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Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science

The free event will be held on Oct. 30 at 4 p.m. at Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts, Theater Two, 100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook.

By Daniel Dunaief

Want to hear characters from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein discussing artificial intelligence? Or, perhaps, get an inside look at an interaction between a scientist studying penguins and a potential donor? Maybe you’d like something more abstract, like a thought piece on aspects of memory?

You can get all three at an upcoming Science on Stage performance of three one-act plays written by award-winning playwrights that feature the themes of cutting edge research from Stony Brook University.

Ken Weitzman Photo courtesy of SBU

On October 30th at 4 p.m. at Staller Center for the Arts’ Theater Two, which holds up to 130 people, professional actors will read three 10-minute scripts. Directed by Jackson Gay, topics will include research about artificial intelligence, climate change in Antarctica and collective memory. Audience members can then listen to a discussion hosted by Program Founder and Associate Professor of Theater Ken Weitzman that includes the scientists and the playwrights. The event is free and open to the public.

Funded by a grant from the Office of the Provost at Stony Brook University and supported by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, the performances are an “amuse-bouche,” or an appetizer, about some of the diverse and compelling science that occurs at Stony Brook University, said Weitzman. 

“The hope is that [the plays] generate interest and get people to want to ask the next question or that [the plays] stick with audience members emotionally or intellectually and makes them want to discover more.”

The upcoming performance features the writing of two-time Tony Award winning playwright Greg Kotis, who wrote Urinetown; Michele Lowe, whose first play made it to Broadway and around the world; and Rogelio Martinez, whose plays have been produced around the U.S. and internationally.

The short plays will feature the scientific work of Nilanjan Chakraborty, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering; Heather Lynch, Professor of Ecology and Evolution, and Suparna Rajaram, Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science in the Psychology Department.

“It’s a good example of what we are doing and the opportunities for us as we continue to put funding in the arts and the humanities and also in the intersection of that from an interdisciplinary perspective,” said Carl Lejuez, Stony Brook Provost, in an interview. This kind of collaborative effort works best “when it’s truly bi-directional. Both sides benefit.”

Lejuez credits President Maurie McInnis with setting the tone about the importance of learning the humanities and the sciences. Lejuez said McInnis talks during her convocation speech about how she had intended to become a physician when she attended college, but took an art history course that was part of a general education curriculum that changed her life. The sixth president of Stony Brook, McInnis earned her PhD in the History of Art from Yale University.

Lejuez highlighted a number of interdisciplinary efforts at Stony Brook University. Stephanie Dinkins, Professor in the Department of Art, bridges visual art and Artificial Intelligence. She has focused her work on addressing the shortcomings of AI in understanding and depicting black women.

The Simons Center for Geometry and Physics has an arts and culture program, while the Collaborative for the Earth has faculty from numerous disciplines. They are starting a new Tiger Teams to develop key areas of study and will offer seed funding for interdisciplinary work to tackle climate change.

Lejuez plans to attend Science on Stage on October 30th.

“I feel an almost desperation to learn as much as I can about all the aspects of the university,” he said. Not only is he there to “show respect for the work and give it gravitas, but it’s the only way [he and others] can do [their job] of representing and supporting faculty and staff” in science and the humanities.

An enjoyable experience

The participants in Science on Stage appreciate the opportunity to collaborate outside their typical working world.

Heather Lynch, who conducts research on penguins in Antarctica and worked with Lowe, described the experience as “immensely enjoyable” and suggested that the “arts can help scientists step out of their own comfort zone to think about where their own work fits into society at large.”

Lynch explained that while the specific conversation in the play is fictionalized, the story reflects “my aggregate angst about our Antarctic field work and, in that sense, is probably more literally true than any conversation or interaction with any real life traveling guest.”

Lynch believes the play on her work is thought provoking. “Science is a tool, what matters is what you do” with that science, she said.

Lynch was thrilled to work with someone new and believes Lowe probably learned about Antarctica and the challenges it faces.

Bringing talent together

The first iteration of Science on Stage occurred in 2020 and was available remotely in the midst of the pandemic. Weitzman had reached out to scientists at Stony Brook to see who might be willing to partner up with playwrights.

He  is eager to share the diverse combination of topics in a live setting from this year’s trio of scientists. “I did some nudging to make sure there were a variety” of grand challenge topics, he said.

