Cambridge guides lead tour of science frontiers
Acting skills highlight Cambridge’s legacy
CAMBRIDGE — Wearing a white lab coat, Daniel Berger-Jones led a tour group into the lobby of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to show them exhibitions on the genomics research going on upstairs.
“We share an alarming amount of DNA with a banana,” he said, beginning his spiel.
But if Berger-Jones led with a laugh, he got serious fast, explaining the Broad’s exploration of the human genome, and its scientists’ pursuit of the molecular basis of disease and new treatments. “They’re accomplishing some amazing things in here,” he said.
The “amazing things” idea applied to most of the stops on the new Innovations of Cambridge tour in Kendall Square and on the MIT campus.
As an actor, Berger-Jones has performed with the Huntington Theatre Company, the American Repertory Theater and the Actors’ Shakespeare Project, among many others. But on this day his role was highlighting past, present and future achievements in science and technology in the neighborhood.
Over the hour-plus tour, he pointed out landmarks like the place where the rubber fire hose was invented. He pointed out the dome where MIT students have pulled legendary pranks and named the geniuses underfoot on the Entrepreneur Walk of Fame.
The most focus, though, is on Cambridge’s current scientific powerhouses, which include the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG, and the MIT Media Lab, as well as the Broad Institute. He talks about their breakthrough discoveries in fields from genetics to prosthetics, and how those are being put to work.
“When we started the research, it became apparent to me that there’s way, way more here than anybody realizes, and this is a special part of the country,” Berger-Jones said later. “This is a special part of the world.”
Berger-Jones and partner Christopher Schultz have turned their Cambridge Historical Tours into a thriving concern in its third season, with a platoon of trained guides taking tourists, prospective students, and local residents around landmarks within a short walk of Harvard Square. Now they are expanding to the other end of Cambridge.
“We are here for a short time, and this way we got a lot of insight,” said Mike Fanning, a walk-up customer from British Columbia who was visiting Boston with his wife, Kathy. “He really brings it alive, what’s going on in those buildings.”
“People realize, ‘Wow, this really is exciting,’ ” Schultz said later. “It leaves them with the feeling that they’ve experienced MIT in a way that the casual person wandering the streets would not.”
Unlike stage acting — which Berger-Jones says can sometimes be an inward, egocentric art — the Innovation Tour reaches out to everyone, he said.
“The best compliment I ever got after any tour was from this guy from LA, this total stoner who at first looked like he didn’t want to be there at all,” he said, then dropped into a Cheech-and-Chong sort of voice for his impersonation: “You made me want to read more about this, man!’’
Berger-Jones laughed, but he was also serious. “That’s the greatest thing anybody could have said to me, that I inspired the same kind of curiosity that comes to me naturally.”
On this tour, he bemoaned the sudden departure of cardboard cutouts of Barry Bonds and a “Star Wars” storm trooper from the window of one office in the Koch Institute. The scientists “have a good sense of humor, and they do get bored occasionally during their 10 years of searching for the answers to one single problem,” he said.
Berger-Jones and Schultz met a few years ago while leading tours for the Freedom Trail Foundation, and began offering “history with a wink” to visitors in spring 2012. “It was originally going to be just me and Chris,” Berger-Jones said, but business has been so good their company is up to more than two dozen guides.
“When they first came to see me it was clear they’d done their homework,” said Robyn Culbertson, executive director of the Cambridge Office for Tourism. “They really like to dig deep, and particularly Daniel seems to have a passion for history.”
In season, from four to eight scheduled tours run from Harvard Square every day, some focused more on Harvard and another on Cambridge’s role in US history. They started the Innovation Tour, now running at noon Fridays through Sundays, for a visiting group of Chilean entrepreneurs and scientists.
Their market now includes both tourists and local residents who want to learn what’s in their own backyard, as well as the visiting families of students and prospective students. “It is only going to increase, with direct flights between Boston and Beijing’’ starting this month, said Culbertson.
Berger-Jones is also mulling ways the company can become a theatrical presenter. Schultz is trying to start a subsidiary in Miami Beach.
Guides on the regular Cambridge Historical Tours assume, lightly, the character of an historical personage. But aside from the white lab coat, they do not infuse much theater into the Innovation Tour “because most of these characters are still kicking around the area,” Berger-Jones said.
Spend enough time around Harvard and MIT and you will inevitably have the occasional brush with greatness.
Berger-Jones once told a group in Harvard Yard that on any given day they might run into university president Drew Gilpin Faust — and turned around to see her walking past. “She must have overheard, because she was waving like crazy,” he said with a chuckle.
The Innovations of Cambridge Tour leaves from the plaza by the MIT Coop, 3 Cambridge Center in Kendall Square, at noon Fridays to Sundays, rain or shine. Tickets are $15. You can join in a few minutes before the start, or book a spot at 617-520-4030 or www.cambridge-historicaltours.org .