At 17 Hillhouse Avenue on Wednesday evening, postdoctoral scholars and graduate students in the sciences took a break from their research and threw themselves into improvisation exercises.
The night was a part of a new, four-course program cosponsored by the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning and the Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences. The program was created by molecular, cellular and developmental virology professor Robert Bazell , who is also the former chief science and health correspondent for NBC News , as a way to teach postdoctoral scholars and graduate students in the sciences how to effectively convey their often technical and complicated work to people outside of the profession.
“It was something I proposed when I first came here,” Bazell explained. “I knew it would be very helpful because a big part of working in the sciences is communicating your work clearly to the public.”
Wednesday’s session, the first of the series and led by Long Wharf Theatre’s artistic director Gordon Edelstein, focused on presentation and public speaking. Edelstein led a room of about 20 students through various improvisation and acting games, one of which involved imitating a partner in both speech and hand motions.
When asked what they learned from the experience, students commented on the importance of eye contact and body language for informing a partner’s next move.
Some of Edelstein’s other activities included using games to highlight the importance of collective group efforts.
“A lot of individualists in this room, they need to become more collectivist,” Edelstein announced at one point in the night. “Nobel prizes go to everyone, people!”
According to Bazell, the program was incredibly popular when it first opened it to the Yale community — 100 people signed up in the first hour alone.
Students like Eric Wohleb, a postdoctoral scholar in the psychiatry department, joined the program because he saw it as an opportunity to learn valuable communication skills. He said he especially enjoyed the unorthodox nature of the session because he felt it gave him a new perspective with which to view his field.
“It’s really beneficial,” he explained. “When you are in communication, you can’t just stick to your science box.”
For others, like Will Olds GRD ’16, a student in the genetics department, the program served as an opportunity to delve further into his passions.
Olds explained that he is interested in pursuing science policy, which requires the ability to effectively communicate with people who do not specialize in scientific fields. Attending the session on Wednesday afternoon was a step in improving his ability to do just that, he said.
Edelstein stated that though he has never worked with science students before, he loved the experience.
“It’s particularly fun for me to take willing, highly accomplished science people, and get them to loosen up and hopefully help them in their communication skills,” explained Edelstein. “It’s actually a tremendous amount of fun for me.”
Bazell said that he hoped to continue this program next year, especially since he was unable to accept all the students who tried to enroll this year due to limited space.
New York Times science columnist Carl Zimmer ’87 will teach the program’s next session.