Improv for Scientists

Improv for Scientists

Theater professor hosts workshops for student
and faculty researchers, scientists at Creighton

By Nichole Jelinek

The idea of reading “Particles, Fields, Gravitation and Cosmology,” published in Reviews of Modern Physics, wouldn’t appeal to most of the general public. However, many do find astrophysicist’s Neil deGrasse Tyson’s explanations of the cosmic perspective interesting and engaging. That’s because Tyson uses humor, curiosity and relatability to connect his audiences with science.

Mackenzie Taylor, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biology and the Clare Boothe Luce Chair for Women in Science at Creighton, says that communicating science is fundamental. As a researcher, Taylor is fascinated by her own work and believes it is her responsibility to communicate that experience to others.

“Scientists must make their research relevant and understandable to the public,” says Taylor. “Scientists are obligated to ‘meet’ our audiences. But we’re not all communicators like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye or Carl Sagan.”

That’s why Taylor was eager to join a handful of other faculty and students in Improvisation for Scientists, a workshop by Amy Lane, Ph.D., BFA’90, assistant professor of theater at Creighton.

Improvisation for Scientists is a nationwide program developed in association with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. The workshops are not meant to turn researchers and scientists into actors, but to help them learn techniques and tools for communicating their work to general public.

Gail Jensen, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School, had seen a presentation on the workshops at a national conference in 2014 and was amazed at the before-and-after results.

“The differences were striking,” says Jensen, “both in terms of the students’ comfort level with their own communication skills, as well as in their ability to describe their work in a way that the listener could understand and engage with.”

Jensen then approached Lane and alumnus and local actor Bill Grennan, BFA’08, about bringing the workshops to Creighton.

Lane and Grennan attended the workshop at Stony Brook with about 65 other participants from across the United States and as far away as Canada, Finland and Australia. Universities represented included Yale, Princeton, University of Wisconsin and Stanford.

The Creighton representatives were two of only a small handful of theater professionals; most of the attendees were research scientists or medical professionals.

Grennan says that it was interesting to be a part of an experience where individuals from seemingly diverse disciplines worked together.

“Professionals from various fields of science and medicine were genuinely interested in our opinions as artists,” he says, “and they valued what our talents could contribute to their areas of expertise.”

Both Lane and Grennan thought the program was innovative and saw potential for it at Creighton.

Since then, Lane has led a series of workshops and discussions across campus. The most recent workshop, held this past March, was in collaboration with the Clare Boothe Luce Program for Women in Science. Taylor, the Creighton biology professor, says she was surprised by how much more comfortable she became in discussing her research with a general audience.

“This isn’t about helping scientists speak with other scientists, neither is it about making them better actors, but it’s about helping current and future scientists connect with a public audience,” Lane says.

The workshop’s core activities borrow techniques from the late Viola Spolin, a theater academic considered a pioneer in the area of improvisational theater.

“Her work has been around for decades,” Lane says. “Improvisation for Scientists puts a new spin on these theater techniques to help focus on developing better communication tools for those working and studying in the sciences.”

“It actively focuses on creating empathy and sensitivity with an audience. We teach spontaneity, connection with and awareness of the audience, physical freedom, verbal conciseness, active listening, speaking at different levels of complexity, and using storytelling techniques effectively.”

Humans are hardwired to connect to stories, she says, and the most powerful tool available to the storyteller is the power to evoke emotion.

In one exercise, participants are asked to tell about the moment they “fell in love” with science. Lane recalls one student who shared a descriptive and dramatic story, a turning point in his life when he dedicated himself to saving people through medicine.

“I don’t remember the exact date of this workshop, or how many total students participated that day, or certain other facts about the many workshops I’ve done since then,” Lane says. “But I will remember his story and its emotional impact forever.”

Scientists and researchers tend to avoid involving emotion in their work, she says, but it is important for conveying passion and building connections with an audience. Jensen says making these connections is important for researchers.

“They may find themselves needing to make a pitch to a funding agency, politician, or news agency about the importance of their work,” Jensen says. “It is critical for researchers and scientists to be able to convey the information in a way that the audience can understand, and in a way that gets them interested in it.”

May graduate Hannah Mullally, a biology major headed to graduate school at the University of Tennessee, says her biggest takeaway from the workshop was learning that speaking well is really about storytelling.

“It makes whatever you are talking about come alive to your audience,” she says. “It also makes you much more invested in what you are talking about, which in turn makes you feel more confident about what you are saying. I think it will help me connect with my audience while presenting research.”

Meaningful, understandable discussions about science and discovery are also important to society. Lane uses the term “accessible science.”

“It means that science should be an integral part of a national public dialogue,” she explains. “The important research and discoveries that happen daily in academic departments and laboratories around the world should not be shrouded in mystery, but shared openly with an engaged public.”

Lane looks forward to continue offering and expanding the workshops at Creighton.

“I love any way that we can combine arts and sciences,” says Lane. “It has been a wonderful journey of partnership for me, blending the equally creative fields of arts and sciences. We always find in workshops how many similarities there truly are, and we’re always discovering more.”