340. The Alan Alda Center

Graduate programs prepare students to communicate with other scholars in their discipline, but do not generally prepare them to communicate with public audiences. In this episode, Brenda Hoffman joins us to discuss a program designed to help scientists develop effective public communication skills. Brenda is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Graduate Program Director for the School of Communication and Journalism at Stony Brook University.

Show Notes


John: Graduate programs prepare students to communicate with other scholars in their discipline, but do not generally prepare them to communicate with public audiences. In this episode, we discuss a program designed to help scientists develop effective public communication skills.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane , an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Brenda Hoffman. Brenda Hoffman is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Graduate Program Director for the School of Communication and Journalism at Stony Brook University. Welcome, Brenda.

Brenda: Thank you for having me.

John: Today’s teas are:… Brenda, are you drinking any tea?

Brenda: I have water. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: …as we always say, the fundamental ingredient of tea.

Brenda: If I start drinking tea, I’m probably going to cough and have to [LAUGHTER] put it aside and it’s going to burn my throat and I gotta stay safe with the water. Know your audience is always my number one. [LAUGHTER] So I’m knowing myself… [LAUGHTER]… sticking with the water, but usually my tea of choice is spearmint.

John: Nice.

Rebecca: Oh, yum.

Rebecca: John, today I have a Scottish afternoon tea.

John: And it is afternoon, so that’s very appropriate. And I have…

Rebecca: …for once…

John: … a Tea Forte Black Currant tea?

Rebecca: Cool. So we’ve invited you here today, Brenda, to discuss the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and the Science Communication Graduate Program at Stony Brook. Could you tell us a little bit about the origins of the Alan Alda Center and the Graduate Program in Science Communication?

Brenda: Yeah, so the Alan Alda Center started with Alan Alda and his idea about creating a training center for scientists. A lot of people know him from M.A.S.H., but what he’s also well known for is a TV show called Scientific American Frontiers, where he was interviewing scientists and learning about their work. And he found it so interesting as they were talking, just to have that conversation. And he always describes it as “They started very closed off, and then the more I talked to them and asked questions and they felt more comfortable, their guard came down, and they were more willing to talk.” So his idea was how can we train scientists to do that sort of thing, and talk in a more conversational way without having someone on the other end having to pull that out of them. So he shopped around this idea for a training center, and it landed here at Stony Brook University, and that was ages ago at this point, it feels like. And at this point, we’ve trained over 20,000 scientists, healthcare professionals all around the world.

John: And as part of that you also now have a graduate program in science communication, could you tell us a little bit about that, and how it connects to the Alan Alda Center.

Brenda: Yeah, so the School of Communication and Journalism is really the umbrella here at Stony Brook. And we offer a Master of Science in science communication. And we also offer an advanced graduate certificate in science communication for our graduate students here at Stony Brook that may be enrolled in science programs and want a four class add on to their program just to have that extra communication expertise and training and just some time to practice and get some feedback while they’re still in school. So those programs are really closely aligned, they’re very focused on training students to become professional science communicators. So that’s not to say that students couldn’t go on for a PhD after, but that’s not the focus of training students to become researchers and academic writers. The focus of these programs really is for students to either take their own science, their own social sciences included in that, their own research, or someone else’s, and help that person to translate that really complex information into ways that the lay public can understand, and ensuring the integrity of the science while doing that, and the accuracy of the science rather than just what we would say, dumbing it down, but really simplifying it and making it easier to understand.

Rebecca: There’s a lot of science discussions that happen in the media, on social media as well, from climate issues, to COVID treatments, and many other topics. But a lot of this is done with people with little or no training in science. So why aren’t scientists more engaged in public discussions on such issues?

Brenda: Well, you’d have to ask a lot of them because I’m sure their answers would differ. If I had to guess, I think a part of that would have to do with cancel culture, there’s this pressure to communicate with absolute certainty, or else. And so this idea of communicating uncertainty can be very intimidating. And so that’s one of the things that the Alda Center really focuses on in training scientists and medical professionals is how to communicate what science is and how it works and where it may not be 100%. And what does that margin of error look like? And what does it actually mean? I think. probably comes into play a lot. And so the center is really focused on helping scientists who are interested in engaging with different audiences really share their work and inspire others in ways that are meaningful for them.

