Alan Alda Center Takes Innovative Approach to Communicating Science

There's nothing funny about how improv makes nerdy scientists more adept at communicating complex ideas to a public audience.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on August 8, 2023
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Courtesy of Stony Brook University

  • Alan Alda, the actor, founded a center at Stony Brook University dedicated to helping scientists become better communicators.
  • The center's approach draws on Alda's experience with improv, which promotes active listening and engagement.
  • Stony Brook's master's degree program in science communication features online improv activities.
  • Faculty address controversial issues such as global warming and artificial intelligence while remaining politically neutral.

About a dozen students gather on a theater stage. They mime digging holes and hammering nails. They pair up, standing in front of a partner to mimic each other's movements and engage in deliberate conversation trying to anticipate their partner's next word. They create things within an imaginary space. They even form teams to compete in a tug of war using a make-believe rope.

A familiar voice narrates this activity for us. It's Alan Alda, the actor famous for his roles as Hawkeye Pierce on TV's "M*A*S*H" and Arnold Vinick on "The West Wing," among many others. Alda tells us these students are preparing for the "games to come later."

Those games, as it were, involve communicating science, a task Alda has dedicated much of his life to doing better. His eponymous center at Stony Brook University is educating a new generation of scientists eager to join his crusade.

Using Improv Techniques to Communicate Science

Alda's interest in science communication stems from his 11-year stint as host of "Scientific American Frontiers," a PBS show dedicated to presenting scientific topics to the public. The actor drew on his improvisation training to help scientists become more adept at sharing their knowledge with a lay audience.

In this context, improv isn't about humor but rather making personal connections and building trust. This "yes, and" approach immerses people in more meaningful conversation predicated on empathetic listening.

"Communication is a two-way street," Alda explained in a YouTube video. "A full, three-dimensional presence with the other person is what improv will bring about."

Alda discovered that establishing this connection through improv released scientists from their cocoons and enabled them to more effectively discuss their topics.

"This amazing thing happened on their end," Alda said. "They came out. The real 'them' came out. They weren't lecturing me. They were really connecting with me and trying to get me to understand this. And these conversational modes brought out not only their own personality but brought out the science through their personality."

Alda eventually sought an academic home for his science communication method, where scientists and communication experts would embrace this learning strategy, and he landed at Stony Brook University on Long Island. Formed in conjunction with the Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the Center for Communicating Science opened in 2009 and adopted Alda's name in 2013.

Even at age 87, Alda remains a "close partner," noted Laura Lindenfeld, the center's executive director and dean of Stony Brook's School of Communication and Journalism, where the center is housed.

"I work with him regularly," Lindenfeld told BestColleges. "He cares deeply about the center."

In fact, Alda recently auctioned off his beloved Army boots and dog tags that he wore throughout his time on M*A*S*H. The sale fetched $125,000, which he donated to Stony Brook. For a former television surgeon whose academic center now helps doctors and scientists explain their work to the world, those items have come full circle.

"Putting them up for auction, with all proceeds going to the [center], is a way for them to march again," Alda wrote on the auction site. "This time to help improve communication — something a little different from the conflict in which they were first worn."

A New Master's Degree Program in Science Communication

Although the center was formed 14 years ago, Stony Brook only recently launched a master's degree program in science communication. The first cohort entered in 2021.

When Lindenfeld arrived at Stony Brook five years earlier from the University of Maine with a background in environmental communications, she recognized the need for formal training in the field.

"It became clear to me that we needed more professionalization of science communication," she said. "There were a lot of people doing nice work on their own without the benefit of the full disciplinary focus on science, communication, research, and training that we need to have really robust capacities."

The program assumes students have a science background, and some enter already having earned a master's degree or even a Ph.D., though the center considers social sciences such as economics and sociology within its purview. These working professionals want to remain connected with science without being scientists, Lindenfeld explained, and relish the opportunity to make their fields more accessible to the public.

That's what drives Ishita Sharma, a current student in the program who works at the Vanderbilt Museum and Planetarium on Long Island. She studied astronomy and physics as an undergraduate at Stony Brook and draws on that knowledge as an astronomy educator. Pursuing the master's degree was the next logical step in her journey.

"You could be one of the most phenomenal scientists in the world, but teaching and talking about science is an entirely different art form," Sharma told BestColleges. "And this program really understands that."

Full-time students like Sharma can complete the program in 1.5 years. For part-timers, it can take two or more. The program launched during the pandemic, and the bulk of the coursework remains virtual, with some on-campus components.

And just how does the study of improv translate to the online environment? Rather seamlessly, according to Sharma.

"When you're in a virtual world, you're limited to this little box on a screen," she said, "and you're really able to understand and have an awareness of the limitations you have and how to fully express yourself and take advantage of everything you are given."

Immersing herself in improv training has elevated Sharma's self-confidence and sharpened her ability to connect with her audiences.

"I was really able to understand that communicating science isn't about the individual that's talking," she said. "It's really about how the audience feels, interacts, and cares about what you're saying."

Alexandra Ambrico, who graduated last year and was in the program's first entering cohort, also told BestColleges her experience improved her self-confidence and reframed how she thinks about communications.

"The No. 1 takeaway for me is when you're communicating science to the public, you have to figure out why they care," said Ambrico, who serves as director of communication, education, and professional development at the International Biomedical Research Alliance in Maryland. "So if you figure out why they care, then you can tailor your responses or the way you approach them in a way they feel connected to."

Remaining Neutral on Controversial Issues

While the Alda Center isn't a degree-granting entity per se, it operates as the hub for science communications at Stony Brook, serving students and external audiences alike.

Through the center, students at the university can pursue a graduate certificate in science communication to complement their advanced degree work.

For professionals working in science fields, the center offers workshops on topics such as climate science, forensic science and courtroom testifying, and public policy. It also houses a program for women in STEM leadership positions.

In addition, the center provides counsel to universities, government agencies, corporations, and scientific societies seeking to train their experts to more effectively communicate their work. Clients have included Harvard University, Cornell University, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, and the Defense Department.

All told, more than 20,000 people have been immersed in the Alda Center's unique approach to communication science.

Lindenfeld and her colleagues don't hesitate to address today's controversial issues such as healthcare, global warming, and artificial intelligence. In fact, the center recently hired an expert in the ethics of AI. But faculty don't promote a particular political agenda, preferring instead to remain neutral while focusing on helping scientists hone their communication skills.

"We're not trying to advocate for a certain way of doing or understanding science," Lindenfeld said. "We're trying to help prepare scientists who work in these different areas so they're better prepared to bring their work to the audiences they serve."