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Researchers learn innovative ways to communicate science

May 15, 2019

By Kristi Birch

Susmita Pati, M.D, Ph.D., chief of the Division of Primary Care Pediatrics at Stony Brook Medicine and chief medical program advisor for the Alan Alda Center
Susmita Pati, M.D, Ph.D., chief medical program advisor for the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Photo: Elissa Monroe, KU Medical Center.

It's not often that researchers and administrators attending a conference about clinical research regulations spend part of their time learning techniques of improvisational theater, but that's exactly what happened last month during a forum hosted by the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Nearly 250 people from 21 states and 59 research organizations attended the Research Community Forum, which was co-hosted by the federal Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP), which provides leadership in the protection of the rights, welfare, and wellbeing of individuals involved in research conducted or supported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The forum, titled "Pioneers for Discovery: Reinventing the Research Enterprise," was held April 17 and 18 at the Overland Park Convention Center near Kansas City.

The first day of the conference focused on helping the attendees — which included health care researchers, policymakers, community advocates and Institutional Review Board professionals — learn to interpret and apply recent changes that were made to the federal regulations that protect participants in research.

The forum gave attendees the rare chance to learn in-person from the OHRP, FDA and Clinical Trial Transformation Initiative (CTTI), a public-private partnership that to develops practices to improve the quality and efficiency of clinical trials. "This event was a wonderful opportunity to bring representatives from research institutions across the country together with senior federal agency representatives and policymakers that we often don't have an opportunity to interact with locally," said Lisa Hoebelheinrich, J.D., associate vice chancellor of compliance at KU Medical Center.

One major change in the federal regulations is a new requirement that consent forms begin with a concise summary of key information about the research. This summary is intended to provide a clear description of the study so that individuals understand the reasons why they might or might not want to participate.

That sounds simple enough, but translating a complex research protocol into language that makes the research understandable to a non-scientist can be difficult, noted Hoebelheinrich. And learning to do that, believe it or not, is where the lessons in improvisational theater lessons came in.

On the second day of the forum, representatives from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science taught the attendees how to discuss complex research topics in a clear, non-academic way that engages their audience. Improv techniques are a key component of the method devised by the Alan Alda Center to enable scientists to communicate more effectively with the public, the media, policymakers, and any other audience who might have an interest in their work.

In one of the workshops the Center held at the forum, the attendees stood facing each other in pairs. While one person in each pair silently moved their body, their partner watched and mimicked their movements - tilting their head, spinning around, even moonwalking. This "mirror" exercise is a common technique used in improv. It creates empathy and teaches people to connect with and respond to their audience - not a skill common to researchers accustomed to delivering prepared talks in academic terms to other scientists.

Alan Alda, the actor many know from his role as Hawkeye in the long-running TV series M*A*S*H, spent 11 years hosting the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers and interviewing researchers who told him about their breakthroughs in science and medicine in a conversational, easy-to-understand way. Alda realized how valuable it would be if scientists could communicate that way on their own, even without him being the interviewer. "Everything would benefit. Science would benefit. Funding would get better. Congress would suddenly understand what scientists want the money for," said Alda in a video shown at the forum. The Center was established in 2009 at Stony Brook University in New York.

Susmita Pati, M.D, Ph.D., chief of the Division of Primary Care Pediatrics at Stony Brook Medicine and chief medical program advisor for the Alan Alda Center, delivered an interactive keynote address at the forum that included asking the participants to write down the five keywords they would use to describe their research — and then having the attendees describe their research, not using those keywords, to another forum participant.

"What really is the common thread from my perspective is the importance of communication: communication with patients, communications within clinical study teams, communication with all stakeholders involved," said Pati. "That why I joined the center in 2018 - to think about how we can develop communication methodologies that ultimately help the way we deliver health care."

Hoebelheinrich noted that while conference sessions about regulatory matters and improv theater might seem like an unusual pairing, "what we were hoping to tie together was the need for clear science communication, especially to improve the quality of information we present to people who are deciding if a clinical trial is right for them," she said. "What struck us about the Alan Alda Center was their focus on accurately and effectively conveying scientific concepts to people who don't have a science background."

Last modified: Jun 05, 2019