John: In terms of the master’s program in science communication, what are the career objectives of most of the students? You mentioned that many of them are not scientists, per se, but they’re focused on some career in science communication, what type of careers are they going into?

Brenda: A lot of them are going into or already in these careers as professional science communicators. Which is not a term that you can plug into a job search engine and find. These careers go by lots of different names. Often it’s in the communications departments, but it could be within actual labs, people who are being those connector pieces that are working with the marketers and the communications teams, and they’re the middle person between those teams and the scientists or they could be going into careers where they’re content creators. A lot of students recently are interested in podcasting and webinars and that sort of realm. So I see that becoming a big career path as well. Social media, and again, those careers are going to go by lots of different names, depending on what company, what region you’re in. But I would say a lot of our students are are looking to fill those gaps, and they have a real passion for helping people communicate that science, I think that was one of the things that really was interesting for us is we were expecting a lot of scientists coming into our program saying, “I want to learn how to communicate my science.” And while that is a decent chunk of our students, we also have a lot of social scientists coming to the table saying, “I want to help. I want to take my communication skills or my psychology skills, and I want to advance them and I want to learn how to practice this. And I want to learn how to work with these people and do a lot of what Alan was doing in that Scientific American Frontier show.” How do you get the important pieces out of these people and put it into a coherent story and then work with them to get some feedback, to ensure that in that translation process, the information and the science is still upheld in that. I would say a lot of the students are looking for those kinds of careers, where they’re what we call boundary spanners, and again, that’s a newer term, this is an entirely newer field. So I think students are going to be really looking for those types of careers.

Rebecca: One thing that I think about is the importance of people in these roles in actually generating interest for science programs and to become scientists. Because if the science is inaccessible, then it’s not necessarily something people understand or know exactly what it means to be a scientist, or what the study of science is like. I know that at my household, I have a small kid, and we watch lots of videos in media about science. And when it’s delivered in a way that we all can understand, we all get much more engaged.

Brenda: People think about science as scary, oftentimes, and especially when you’re thinking about that K-12 demographic, where they’re really starting to shape those ideas. I think that’s where, if they don’t understand something, or the class is a little bit harder, they get scared of it. And if they’re actually able to engage with scientists, I think their viewpoints will actually change, because when you start working with these people, it’s like, “Oh, they’re just like me, they’re not all wearing white lab coats and have a Petri dish.” [LAUGHTER] So I think breaking some of those barriers, and really overcoming those challenges, and those norms and expectations can be very helpful.

Rebecca: Yeah, that exact example happened yesterday. My daughter came home so excited that one of our SUNY Oswego scientists was at her school talking about the eclipse, so that they could understand the history of that. And she came home so excited and told me all about getting to meet a scientist and how cool that was. [LAUGHTER]

Brenda: Aaahhh. That’s what we need to do more of.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

John: On the other side of that, in most graduate science training, and most social science graduate training, one thing we’ve noted in past podcasts is there’s not a lot of preparation in terms of teaching skills, but there’s also not a lot of preparation in terms of communicating to a public audience. Graduate programs are very effective in teaching people how to present papers at professional conferences when they’re only talking to other scientists, but, in general, there’s very little work in preparing students to talk to the public. So it sounds as if this program might be the type of thing that many of those people in graduate programs could benefit from.

Brenda: Yeah, I think so. You know, you think about different cultures and different graduate programs in different fields. The expectations are all over the map. I mean, if you look at health care, you really see that come full circle in terms of bringing communication to the forefront and bringing it to medical student training. Even pre-COVID, this was really becoming more important, you were starting to see schools adopted, even if it was just one class in communication training or bedside manner, what we call patient-centered communication, or provider-patient communication, that was really becoming part of the norm. And if you look now, almost all graduate schools have some sort of communication woven in, even if it’s through like a grand rounds or something like that. So I think we’re starting to see that shift with science as well, at least on our own campus. We have a lot of graduate programs coming to us saying, “Hey, can you come in and do some sort of workshop with us? Can our students join your classes?” Our foundational science communication class, we have a number of programs on our campus that actually require that one class as part of the graduate program, so I’m hoping that We’re gonna start to see that shift more broadly as well.

