What Researchers can Learn from Improv Theater-Department of Biological Sciences - Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What Researchers can Learn from Improv Theater

Students explain their research at a PCR workshop.
Students explain their research at a PCR workshop.

I’m sitting in the middle of a circle across from a graduate student, and we’re trying to talk at the same time. We’re not interrupting each other — I’m listening to every word, trying to repeat it back simultaneously. I shut my eyes but trail several words behind, never catching up.

The instructor stops us. “You’re looking away, you’ve got to look at each other. Try it again.”

She begins to speak, and we lock eyes. At some point I relax and fall into synchrony. I mirror her gestures, I’m attuned to every facial muscle, and the words flow through me as she says them. It looks like telepathy.

The instructor smiles. “Good. This looks like a silly game, but it has everything to do with science communication,” she says. “When scientists talk about their work, we often put up a wall. We talk at someone. These theater techniques train us to open up, and reveal the person behind the science.”

This workshop is part of Public Communication for Researchers (PCR), a new initiative by three Ph.D. students in biological sciences, computer science, and machine learning. Their goal is for students to feel comfortable explaining their work and why it matters, whether to politicians, journalists, or grandmothers. PCR recruits speakers, runs mock interviews, and shares what they learn on their website.

And then there are theater games. I had no idea how they would help until we went around the room explaining what we work on. The stories were captivating. “I’ve known you for two years,” said one student, “now I finally understand what you do!”

Photo: Courtesy of Ardon Shorr and PCR

By: Ardon Shorr, Ph.D. Student