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Acting classes give scientists tools to pitch their work

From left, Boston University scientists Azer Bestavros, Mark Grinstaff, and Xin Zhang during an improvisational training session.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

From left, Boston University scientists Azer Bestavros, Mark Grinstaff, and Xin Zhang during an improvisational training session.

The men and women stared intently into their partner’s eyes, slowly stretching their arms and bending to the side, in a silent and mysterious dance. They struggled to stifle giggles as they mirrored each other’s awkward movements.

The improvisational theater game was designed to train them to pay close attention so they could better connect with audiences. But these were not actors. They were microbiologists and neuroscientists, computer engineers and astrophysicists who have spent their careers trying to cure cancer, slow global warming, and explore the possibility of life on Mars.

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The point of the exercise was to teach these 32 hand-picked Boston University scientists to be as tuned-in and persuasive as possible when they pitch their work to lawmakers, federal agencies, and a largely indifferent public. Support from all three quarters is essential for funding to continue.

“The exercises seem silly and trivial, but they make you vulnerable and open to other people,” said Alan Alda, the actor best known for his role in the television series “M*A*S*H,’’ in a phone interview. “You’re not spraying them with knowledge. You’re connecting with them. The more you’re aware of the other person’s response, the clearer you are going to be and the more impact you could have.”

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Alda, who hosted PBS’s “Scientific American Frontiers” for nearly a dozen years, said that work inspired him to train other scientists how to plainly explain their research. So in 2009 he helped found Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. BU signed up, as did Dartmouth College, University of Vermont, and University of Maine, along with a growing number of other universities.

These days, scientists’ groundbreaking discoveries are no longer enough. More than ever, in a new era of federal austerity, scientists must be able to succinctly communicate how their work can change lives. They must learn to speak eloquently and passionately before congressional committees, government officials, and private philanthropists about the societal benefits of investing in research.

“We are in fiscally restrained times, and it’s clear that not all politicians understand the importance of supporting research,” said Gloria Waters, BU’s vice president and associate provost for research, who convened the professors in September for the day-long bootcamp led by a team of actors and journalists.

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“Your goal isn’t to sound smart or entitled,” one instructor told the group, who are more accustomed to lecturing students or sharing the minutiae of their research with colleagues than having to “dumb down” their material for the average Joe. “Don’t get bogged down in the details.”

Some of the scientists, trained skeptics, questioned the need to devote a large chunk of their work day to improv exercises. They have experiments to monitor, research grants to write. What insights could they possibly glean from actors?

“You can’t do good science without good communication,” Alda said. “You need to raise funds. The public has to back it. And you have to respect the fact that policy makers have not spent their lives studying science. They don’t talk your lingo.”

. . .

The arm-stretching, improvisational exercises are intended to make BU scientists vulnerable and open to other people.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

The arm-stretching, improvisational exercises are intended to make BU scientists vulnerable and open to other people.

In a conference room on the ninth floor of the Boston University Photonics Center, an instructor projected a densely written abstract from the Journal of Infectious Diseases onto a large screen. She asked the professor who wrote the paper to stand on stage and distill his research to four nonexperts plucked from campus and paraded into the room.

“How many of you want to get Ebola?” asked John Connor, a virologist. The nonexperts — the university’s deputy police chief, its chapel director, a student, and an administrative assistant — stared back at him quizzically. “Me neither. That’s what my research is about.”

One computer scientist, Azer Bestavros, lamented that most people assume he fixes computers for a living. “Don’t ask me what version of Microsoft Windows to buy,” he said, drawing sympathetic chuckles from his colleagues.

‘You have to respect the fact that policy makers . . . don’t talk your lingo.’

Alan Alda, actor and founder of Center for Communicating Science 
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As director of BU’s Hariri Institute for Computing, Bestavros must travel to Washington several times a year to advocate for grant funding and promote specific projects. “Meetings in DC are very different from teaching students in a class where you’re in charge,” he said. “The power dynamics shift.”

Six hours into the training, each scientist finally had an opportunity to tell their colleagues about their research.

“Try not to say ‘I’m so and so and I do this.’ That’s not terribly engaging,” said Graham Chedd, one of the instructors. Instead, he challenged them to tell a short story about their work, a tale that would convey drama.

Michael Hasselmo, a neuroscientist, excitedly shared what he thought was the perfect anecdote, linking his recent colonoscopy to his research about Alzheimer’s. But Chedd interjected when Hasselmo peppered his colorful story with technical references to “grid cells” and “hippocampus.”

“You lost the thread. Leave out these details and words,” Chedd advised.

Hasselmo looked surprised but recovered quickly, subbing in “a brain region involved in memory function” in place of “hippocampus.”

No one — not even the associate provost — was spared Chedd’s no-nonsense coaching.

. . .

Azer Bestavros, a computer scientist at Boston University, explained his work to Representative Katherine Clark in Washington.

Drew Angerer for The Boston Globe

Azer Bestavros, a computer scientist at Boston University, explained his work to Representative Katherine Clark in Washington.

On a recent morning, Bestavros and a Washington lobbyist for BU sat in the Capitol Hill office of Representative Katherine Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat on the House committee that oversees funding for the National Science Foundation.

Bestavros wanted to thank her for pushing for recent funding, impress upon her the importance of continued support, and arm Clark with ammunition for future budget and policy fights.

“I don’t want to bore you with the details of what we do,” he said, before launching into a story of how he uses cloud computing, supported by the NSF grant, to analyze top secret data.

And, he explained, he is able to calculate gender wage gaps at major corporations in Boston without the companies ever having to divulge proprietary salary information. The research could be applied to cybersecurity, medical sciences, anything using sensitive data that organizations want to keep private.

“This sounds like magic,” he said, using a phrase he had practiced in training. “But it’s not.”

The congresswoman, who had signed onto a bill addressing income disparity between men and women, was impressed by the relevance he outlined.

“It’s linking it back for the members of Congress,” Clark said. “Nobody would think, oh, the Paycheck Fairness Act, how is that tied into NSF funding?”

Bestavros beamed proudly. “We need 100 more like you.”

The meeting was slated for 15 minutes. It lasted 25.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tracy.jan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TracyJan.
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