Rebecca: So we’ve talked a little bit about the graduate program and the certificate program and how that might support students who are in science programs. But also, you have the Alan Alda Center, can you talk a little bit about the difference between your graduate programs and the Center?

Brenda: Yeah, so the center is very external facing in that we go out to government labs, other universities, corporations, and we train people as groups in teams who are already in their careers all the way from graduate students up to senior scientists. And we have two-day modules in person, and then we also offer a number of online three-hour modules. The Graduate Program uses some of that, but it’s much more academic based, in that students go through a foundational science communication course where they learn the science of science communication as a field, and they read some of that literature. How is the field developed? Where is it now? Where is it heading? They take a research methods class, where they can just learn about basic social science research methods, so that they can really look at a study and be able to judge is this a good study to talk about or report on? Was it done ethically from what you can tell? How many people were in their sample? How generalizable are these results. And then they also take classes in diversity. And they can pick from a number of electives having to do with science policy, podcasting, things like that. And so they do get the benefit of the Alda Center. So we have this program where we integrate the Alda offerings into our coursework. So all the students when they come, in that foundational required class, they will learn the Alda method, the ins and outs of basically what would happen in the morning of the first day of our science communication program. And that introduces them to the method, understanding how is improv used with communication theory and practice and research, and how is that all intertwined. And then throughout their coursework, they will receive some of the actual online modules that we offer to external clients as somewhat of a guest lecture, so our Alda facilitators will come into a class period or two and go through that module, whichever makes sense. For example, there’s a class on communicating science and health risks to the public. And so our media interviews module fits really nicely into that as students are preparing for public briefings and dealing with questions. They get that media interviews experience as part of that class to prepare them for that final assignment. So there is a lot of integration, and I think it’s one of the benefits of our program that the students actually do get to experience that. The Alda Center does not offer programs for individuals. So if I’m over at this university on the west coast, and I decided, “You know what, I just want to go through a program.” At this point in time, that’s not offered. We do programming for groups, mostly, and anywhere from 16 to 32, so if you are going to get a master’s degree or go on for some professional development, I think that’s what sets our program apart is students do get that experience and they get to work with our facilitators, and they are experiencing that actual training. It’s not like they’re getting a different version of that.

Rebecca: So you mentioned the Alda method. Can you talk a little bit about what that is?

Brenda: Yeah. So, when I started at the Alda Center, I had communication training. I knew how to give a talk, I knew how to engage people, I knew how to do this didactic sort of training. And when I came to the Alda center, I had this idea of what it was going to be. And I think this is a lot of people’s experience of there’s going to be some sort of lecture portion and an activity and then I’m going to do something at the end. And it really flipped all of that on its head for me when I saw what it was, because it combines traditional improvisation theater training that actors would get to help them connect with a scene partner. So I love this line that Alan always says, “When I was on a show, or I’m reading a script or something, I’m acting out those lines, I’m saying those lines because they were meaningful to me, the other actor was drawing those lines out of me. It’s not because the lines were on the page, there was some sort of connection between those two actors that really made that experience feel more authentic.” So we put our scientists through that training, that improvisation training, with really no information upfront about necessarily what they’re going to experience. We tell them to bring comfy clothes and you’re going to be standing a lot, you’re going to be interacting with different people, you’re going to be making direct eye contact and a lot of those activities seem very abstract. It’s kind of like “What are we doing? Why are we doing this in the moment?” And then what we do is we debrief the exercise at the end and relate it back to communication theory, communication, research, evidence-based findings of what works and how to make connections with people. It’s very experiential in that way, which I think is what makes it different. It’s one thing for me to tell you: “make eye contact and smile and move around the stage.” It’s another thing to actually make the eye contact with someone and feel what that feels like and get over that hump of the awkwardness and then be able to really benefit from what it’s like to make that connection with someone, whether you’re in person or even whether you’re online. So I think that’s what makes it really unique and unexpected to some.

