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CRS Hosts the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science Workshop

As part of the Career Catalyst Series, the CRS hosted the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science Workshop in March.  The Center for Reproductive Science is an intellectual hub for reproductive science across Northwestern University, and as such, we have diverse stakeholders ranging from trainees to staff and faculty and to the general community.  Our goal in hosting this workshop was to provide our members with the tools necessary to communicate science more effectively and confidently to both scientist and non-scientist audiences alike. 

 The Alda Center trains scientists and health professionals to communicate complex topics in clear and meaningful ways. This ultimately leads to improved understanding of these topics by the media and other laypersons outside of their own disciplines. According to the Alan Alda Center website, The Center was formally established in 2009 with support from Stony Brook UniversityStony Brook School of JournalismBrookhaven National Laboratory, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and is located at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York. Alan Alda’s passion for vivid storytelling and interpersonal connections, as seen on the PBS television show Scientific American Frontiers, inspired this unique training program. The Alda Center’s faculty come from diverse backgrounds including, science, technology, engineering, math, medicine, journalism, communications, public policy and theater. This integrative approach to communication instruction helps trainees translate their research into the vernacular without losing their original passion for their work.

The Alda workshop at CRS was run by Mr. James Rea, a communications coach and consultant who helps scientists, engineers and other technical experts reach their key audiences with clear, engaging stories.  Mr. Rea started on this path nearly 20 years ago, when he took on a communications role with the U.S. EPA’s Design for the Environment Program. In 1998, Mr. Rea left the EPA to bring stories of science and sustainability to a wider audience as an independent reporter and producer for NPR. In 2001, Mr. Rea began his own communications consulting practice, putting his skills to work for a variety of clients. Mr. Rea continues this work now as an instructor for the Alda Center workshops.

 

 During the CRS event, Mr. Rea guided attendees through improvisation-based exercises to help them communicate their research without using scientific jargon. The group discussed the importance of body language and the use of imagery descriptions to engage their audiences. Attendees were asked to choose a partner and mirror their body movements to emphasize key shifts during a presentation. They were also asked to describe various aspects of their day in the lab using only sensory imagery. Mr. Rea stressed that a key component of an effective presentation is making your audience recall specific sights, smells, sounds and feelings.  This presentation proved very relatable, and our trainees are already utilizing the skills they learned. As a current Master of Science in Reproductive Science and Medicine student, Jamie Mara, said “I recently gave a lab meeting in which I summarized an extensive review paper on ovulation, a topic that is new to our lab. I had been talking for a while and stopped to ask if anyone had any questions and went on to ask if there were any points that they wanted to discuss further. This allowed everyone to play a more active role in the presentation and let them direct it to a greater degree. One of the take-aways from the Alan Alda Workshop was that communication with your audience is essential and that they need to play an active role in how a presentation proceeds.”

 As Jordan Machlin, a current Master of Science in Reproductive Science and Medicine student, stated, “I had a great time participating in the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science Workshop! I think that scientists can benefit greatly from learning new techniques for communicating science to the public. It especially helped me by teaching the importance of knowing your audience and how you can mold your scientific story based upon who is listening to best disseminate the information in every context.”