Weitzman explained that bringing the humanities and arts together in such an effort generated considerable enthusiasm. “There’s such incredible research being done here,” he said. “I want to engage for this community.”

He hopes such a performance can intrigue people at Stony Brook or in the broader community about science, theater writing or science communication.

While the plays are each 10 minutes long and include actors reading scripts, Weitzman said the experience would feel like it’s being performed and not read, particularly because professional actors are participating. 

He also hopes one or more of the playwrights sees this interaction as an opportunity to create a longer piece.

“I would love it if [this experience] encourages a playwright to think it justifies a full length” script, Weitzman said.

Lynch wrote a pilot screenplay herself called “Forecast Horizon” that she describes as an intellectual exercise. If Netflix calls, however, she’s “definitely interested in having it live on,” she said. Writing the screenplay gave her a “better appreciation for how much more similar science is to the arts than I would have thought. Both involve solving puzzles.”

As for future funding, Lejuez suggested that the University was still figuring out how to allocate available funds for next year and in future years.

He would like to see how this first time in person goes. Depending on the interest and enthusiasm, he could envision a regular source of funds to support such future similar collaborations.

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Some of the ways SBU combines arts and humanities with science

By Daniel Dunaief

The southern flagship State University of New York facility, Stony Brook University seeks ways to bring the best from the arts and humanities together with science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Provost Carl Lejuez. Photo from SBU

Indeed, the school provides a home for the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, where researchers tap into famed actor Alda’s improvisational acting skills, among other techniques, to connect with their audiences and share their cutting-edge work and discoveries.

In addition to the October 30th Science on Stage production at Staller Theater 2, Provost Carl Lejuez recently highlighted numerous additional interdisciplinary efforts.

This past spring, the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics presented artwork by Professor of Mathematics Moira Chas. Chas created artwork that combines yarn and wire, clot and zippers to illustrate mathematical objects, questions or theorems.

The Office of the Provost has also provided several grants to support interdisciplinary work. This includes two $25,000 grants that promote the development of new research teams to explore interdisciplinary areas of scholarly work and address challenges such as Digital Futures/ Ethical Artificial Intelligence, Sustainability, Critical health Studies/ Health Disparities, Global Migration, and other areas.

Additionally, the Collaborative for the Earth brings together faculty from the arts, humanities and social sciences with behavioral science and STEM faculty. The university is starting a new Tiger Teams that will develop key areas of study and offer seed funding to tackle climate change. The funding will explore ways to create solutions that policy makers and the public can adopt, as well as ways to address disparities in the impact of climate change and ways to support people who are disproportionately affected by this threat.

SBU added interdisciplinary faculty. Susannah Glickman, Assistant Professor in the Department of History, has interests such as computing, political economy, 20th century US and world history and the history of science.

Matthew Salzano, IDEA Fellow in Ethical AI, Information Systems and Data Science and Literacy, meanwhile, has a joint appointment with the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Communication. He studies rhetoric and digital culture, emphasizing how digital technology, including artificial intelligence, impacts and interacts with social justice.

Through course work, members of the university community can also address interdisciplinary questions. Associate Professor in the Department of Art Karen Lloyd teaches an Art and Medicine course, while  Adjunct Lecturer Patricia Maudies, also in the Art Department, teaches Art + The Brain. Both of these courses bring in guest lecturers from STEM and medicine.

Stony Brook also hosts centers aimed at interdisciplinary research, such as the Institute for Advanced Computational Science (IACS).

One of the current goals and objectives of the IACS strategic plan is to advance the intellectual foundations of computation and data, with high-impact applications in engineering, in the physical, environmental, life, health and social sciences, and in the arts and humanities.

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Thomas Allison, 2017 Discovery Prize winner, with James H. Simons, chairman of the Simons Foundation and Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., president of Stony Brook University. Photo from Stony Brook University

Once a year, Stony Brook University takes science to the competitive level with their Discovery Prize competition.

At the event, which took place April 13, four competitors presented their research to a panel of judges. The competition was established in 2014 with a donation from the Stony Brook Foundation board of trustees. This year at the university’s Charles B. Wang Center Theatre the panel of judges consisted of 2016 Nobel Laureate in physics from Princeton, F. Duncan Haldane, UC Berkeley’s director of the nuclear science division, professor Barbara Jacak, and chairman of the Simons Foundation and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, James H. Simons.