Rebecca: We recently had the actors from the London stage come and do a workshop with some of our graduate students using some improv techniques that we didn’t warn them about either. [LAUGHTER] And it was really powerful. Can you give an example of what a couple of those activities might be like, just to make it come alive for some folks that maybe have never experienced improv training?

Brenda: Yeah, of course. So probably the most fundamental one is something that we call “mirror.” And basically, we have partners stand across from each other, they start with their hands up, almost like they’re going to high five each other both hands, and one person is the leader, the other person is the follower, and there’s no talking in the exercise. So we say, “Alright, one person just start moving, do whatever feels comfortable to you, and the other person is going to mirror you exactly, almost like you were looking at your reflection in a mirror.” And so they’re like, “Okay, why am I doing this?” And you get over that awkward stage, and then it gets a little funny, some people start doing the macarena. They realize, oh, this is something that maybe the other person knows, right? And so that makes it a little bit easier, breaks the ice. But really what they’re doing is this idea of the norm of reciprocity, they’re being able to match somebody else’s movements. And we almost do that in conversation as well. If I’m telling you a certain level of information about myself, you would probably match that with the similar level of information about yourself. It also helps you to connect with an audience and to be able to really focus on them and recognize when they’re understanding something, when they’re liking something, when they’re not, when they might be confused. And that gives you a sense of when you may need to stop and shift your approach a little bit. I think a lot of times people are told, just look at the back wall and talk to the wall. And what that ends up doing is it disconnects you from your audience, because you’re not able to actually get that feedback in real time from them about what’s working and what’s not. If they have a question about something or they’re not understanding, or they just seem upset about something you said, that may be something that you want to stop and address, and in showing them that you’re a real person and you care and you want to be connected with your audience. That’s a really important step to take. So being able to experience that fully through this exercise, I think just gives them a different perspective to think about when they’re on that stage, and they’re feeling uncomfortable, and they’re trying to quell those nerves, they can think back to these exercises of “Oh, yeah, I did this here and that was the takeaway.”

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what the debrief is like after one of those exercises?

Brenda: Yeah, so the debrief is actually a lot like a flipped classroom. So rather than us just lecturing at you, it’s really a lot of questions, almost like a podcast, where you’re asking someone questions, and they’re answering. And so we’re almost trying to draw it out of them. What was that experience like? We start very surface level. What did it feel like? What did you like? What did you not like? And then we start to get deeper? Well, what does this have to do with science? Why are we doing this abstract activity of follow the leader with your arms? And then maybe one person will have a slight idea, and then they’ll start to build on it, and we’ll filter in as well. And then we really get to that translational piece of “Okay, now, how can you take these concepts and apply it to the work that you’re doing?” And that’s where they’re really making those connections for themselves, whether that’s as a group or whether that’s at smaller teams within that larger group, or whether that’s just for them individually in the work that they’re doing? So it’s a lot like a conversation, but we’re drawing those inferences from them, and then adding in the information as well.

John: How do people respond to this training? How do they react afterwards?

Rebecca: Or how did you respond at first? [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah.

Brenda: I’ve liked to think that I’m very open to new things. Even I was standing there like “Guys, what in the heck? What are we doing?” First of all, no one told me how to dress for the day. So I was in like a pencil skirt and blazer that didn’t allow me to really move my arms and heels. So I was already kind of like “What’s happening?” But by the end of the day, I almost had no words. It was just such a different experience from anything that I had experienced. And I think with a lot of people, that’s what we see. They’re kind of like “What is this?” They’re a little nervous. When people get nervous or anxious about something or uncomfortable, they tend to just be like, “I don’t like this.” And then most of them will get to this place where they’re like, “Wow, that was transformational and I’ve never experienced anything like this before.” And then you will have others that are just very standoffish and are uncomfortable. They don’t want to do the exercises, they want to know what’s going to happen before it happens. And that’s something you have to work with. And a lot of times you’ll see the people next to them, like, “Hey, it’s fine, just do it, just do it. It’ll be okay. And they’ll grit through it.” But you definitely have to be open to something new. And for me, it was a breath of fresh air, it was something completely different. And I think that’s probably the most common experience that we hear of.

