On Thursday, November 17, over twenty Stony Brook science graduate students participated in a workshop called Improvisation for Scientists. Held by the university’s Center for Communicating Science, the workshop aimed to teach the aspiring scientists to hone their communication skills using techniques borrowed from improvisational comedy.
The brainchild of actor, educator and science advocate Alan Alda, the workshop was developed in 2009 and has since been presented at conferences at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and UCLA and at the World Science Festival in New York City
Many of the exercises were devised by actor and educator Viola Spolin, with whom Alda has studied and worked in the past. The aim of Spolin’s simple, spontaneous exercises is not humor, but to help scientists become more present in the moment and, ultimately, communicate better.
The workshop was taught by Valeri Lantz-Gefroh, a former faculty member in Stony Brook’s Department of Theatre Arts and long-time theatre professional who is now a lecturer and administrator at the center.
Students split in teams of two and engaged in various physical and mental activities. In an exercise called “Know Your Reflection,” scientists tried to mirror their partners’ bodies intuitively. After a few seconds, their bodies acted almost act simultaneously.
In another exercise, participants threw balls representing compliments, insults and misunderstandings across the room. Students were told to convey their emotions using body language. Each ball’s motion carried its own emotion. Balls representing complements were thrown graciously and with smiles, whereas participants dodged those representing insults or acted more hesitant when receiving them.
One way to view the workshop is as a playful forum for scientists. “Part of the problem is that scientists are taught to not become emotional about their work because it skews their data. Going in I feared they’ll be skeptical and not playful, but I’ve found the opposite and that has been a huge surprise,” says Gefroh Lantz-Gefroh.
Elizabeth Bass, who is the center’s interim director and has observed it since its earliest days, was a spectator at the workshop. “I’m impressed by the widespread agreement that this program is needed. Scientists need to do a better job at communicating what they can do,” she said.
The students came from all walks of science. One tracked the movement of baby sharks,; another studied brains of patients who suffer from anxiety, and another studied drug prevention in arthritis patients.
At the start of the session, each student was taped giving their a 2-3 two- to three-minute introductory speech in front of evaluators and faculty members. Afterward, the students migrated into a separate room to begin their exercises. During self-reflection, some felt challenged by having a time constraint while others admitted having to dumb down their research because they feared people wouldn’t understand it.
One student expressed that because she didn’t know the audience, “I wasn’t sure how to present my study.”
Bass refers to this challenge as the curse of knowledge: knowing something makes it hard for us to imagine others not knowing it. “I think all scientists fall victim to it,” she says.
Improvisation for Scientists, which will be offered as a three-credit class starting January 26, is one of the core classes taken by students in the center’s Master of Science in Journalism program. Other classes include Distilling Your Message, Writing to the Public, Digital Media and Introduction to News Media Concepts.
Still growing as a pilot program, the center aims to influence other universities and laboratories to mandate communications classes for scientists.