cSw at CUNY: Learning to Talk about Science

The Process Can Be More Compelling than the Outcome

By cSw staffers Sreya Das, Aparna Ragupathi, and Wendy Wu

On April 18th, Curious Science Writers student staffers traveled to Manhattan to hear a discussion between two science stars at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College — Nobel Prize recipient Dr. Harold Varmus and actor cum science guru Alan Alda. These two well known figures share an important goal — communicating science to nonscientists. The event offered a preview of Dr. Varmus’ Purpose, Practice, and Politics of Science graduate course at Macaulay and brought to light an all-too-often neglected aspect of science: the art of storytelling.

Dr. Laura Schor, Founding Dean of Macaulay Honors College, shown with cSw staffers, was delighted to discover these potential applicants whom she mistook for college students.


An Unusual Opportunity to Learn from an Unusual Duo
Varmus, former director of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, received his BA from Amherst College, where he diverged from his original plan of preparing for a medical career to studying philosophy and journalism. He went on to pursue English literature as a Harvard University graduate student; however, he was drawn back to medicine and was admitted to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. There, he gravitated towards academic medicine. Since then, Varmus has built an exceptional career in medical research.

In 1989, he and Dr. J. Michael Bishop were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the cellular origins of retroviral oncogenes – work that has provided crucial insight into the mechanisms that underlie tumor development. Varmus currently serves as a guest lecturer in the graduate program at Macaulay.

Alan Alda is instantly recognizable as Hawkeye from the popular television series M*A*S*H and the host of the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers. In addition to pursuing his illustrious acting career, he has fostered and shared a love of science. His Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stonybrook University focuses on the use of tools such as improvisation to train scientists to talk about science with nonscientists in an engaging way.

From left to right: Nobel Prize Recipient Dr. Harold Varmus, Macaulay Honors College Dean Mary C. Pearl, and Actor Alan Alda.


Why It’s Important for Nonscientists to “Get It”
Varmus and Alda emphasized how critical it has become for scientists to communicate about their field in today’s world. With threats of budget cuts and what many perceive as growing science-related skepticism among the pubic in general as a background, they stressed the importance of making science appealing to the public. To do this, Varmus and Alda explored the art of storytelling.

As cSw writers know, making complex science relatable starts with a story to hook the reader; however for Alda, it isn’t enough to write a few sentences that allude to how a discovery affects the life of a fictional character. Science, to be captivating, should tell a real story through to the end. His advice? Play with perspectives — be it a cell or a dog or a human perspective – – and have fun with it!

When discussing how to grab the attention of the general public, ranging from middle school students to members of Congress, Alda cited a study in which more individuals were found to enjoy what could be categorized as interesting and beautiful science rather than utilitarian science. For example, more people in the study would read and share an article on glow-in-the-dark bobtail squid than a report on a potential cure for an immune disorder. Why? There is strange beauty in science, and the ability to communicate purely interesting information to all audiences can overcome the perception that science is reserved for Einsteins.

Discovery and Development: The Process Can Be More Compelling than the Outcome
Varmus provided his rapt audience with a unique perspective on scientific research. “I hate the term scientific literacy,” he said. “Science is how you approach the unknown, not how you memorize the known.”

He emphasized his that behind every discovery are tales and questions about uncharted fields, failures, triumphs, and experimental roads to success. These, Varmus noted, may be more compelling than the distillation of a given discovery that ends up printed in a textbook.

Varmus and Alda concluded their dialogue with a conversation on the importance of science education. The take home message? For young people in particular science may feel like an elitist game of big words and lab coats. It’s up to scientists like Varmus, advocates like Alda, and concerned students such as cSw staffers to break that stereotype and create science stories that engage people and make them want to learn more. After all, science will only be able to make a difference in our world with the understanding and support of scientists and nonscientists alike.

Works Cited

  1. “Alan Alda.” Biography.com. July 17, 2015. Accessed April 30, 2017. http://www.biography.com/people/alan-alda-9179566
  2. “Harold E. Varmus Biography.” Nobelprize.org. Accessed April 30, 2017. https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1989/varmus-bio.html

Image Credits:
All graphics provided by Maisha Kamal, event photographer

Team Editor: Aparna Ragupathi
Team Graphic Designer: Sreya Das

This article was written by cSw staffers Sreya Das, Aparna Ragupathi, and Wendy Wu. As always, before leaving a response to this article please view our Rules of Conduct. Thanks! -cSw Editorial Staff