John: You mentioned working with graduate students or with people who are already out there? What are some of the other connections you make with people on campus?

Brenda: Yes, so we really like to offer something back to the campus community, because so much of the work that the Alda Center does is off campus. And so a big part of that is the Graduate Certificate in Science Communication, and obviously, the master’s program as well. But we also do a number of talks around campus for faculty, for postdocs who aren’t necessarily enrolled in our program or teaching in the program, but who are just interested in taking a class or experiencing the Alda method. And we also use it as a ground for training our instructors as well. So we have a new program that is being developed and being piloted. Nothing we put out is just slapped together and sold to a client. Everything is pilot tested. We get feedback from the audience, we go back, we adjust. And so it’s a pretty lengthy process. And so a lot of times we have people on campus that are like, “Look, I can’t devote a whole two days to the science communication experience. But I would just like to experience a workshop or I’d like to be involved.” And so when we have those pilot programs, we do them right here on our campus. We have an open call. So we’ll have everyone from faculty, to postdocs, graduate students, and even some of the campus leadership that will participate. Word has really gotten out. So we’re starting to see, as new leaders come to campus, they’re like, “We’ve heard of this Alda Center, and we feel like we want to take a workshop.” So we’d like to integrate our own community in in that way as well.

Rebecca: Sounds like a really great opportunity for professional development for faculty and staff. It probably provide some interesting ideas for their own classrooms.

Brenda: It’s a lot of fun when you do it on a campus where everyone works, because when we travel out people will come in from different units that are located in different parts of the country, and they don’t necessarily work together. But when you’re on a campus where everyone works together, it’s really nice because you start to see during lunch, during the breaks, and even at the end of the session, they’ll start to be making connections and building working groups and talking about research ideas or grants they should write together. And so I think that’s a really nice outcome of the Alda Center as well is just building connections between scientists. We’ve heard some organizations that we were at 5, 6, 7, 8 years ago, are still having working sessions and working groups. They do this on their own. They’ll have the group of folks who went through the workshop together, come back once a semester, once a month even, sometimes, and just have it be a brainstorming brown bag session where they bounce ideas, or they say, “Hey, I have a presentation coming up, can I do this and get some feedback from all of you?” So it’s really nice to see those types of relationships evolve and maintain over time as well.

John: Do you think faculty should do more improv in their classes [LAUGHTER] to help break down some of the barriers with students? I mention that partly because we had a reading group on campus this past year in the fall of 2023 with Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s book, Mind over Monsters, and she has a chapter on using improv to help students make connections with each other and to help build a community. Do you think that type of activity might be useful in general?

Brenda: Yeah, I think anytime you can change up the expectation of what’s going to happen in a classroom, that’s an A+ plus for you as the instructor. I will say that we used to do discussions and activities and the students liked those well enough. And after COVID, when everyone went online, and the classes all became the same, it all became post to a discussion board and then do this and then do that. When we came back from COVID, we really had a flip everything on its head and start over because the students just weren’t as engaged. Those activities that once were super fun, and they loved doing, they just were burnt out and exhausted from doing those. So I think anytime you can have those conversations where students get to just let their hair down for a little bit. There’s so much pressure on our students now to find jobs and get the internships because there’s so much competition and the more you can have real discussions and show students that you’re a real person too, they can be really helpful. So again, you have to know your audience. You have to know what students are expecting and which improv exercise might take it a little too far and be a little too abstract. Something, maybe [LAUGHTER] that you would try in a communication class, you wouldn’t go that far in a chemistry class. But there are exercises, they run the gamut of how intense they’re going to be. So even just starting out with a little activity could really go a long way to having students break that ice and open up.

