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Actor Alan Alda and Scripps Research will transform scientists into master storytellers

Celebrity portraits by The Times | Alan Alda
Actor Alan Alda, who has hosted such shows as “Scientific American Frontiers,” is going to help scientists on the West Coast become better storytellers. His communications training company will work out of Scripps Research in La Jolla.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

For all of their skill in the laboratory and classroom, scientists aren’t always great at imparting their ideas to the public, policymakers and donors.

It’s a cultural thing. Historically, science — especially the life sciences — hasn’t placed a premium on speaking to the masses.

But change is coming.

Scripps Research in La Jolla announced Thursday that it will partner with one of the nation’s great storytellers, Emmy Award-winning actor Alan Alda, to teach scientists and medical professionals to communicate more effectively.

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Scripps is becoming the West Coast home of Alda Communication Training, a company that teaches communication skills using the Alda Method, which heavily relies on improvisational theater techniques.

Alda wanted to expand his New York company and was enamored of Scripps Research, a cog in one of the largest science and medical research communities in the country.

“It’s extraordinary that such an institution has decided to partner with us and have a facility on their campus that will be an attractive place for scientists to come,” Alda told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The 83-year-old Alda, who has Parkinson’s disease, is best known for an acting career that includes his role as Hawkeye Pierce in the TV series “M*A*S*H” and his portrayal of a divorce attorney in “Marriage Story,” which received six Oscar nominations Monday.

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But he is also noted for his work as a science educator. He was host of the PBS series “Scientific American Frontiers,” wrote a science book, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?” and has a podcast, “Clear+Vivid.”

He also created the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York, which gave rise to his communications company. It has trained 15,000 science leaders nationally.

Alda’s work earned him the National Academy of Science’s Public Welfare Medal in 2016.

He spends a lot of time improving and expanding the training program, which is conducted mostly in two-day workshops by teachers from various fields.

“We are able to help scientists talk in a way that people not only understand but see as relevant to their own lives,” Alda said.

“The public benefits by having a better understanding of what should be pursued with government funding, and by being let in on the beauty of nature.”

National surveys and studies have shown that the public is interested in science and medicine, and that many people firmly grasp both. But many also struggle. A 2018 National Science Board survey revealed that much of the public does not understand basic facts about such things as genes, antibiotics and evolution.

A lack of education is a big factor. So is the fast-changing nature of technology. In recent years, the field has created such complexities as CRISPR-Cas9, a genome editing tool.

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The training workshops will begin in June and initially cater to people who work in the life sciences, one of California’s largest industries. The program is expected to serve broad areas of science and medicine.

The workshops will emphasize improvisational theater games and exercises to teach scientists to be better listeners and observers, especially in reading people’s body language. They also will be taught how to discuss their work in clear, compelling, relatable ways, and to find more empathy for the people they serve.

The techniques arose, in part, from the moments of deep human interaction Alda was able to strike with some of his guests when he hosted “Scientific American Frontiers.”

“What I was doing was practicing what I had learned in improvisation,” Alda said. “The essence of it is not making things up. The essence is the contact you make with the other person — the openness you have, the responsiveness. You say the next thing not because you thought of it but because the other person makes you say it because you’re so responsive.

“It helps develop a message that’s just right for the person you’re talking to.”

Dozens of Scripps Institute researchers have already had the training, including Bruce Torbett, an immunologist who said the workshops “really help you get your point across with people and to judge your audience and readjust what you say.”

Alda’s staff will do most of the teaching. But he remains deeply involved, partly because he doesn’t want disease to define him.

“I know from personal experience that, in the public mind, when you get a diagnosis of Parkinson’s [you might think] life is over,” Alda said.

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“This is not good for patients because they are liable to give in and not do exercise or take the medications that are available to hold off the progression of the disease.

“I want to communicate the idea that, in the beginning, it is not as bad as it will get later. You can do everything that gives you pleasure in life. If you do that, you can take advantage of holding off the worst for quite a while, and wait for more progress to be made [in treating Parkinson’s].”

Robbins writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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