Chemist Discusses Science Communication with Alan Alda
At the request of the American Chemical Society (ACS), an organization that has honored him many times over his career, Chemistry Professor Neil D. Jespersen, Ph.D., attended the World Science Festival from May 30 – June 4, 2017 in New York City. At the event, Jespersen met actor Alan Alda, founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, and the two discussed how to improve chemistry teaching.
During the festival, on Saturday, June 3, Jespersen attended the Alda Center’s sixth annual “The Flame Challenge,” which is part of the center’s mission to help scientists communicate more effectively with the public. This year, scientists were asked to answer the question, “what is energy?” for 11-year-olds around the world. “I had a good conversation with Alan Alda on the precision required in science communication and the importance of telling stories in the process,” said Jespersen. According to Alda, the two elements of explaining science well are precision and enthusiasm about the subject matter.
Alda related the origins of his interest in communicating science, too. While filming M*A*S*H in Korea, Alda was stricken with a serious and painful intestinal malady. After traveling a long distance to see a doctor, Alda could explain exactly what was wrong because of the medical concepts and terminology he had learned through the show. In turn, his doctor delivered the diagnosis in simple, understandable terms. Alda realized the value of communicating medical and scientific knowledge, a discovery that eventually led him to establish the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.
Jespersen hopes to continue building on the relationship with Alda and the Center for Communicating Science to bring a similar program to St. John’s. He was also invited to attend a town hall presentation about the role of science in a polarized world at the festival, featuring National Science Foundation (NSF) Director France A. Córdova, Nobel Laureate Paul Nurse, and festival co-founder Brian Greene.
An ACS member since 1969, Jespersen has served on numerous ACS national committees and task forces. In 2010, he was elected to the ACS board of directors and served a three-year term. He has been faculty moderator of the St. John’s ACS chapter for the past 30 years and has received special commendation from the organization for his commitment and mentoring. He served as chair of the ACS Fellows Oversight Committee in 2014 and 2015 and in 2016 was elected to the National ACS Committee on Nominations and Elections.