Science Communication: Alan Alda, hero and human

When I was just finishing up my graduate work, Alan Alda came to our lab to learn about what we were doing. I can safely say that this is still one of the big highlights of my life to date.

Prior to his visit, a crew had come through and interviewed a number of us about our work. It turned out that they were interested in some of the eye work we did, so my collaborator, Michael Young, and I got to be one of the stories on the episode.

Full disclosure– Alan Alda is one of the most decent, kind people. We talked about how he loved learning new things and his grandkids. We talked about rugby, something I loved, and how much fun it was to explore places and ideas. One couldn’t help but be in a happy, enthusiastic place.

I was supposed to walk into the lab with him and tell him about our scaffolds. It turns out that I cannot do this on camera. He is very tall, and he was behind me, so I turned to talk to him while walking and then trying to sit in a very high lab chair so I would be in the same shot with him. The chair had wheels, and I demonstrated that when a not-tall person sits on a tall chair with wheels, they fall out of the shot and make a boom sound.

Everyone was very kind and only their eyes were laughing.

Alan Alda has helped lots of scientists tell their stories through Scientific American Frontiers and more recently through his Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Being relaxed, taking the jargon out of the equation, and learning how to tell a story and listen to an audience is one of the most wonderful and important skill sets one can have in any discipline, but especially in science and engineering where we have allowed ourselves to be portrayed as those who exist in some rarefied air. In his show, he made it a conversation, and now, the center teaches more and more to do the same.

I’m so grateful for that adventure.