2017 Alan Alda Science Communication Boot Camp: An Interview With Dr. Jean Creighton & Dr. Robin Mello

Dr. Jean Creighton, director of the UW-Milwaukee Planetarium, and Dr. Robin Mello, professor of theatre at the UWM Theatre Department, were selected by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science to be part of their Boot Camp over the summer. The Boot Camp is a week-long training intensive for scientists that focuses on supporting communication of the research and outcomes of science research, especially to the general public. At the Alan Alda Center Dr. Creighton and Dr. Mello participated in a series of workshops and simulations, as well as on-camera interviews and public presentations. They sat down with Mike Kay, UWM Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies intern, to talk about their experience and what they learned.

Tell us about yourselves?

Robin: My love of stargazing and astronomy goes back to when I was a child—back then the nights were dark enough (even living near New York City) to see the stars clearly. I spent many nights sneaking up to the roof of our garage, looking up, and trying to name the constellations. In Boston, while I was earning my doctorate, I became the Scientific Storyteller at the Museum of Science. And now, many years later, I’ve been very lucky to be able to work with Jean at the Manfred Olson Planetarium. We are working on a project called Tale of Scale–a trans-disciplinary outreach program that integrates astronomy, mathematics, and storytelling to teach UWM students how to interpret the cosmos.

Jean: I’ve had a lifelong interest in the stars. As a little girl, I remember asking my mom where stars come from as I stared up into the sky. Also, I loved storytelling. I grew up in a household where we always told stories and discussed ideas. My father was an excellent storyteller. To learn more about how the universe works I studied physics and attended the University of Athens for my undergraduate work. Eventually I earned a master’s degree from Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a Ph.D. from the University of Waterloo. After I left Waterloo I spent almost two years working in California on an infrared satellite called the Wide-field InfraRed Explorer (WIRE). Then, I moved to Milwaukee to start my family, teach Astronomy, and since 2007 I have been directing the UWM Planetarium.

Tell us about the Alan Alda Science Communication Boot camp?

Robin: Alan Alda was invited to Stonybrook to collaborate and create a center for communicating science. It is part of the Communication School’s science initiative. He has built a unique and much needed center there. To advance and support our Tale of Scale project we wanted to attend their program.

Jean: We wanted to continue to work on our interdisciplinary project and to continue to increase the audience and the imprint of the planetarium—out to our community and beyond. We had a chance to apply this year, and luckily, they accepted both of us so we could attend as a team.

Robin: Jean is an obvious choice because of her work here, her TEDx talk, and the fact that she is a SOFIA NASA Ambassador, but for me it wasn’t as obvious a fit. It is very unusual for them to accept a theatre-maker and I am so grateful that they accepted me. We had a terrific time and learned a great deal in the process.

Jean: Yes! When I first heard about the boot camp, I thought that it was going to be a walk in the park. The experience turned out to be an actual boot camp with intensive training, which made us work very very hard. And the results were worth it!

What was most surprising to you about Alan Alda Science Communication Boot camp?

Robin: The Alan Alda Science Communication Boot Camp was a fantastic professional experience. It helped me discuss the benefits of my research in clear and interesting ways. We were guided through a series of leadership trainings as well as simulations and challenges that used theatre techniques. It’s a model that has been developed by the center, nationally and internationally, over the past five years.

Jean: We were a team of 32 dedicated scientists that were committed to do our best. This group was supportive and generous, providing thoughtful feedback to each other. My favorite part was seeing the growth of each participant as they took on each challenge. For example, we worked on the one minute talk, it’s when someone asks you about your work and you answer the Who, What, Why in a minute. Your goal is to engage someone enough so that they are curious about your work and ask more questions—get more involved.

Is there any moment or memory that stood out for you?

Jean: There were lots and lots of moments. So many that it is hard to choose. One that stands out for me is watching a scientist who grew up in the Bronx. She now does research on stem cells—to cure cancer. She told a story of wanting to be a doctor because her grandmother died of cancer. I told her that she was a hero—and that she was her grandmother’s hero too.

Robin: I agree there were so many important moments. One that stands out for me is watching a woman who is a chemist and an Associate Dean of a major university—she came in a bit tongue-tied. Then, during her on camera interview she suddenly came alive! Her joy at being able to talk about how research impacts daily life was contagious. Another was just watching people, including myself, come out of our shells. By the end we were a collaborative group – all routing for each other no matter what field of expertise we were from.

What was the biggest challenge you were facing?

Robin: The biggest challenge I faced when was trying to change a habit I have of over explaining things. I worked on approaches like how to clarify, communicate salient facts, and also to engage people in conversations instead of talking at them so much.

Jean: I think another challenge we faced is one that the entire Alan Alda Center faces—how to get people interested and invested in the great discoveries that scientists make every day! And then there was just the personal challenge of working on our presentations. It really helped that we went there as a team. After each activity, we took time to debrief. We practice with each other and gave each other honest feedback. There were times when we knew when we need to talk and times when we just needed to laugh. At one point, we were trying so hard, nothing was working very well so we knew we just need to laugh. Robin and I would stream old Saturday Night Live skits.

Robin: After a good laugh, it was easier to get back to work.

Now that you’ve both gone through Alan Alda, what lessons have you taken from the program?

Jean: It is important to find a connection with your audience through a common interest. I’ve learned to think about making realistic goals in the time allotted and to break things down incrementally. I’ve learned to consider what goals the audience might have and then ask myself “what goal do I want to focus on for this audience?” Also, being enthusiastic—that’s not difficult and it’s something I’ve always done—but enthusiasm really helps others be interested in what is going on.

Robin: The lesson that I have taken for the boot camp is how to be a better listener, researcher and leader. A good listener—who shares –who creates ways to have dialogue. Conversation is a two-way street.

What advice would you give someone who was considering being a participant?

Jean: Make sure you do your homework! It’s an actual boot camp where you will go through a lot of training and practicing; practicing ways to think about your goals so you can work on things that will be useful long-term.

Robin: Just to remember that the boot camp is something that goes beyond science. We all benefit from learning how to open the lines of communication. We all need practice so we can inspire and connect science to our every-day lives.