After a tough competition, Thomas Allison, assistant professor in the departments of chemistry and physics, won the $200,000 prize. Allison said all his competitors — Gabor Balazsi, associate professor at the Laufer Center for physical and quantitative biology; Matthew Reuter, assistant professor in the department of applied mathematics and statistics; and Neelima Sehgal, assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy — did a great job.

Allison won for his concept called “Molecular Movies.” The technology he is working on will record the movement of molecules, which in turn can lead to the development of better high-tech devices.

“I was honored to be a part of it,” he said. “Obviously the result is great, and in general, it’s a great thing at Stony Brook.”

The competition is produced in collaboration with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and is described as a “Shark Tank” meets “TED Talk” type of event. Each contestant presents his or her research in approximately 10 minutes, and they must describe their project from the scientific approach to the potential impact of their research in a way an everyday person would understand it. 

Allison said he has been working on his research for three years and was a bit nervous before his presentation. However, before the event contestants received coaching from communication experts at the Alan Alda Center, which he said was a big help.

“I just tried in the end to be clear, explain my project and what we’re trying to do, so I guess that got me through it,” he said.

When it comes to describing his project to a layperson, Allison said it all depends on how much a person is familiar with electrons.

“Mostly it’s just basic science,” he said. “You can think of it kind of like a microscope, so once you have this tool, then you can use the tool to try to make devices.”

Allison said his tool would be beneficial with any technology that uses molecules with electrons moving around because molecules are “excited” by light. He said the application could help in developing better technology such as solar cells, which are used for light absorption to produce electricity from sunlight, that use organic molecules instead of silicon.

“I’m not going to make a better solar cell,” Allison said. “What I would like to do is make a tool so that people who work on these things can make better solar cells or something. So it’s more about making the tool.”   

After winning the prize, Allison said he will be able to pay for a new electron detector. The detector uses UV lights that make the electrons come out. He said the detector he has right now can only measure the energy of an electron and not its angle. However, a new one will be able to measure both at the same time, providing measurements that are more effective.

He said he has the same goal as those who are working on much larger scale projects, but he can achieve the same results with a less expensive light source as well as instruments.

The prize money will also allow him to hire a post doctorate student to work on the project, and the professor is glad that he now has the funding to spend more time in the lab and less time applying for grants.

“I’m looking forward to doing experiments, and the discovery fund was a big boost,” Allison said.

Alan Alda received the Double Helix Award from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory this month. Photo by Constance Brukin, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

By Daniel Dunaief

In a world of tirades and terrifying tweets, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University is encouraging its professors and students to do something the center’s namesake urges: Listen.

Tough as it is to hear what people mean behind an explosive expression that fuses reason and emotion, the scientists in training, established researchers and others who attend some of the lectures or workshops at the center go through an exercise called “rant” in which each person listens for two minutes to something that drives their partner crazy. Afterward, the scientist has to introduce their partner to the group in a positive way.

Alan Alda. Photo by Constance Brukin, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

The staff at the Alan Alda Center finds inspiration, a role model and a humble but willing listener in Alda, the highly decorated actor of “MASH” who has spent the last several decades drawing scientists out of dense shells constructed of impenetrable jargon and technical phrases.

For his dedication to forging connections for scientists, Times Beacon Record News Media is pleased to name Alan Alda a 2016 Person of the Year.

“He’s doing a wonderful job,” said Jim Simons, the former chairman of the Stony Brook Mathematics Department and hedge fund founder who shared the stage with Alda this summer as a part of a Mind Brain Lecture at Stony Brook. “I can’t think of anyone better to be an honoree.”

Simons described a moment with Alda, who is not a scientist nor does he play one on TV, when he was sharing some abstruse mathematics. Alda’s eyes “glazed over when I was first talking to him. He’s teaching scientists not to get a glaze over their audience’s eyes.”

Alda works tirelessly to share a method that blends scientific communication with the kind of improvisational acting he studied early in his career.

“Improv is not about being funny,” said Laura Lindenfeld, the director at the center. “It’s about being connected.”

