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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.

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Abraham Lincoln did it. So did Jon Stewart, Dave Letterman, Walter Cronkite and Lou Gehrig.

On July 4, 1939, as he announced that he considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” the Yankees’ Gehrig, known as the Iron Horse, reached up to the bridge of his nose and wiped away tears.

The list of those who cry in public includes influential men with impressive pedigrees. Yet it is the exception rather than the rule for men to cry.

Recently, I attended a wedding where not only the groom cried as he read his vows, but the father of the bride also shed tears when he gave a speech during the reception. The groom was barely a few words into his vows when his voice cracked.

The audience waited, willing him to go on and all of them, except my son who was at his first wedding and was studying his image in the mirrored ceiling, appreciated the struggle to speak.

The man on the threshold of becoming a husband stopped several times, as he made fun of the tears and the mess he’d become, giving the audience a chance to laugh with him.

I have experienced larger moments, both positive and negative, when I felt such a strong flood of emotions that filled my eyes with tears and made it difficult to speak. Clearly, however, it’s not a regular occurrence because my son asked me when, or if, I cried. Part of that, I suppose, comes from my reflexive need to turn off the tears in public.

I grew up at a time when boys and men had to experience something extraordinary — either positively or negatively — to shed public tears. We had examples like the actor Alan Alda, who shed gut-wrenching tears in the final episode of “M*A*S*H.”

I recall being unable to say more than a few words to my mother when I called her from a pay phone to tell her that she had a granddaughter. Facing the corner of a phone booth, I shed tears of joy, especially when I said my daughter’s name for the first time. My mother must have heard my unsteady voice and asked, in the silence that followed, if I’d like her to come visit us in the hospital. Wiping away tears and nodding, I grunted something like “uh-huh.”

Men cry and, for the same physiological and psychological reasons as women, we benefit from that release, giving us an outlet for the literal flood of emotions.

At that recent wedding, the father of the bride knew when I spoke to him at the cocktail hour that he’d struggle to get through his speech. When the time came, he thanked everyone for coming and described the connection he felt with his daughter. He could barely finish a sentence before his lips turned down and the tears fell beneath his glasses.

He and his new son-in-law clearly started off this marital connection with something in common: tears at the wedding.

I was sure when his first daughter was born that he felt the same way at the beginning of her life, as he contemplated the excitement and terror at the responsibility that came from becoming a father.

As he considered the start of her married life he seemed, like Steve Martin in “Father of the Bride,” to have an awareness of these new steps which, some day, may include her coming to terms with a little life wrapped in her arms.

His voice broke at the end of his speech when he said his daughter would “always be my girl.”