Rebecca: Is there a place where using the Alda Method would be particularly beneficial to embed? If you had a magic wand and you could embed it somewhere, where would it have the most impact?

Brenda: I would say federal funding. As part of federal funding, when people get grants, you’re starting to see the shift of what are the broader impacts of this project, we’re starting to see more interdisciplinary work come together and really be the requirement for some of these funding opportunities. And so actually coming in and having the Alda Method be part of an award, [LAUGHTER] a post-award requirement, have your research team and your community partners all go through this training together, learn how to not just do the research, but disseminate it out. Communicating it out is half the battle. If you’re doing all this research and you’re publishing in journals that the general public isn’t reading, how much impact does it really have? So being able to not just present it in the ways that we’re used to, but also to have conversations about it. I think a lot of people are not as comfortable with presentation in general, but then when you get into a conversation with interviews, or the media where it’s a little more uncertain, we’re just not trained in that, especially in a lot of the science fields, there’s just not a lot of training and expectations of that even in classes, so being able to weave it in. I would say in a perfect world, if I could put it anywhere, that’s probably where I’d put it to really give these teams who are being awarded all this money, an extra tool in their toolkit to really be able to go out and disseminate that amazing work once they’re finished and throughout the process.

John: And as you were saying that, I was thinking back to COVID, when I was reading any scientific article by epidemiologists, or by other researchers, but then I’d hop on Facebook, or I’d look at Twitter and the discussions there seem to be somewhat different than the ones that were showing up in the journals or in the working papers. And I think you make a really good point there about suggesting that when people are going to do publicly funded research, having them develop skills in disseminating that information to the public could be a really useful public service.

Brenda: Well, I think what that also shows is the importance of knowing your audience. I think a lot of times we get up and we give presentations, because we think that’s what people need to know, and what people want to know. And when you actually start talking to them, that’s not actually what they’re interested in. So being able to have those conversations and break those walls down could really give scientists a whole new way of knowing and a whole new way of understanding their audience and what’s meaningful for them.

Rebecca: I like that you’re also kind of pointing out that the audience might be curious about things. I think sometimes we’re so in our own discipline or our own lane, that we forget that people outside of that lane might be curious about what we’re doing, or about what we’re studying, but don’t always have the language or a way to ask those questions or have access to that information.

Brenda: I think we take a lot for granted too. At the Alda Center, we call it the curse of knowledge. You don’t know what it’s like to not know something, once you know it. [LAUGHTER] It’s training we give doctors a lot. Remember what it was like the first time you heard this information. And imagine that it’s the first time for your audience. So even in talking about academic programs, there was this one time I was sitting next to a guy on an airplane, of course. And I said “oh, I do communication research.” And he’s like, “Oh, well tell me more about it.” And so I wanted to talk about my research into teams and healthcare. And I started talking and he was like, “Okay, so health communication, what is that?” And so our whole conversation evolved into a discussion of just defining health communication, something that, for me, was just part of my everyday vocabulary. So it wasn’t jargon to me. But in talking to someone else, it was a good reminder that hey, not everyone knows what this means. This is great. Like, let’s talk about it.

Rebecca: There’s been lots of things for us to think about in this conversation. So thank you so much for all of the food for thought. And we always wrap up with one final question, which is: “What’s next?”

Brenda: Well, that’s the million dollar question. For our graduate programs. I think we’re hoping one day to be able to build out a PhD program in communication so that we would have a professional pathway but we’d also have an academic pathway for those that are interested in that. For the center, continuing to build new programming and listening to the audience’s needs. What was important 5-10 years ago is not necessarily the same thing that’s important today, and what’s important today won’t be the same thing that is top of mind 10 years from now. So think just continuing to be present and listening to our audience’s needs, whether that’s public, whether that’s potential students, and just being able to respond to that and staying true to our mission and staying true to the science, I think will make a better world for everybody.

John: Well, thank you. We’re looking forward to seeing more informed science communication out there in the world. And it’s great that you’re doing this and I hope this spreads.

Brenda: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

Rebecca: Thank you so much.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.