Last June, Alda was a part of a team that traveled to California to share an approach that is in demand at universities and research institutions around the world. The day of the workshop, three people who were supposed to help lead the session were delayed.

Alda suggested that he run the event, which would normally involve several instructors and break-out groups. Learning about the art of connecting with an audience from someone who reached people over decades through TV, movies and Broadway performances, the attendees were enchanted by their discussion.

“He’s the master,” said Lindenfeld, who was at the campus when the team received news about the delay for the other instructors.

As soon as the session ended, Alda headed for Los Angeles to conduct a radio interview.

“I handed him a granola bar,” recalled Lindenfeld, who joined the center last year. “I was afraid he hadn’t eaten.”

Alda celebrated his 80th birthday earlier this year and shows no signs of slowing down, encouraging the spread of training techniques that will help scientists share their information and discoveries.

“He’s teaching scientists not to get a glaze over their audience’s eyes.”

— Jim Simons

The Alda Center is planning a trip to Scotland next year and has been invited to go to Norway, Germany and countries in South America, Lindenfeld said.

When the University of Dundee received a grant from the Leverhulme Trust to create the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science, officials in Scotland, one of whom knew Lindenfeld personally, researched the Alan Alda Center’s mission and decided to forge a connection. Lindenfeld helped coordinate a congratulatory video Alda sent that the Scottish centre played at its opening ceremony.

“Everyone present from the highest Law Lord in Scotland, through to the principal of the university and the Leverhulme trustees did not know it was going to happen, and so it was a huge surprise that stunned the room into complete silence,” recalled Sue Black, the director of the centre in an email. “Brilliant theatre of which Mr. Alda would have been proud.”

Established and internationally known scientists have expressed their appreciation and admiration for Alda’s dedication to their field.

The training sessions “drag out of people their inhibitions and get them to think about interacting with the public in ways that they might not have felt comfortable doing before,” said Bruce Stillman, the president and CEO of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. This month, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory gave Alda the Double Helix Medal at a ceremony at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Stillman described the public understanding and perception of science as “poor.” To bridge that gap, Alda’s programs “induce scientists to feel comfortable about talking to the public about their ideas and progress.”

Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel suggested that Alda’s accomplishments exceed his own.

“There ain’t many Alan Aldas, but there are a lot of Nobel Prizes out there,” Kandel said. While Kandel is “extremely indebted to having won the Nobel Prize,” he said the totality of Alda’s accomplishments are “enormous.”

The Alda Center is working with Columbia University, where Kandel is the director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science and a professor, to develop an ongoing program to foster scientific communication.

Alan Alda, left, at a ceremony at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo by Constance Brukin, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Kandel, who considers Alda a friend, appreciates his support. Kandel said Jeff Lieberman, the chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia, asked Alda and Kandel to give a talk on issues related to neuroscience. Lieberman “was my boss,” Kandel said, “I had to be there, but [Alda] didn’t have to be there. He goes out of his way for people.”

In 2017, the center will not only share its communication techniques around the world, but it will also create conferences for timely scientific topics, including climate change and women in science.

The glass ceiling is a “real issue for women in science,” said Valerie Lantz Gefroh, the improvisation program leader at the center. “We’re hoping to give [women] better communication tools so they can move forward in their careers.”

The center is also adding new courses. Next fall, Christine O’Connell, who is a part of a new effort at Stony Brook called the Science Training & Research to Inform Decision and is the associate director at the center, will teach a course on communicating with policy and decision makers.

That will include encouraging scientists to invite state senators to see their field work, going to Congress, meeting with a senator or writing position papers. In political discussions, scientists often feel like “fish out of water,” O’Connell said. The course will give scientists the “tools to effectively engage” in political discussions.

Scientists don’t have to be “advocates for or against an issue,” O’Connell said, but they do have to “be advocates for science and what the science is telling us.”

Given an opportunity to express her appreciation directly to Alda, Black at the University of Dundee wrote, “Thanks for having the faith to collaborate with our centre so far away in Scotland, where we are trying to influence the global understanding of forensic science in our courtrooms — where science communication can make the difference between a guilty or an innocent verdict and in some places, the difference between life and a death sentence.”

To borrow from words Alda has shared, and that the staff at the center believe, “Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you.” Even if, as those who have gone through some of the sessions, the speaker is ranting.