© 2023 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Improv Lessons Are Helping Scientists Express Themselves

Davis Dunavin

Any journalist will tell you that it can be difficult for scientists to explain themselves in layman’s terms.

Actor Alan Alda and Stony Brook University are trying to change that. Since 2009, the university has offered improv classes for scientists out of its Alan Alda Center for Scientific Communication. Alda got the idea while he was the host of the PBS show Scientific American Frontiers in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

"Knowledge is good, but it’s a curse when you have such deep knowledge that you can’t understand what it’s like to not understand things deeply,” Alda says.

He remembers a time in the middle of an interview when a scientist turned away from him and toward the camera after a complicated subject came up.

“And it was a shocking shift in the way she was talking,” says Alda. “It wasn’t that personal tone you have when you’re talking to another person. It became lecture mode.”

Alda shopped the idea around to different universities, but he says Stony Brook was the only one interested in “teaching scientists to communicate while they were teaching them to be scientists".

Students can take semester-long improv classes. There are also week-long sessions for students and professional scientists. At one class in January, Improv teacher Louisa Johnson gives her students  a prompt to perform an infomercial for a fictional product.

Their fictional product is a combination of two random objects — one is a normal household item, the other is something they might find in the lab. One student presents an infomercial for a confocal microscope coffee maker, where you can "look at your cells under the microscope, and while you're waiting for the image to scan, it pours you a cup of coffee".

Johnson says these infomercials can get pretty silly.

“But if you come at it from a place of enthusiasm and passion, then the people listening to you are going to feel enthusiasm, too, just because you feel it, and you’re showing it to us.”

Aisha Langford, a scientist who researches health disparity at NYU, says she struggles with the enthusiasm part. She helps with clinical drugs trials and needs to sign up low income people and people of color.

“So I would say... Hi, I’m Aisha Langford. I study how to improve clinical trial participation in health research so that our studies are more generalizable and more efficient and more cost effective…”

And when she talks  that way, she watches her audience lose interest.  She says even nod off as she explains the benefits of a new drug. So Langford came to Stony Brook for this class, and now it’s  her turn to make up an infomercial.  The product she needs to sell is a microwave oven electrode (fictional, of course).

“While you’re getting your real-time heart monitoring, you’re roasting a chicken at the same time!” she says. 

Langford wants to harness that energy. If she can do that, she says maybe she can get more people to sign up for trials that could improve people’s lives.

“That might mean that if you have a family member that has diabetes, that we’ll find new ways to treat that diabetes that doesn’t involve a finger prick all the time or medicines that make you sick.” she said. 

Money for scientific research has dwindled across the country. The U.S. Government has cut annual funding for research grants by about 15 percent since 2010. Alda says that if scientists want to compete for  research dollars, it’s crucial they learn to how to communicate better.

“You learn by experience if people are not understanding you and you can’t get funding as easily,” Alda says, “And then you realize that people who are more understandable are getting the funding. The light goes on, I think.”

Alda’s program recently expanded outside of Stony Brook. Ten different schools across the country now offer his improv classes, including Dartmouth College, the University of Chicago and the University of Texas at Austin.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.