you use in the trenches of the science.”

A smattering of other fund-raising professionals at local hospitals and medical schools also have doctorates in science.

Justine Levin-Allerhand, chief development officer at the Broad Institute, a biomedical research center in Cambridge, has a PhD in neuroscience. Ippolita Cantuti-Castelvetri, associate director of corporate and foundation relations at the Tufts University School of Medicine, has a PhD in experimental psychology. And Hugh Keeping, a grants officer at Boston Medical Center, has a PhD in biochemistry.


Those pedigrees, Hayes said, often earn them invaluable respect and clout among their colleagues.

“The PhDs we hire in development know the secret handshake,” he joked, “and what I mean by that is they have instant credibility when they meet with another PhD.”

An inevitable challenge for Johnson and her peers is overcoming resistance from researchers who dislike the idea of simplifying their work for a lay audience.

“No scientist wants to hear some development kid say, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about. Can you dumb it down for me?’ That’s insulting,” Hayes said.

Still, he added, “If we can’t explain what it is we’re trying to sell, we won’t be able to sell it.”

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached
at pfeiffer@globe.com. Follow her
on Twitter at @SachaPfeiffer.