Scientists in the New ("OUTSIDE") World
By Kristen Watson
The words researcher and scientists usually bring to mind test tubes, petri dishes, and lab coats, but that may be changing.
For some scientists, the lab is only one of the several venues in which they work. Testifying at Congressional hearings, lobbying government leaders, and appearing on TV and radio programs have become increasingly more common experiences for researchers. These savvy scientists have turned the traditional stereotype of researchers. as nerdy laboratory-bound individuals with timid demeanors. on its head by stepping into the limelight and speaking out.
With research budget cuts and societal changes, such as advancements in DNA research and animal rights issues, in the forefront, Dr. Patrick S. Moore, professor of pathology, says he has noticed a push to increase the visibility of scientists to counter "ridiculous img and media stereotypes."
Yet, Dr. Moore says, the role of the scientist in the spotlight is nothing new. "Scientists have always been public figures." His wife and research partner, Dr. Yuan Chang, associate professor of pathology, agrees, adding, "It. s the state of communications that has changed. We. ve had an information explosion. now we have e-mail and the world is getting smaller with jet travel," making it easier to bring scientific information to the public. s attention.
Dr. Herbert Pardes, vice president and dean, believes the researcher as science advocate and spokesperson trend has just started to take off. "An increasing number of scientists are speaking to various public bodies. government and media. regarding research," he says. As for researchers making names for themselves upon making discoveries, Dr. Pardes says, "Emphasizing individual researchers makes it more meaningful. it puts a face on research."
Dr. Ramon Parsons, assistant professor of pathology, notes that the media. s expanded science coverage (the New York Times Science section on Tuesdays, for example), has allotted more time and space for pictures and personality coverage too. "Science personalities have not been as hyped in the past," he says. "At times, reporters get to know specific scientists and follow their careers." Dr. Parsons adds that the media coverage of science is good for the morale of the scientific community, and he believes it helps boost careers.
In addition to offering opportunities to educate the public about benefits of medical and scientific advances, the media and the public forum are also good platforms to promote the omnipresent need for research funding. Aiming to drum up support for academic research in "every conceivable way," Dr. Pardes testifies at Congressional hearings, engages in conversations with government leaders, encourages citizen advocacy, writes articles, is involved with a number of organizations that support research, speaks across the country regarding the need for research and encourages others to do the same, has set up awards for researchers, contributes to various organizations that make the development of research a top priority, and talks about research to people from all walks of life in understandable terms.
"The public must understand what research is about and what it can do," Dr. Pardes says. "It provides hope to people with disease and awareness to others."
Dealing with the Media: Lessons Learned
Dr. Chang says she and Dr. Moore realized from the start that they must be cautious when dealing with the media. "It. s a double-edged sword; the story can get blown out of proportion if you. re not careful.
You must balance what is appropriate and what is not."
Most of the KS coverage was handled by science writers, yet Drs. Chang and Moore found it necessary to spend extra time with reporters who did not have science backgrounds. Many journalists also reviewed the facts of the KS story with them before publication. "The major points were usually right," says Dr. Chang, "but sometimes the minor details had gone askew."
"You can. t blow a story up beyond its worth," says Dr. Moore, or you can get yourself into more trouble with colleagues than with the general public. "And if an inaccurate story is published, the public gets the idea that scientists do not know what they are talking about."
Digging for Dirt
Dr. Parsons also received a great deal of media attention when his lab discovered P-TEN, a tumor suppressor gene, in the spring of 1997.
Columbia issued a press release announcing the discovery and planned a press conference. According to Dr. Parsons, the event was very straightforward, yet "reporters tended to want to find a story within the story, a human interest angle which simply was not there. It seemed the science itself was not interesting enough."
Since Dr. Parsons. lab was in a race to be the first team to find the gene, reporters resorted to trying to get the dirt on his
competitors, but there was no dirt to dig in. "They were trying to find more than we were willing to give," says Dr. Parsons, "They were very manipulative."
The P-TEN discovery received two to three weeks of intense, phone-ringing-off-the-hook attention. According to Dr. Parsons, some accounts of the P-TEN study were not very accurate; reporters tended to either over- or under-interpret the study or simply did not understand it.
"We are making progress," Dr. Parsons says, "and science is becoming more relevant." Yet, there is still danger in overglamorizing the potential of certain discoveries. "Scientists have to be careful when talking about things that could seriously affect people. s lives. While they tend to be optimistic about possible medical breakthroughs, false hope can be devastating to seriously ill patients."
Spinning Out of Control
Dr. Angela Christiano. s discovery of the first human gene associated with hair loss also created a media buzz after her study appeared in the Jan. 30, 1998, issue of Science.
New to the publicity game at the time, Dr. Christiano, Irving Assistant Professor of Dermatology, was amused that Science put a sensational spin on her findings with its press release that heralded: "Baldness gene found." At the same time, the Columbia Health Sciences Office of External Relations issued a much more straightforward press release and arranged a press conference for Jan. 29, the day the embargo lifted. A full-on media blitz followed. Dr. Christiano participated in live radio broadcasts, television interviews, documentaries, and newspaper and magazine articles.
"Most reporters just ask . is this going to cure baldness?. " says Dr. Christiano, but as a Ph.D., she draws the line about medical diagnosis, especially when reporters try to lead her into saying more than she feels comfortable saying on record. "For the first time I realized they can change anything outside the quote marks and completely change the meaning of what you say with potentially damaging results."
In the beginning of the media frenzy, a New York Times reporter was the only member of the press to ask Dr. Christiano what interested her in alopecia. The reporter made Dr. Christiano comfortable enough to reveal that she herself suffers from the disease, alopecia areata, which is why her team began working on the hair loss problem. This new angle, the reporter excitedly told Dr. Christiano, made the story an even larger media event and she proceeded to write an in-depth human interest story for the Times.
One result of all this publicity was an enormous outpouring from patients in the form of stacks of letters, which are helping Dr. Christiano. s family linkage studies. "It. s scary to be put out in front like that," says Dr. Christiano, "but the visibility is worth it, just in recruiting patients." Now with a year. s worth of heavy media exposure under her belt, Dr. Christiano is fairly comfortable dealing with publicity. With a new study on immunodeficiency published in the April 8, 1999, issue of Nature, she is more confident than ever. "This time I know who to go back to," she says, citing the New York Times, NBC. s "Dateline," and CNN as media outlets she knows she can trust. Her goal is also to raise public awareness about alopecia, in the hopes of increasing the essentially non-existent NIH funding for this disease, which is often dismissed as a "cosmetic" problem.
Dr. Christiano also has a book in the works that combines her motivation for working on hair loss, her compelling life story, and her research. A literary agent persuaded her to write the book to inspire young girls who are interested in science, assuring them that "it. s cool to be a female scientist." Other projects include a call-in radio show ("The Bald Truth") on WEVD in New York, which is syndicated in six other cities, and a stint as "expert commentator" on baldness for CNN last fall. Dr. Christiano also joined forces with the Bald Truth Foundation. s and the Regrowth Foundation. s web sites (baldtruth.com and regrowth.com) and is actively accessing patients through the internet
Help for Facing the Microphone
To meet the needs of society. s growing interest in science and the increasing number of print and TV interviews of medical researchers, Columbia offers help to researchers anticipating media coverage.
The Health Sciences Office of External Relations coaches potential interview subjects in the basics of communication for various media situations. According to Carolyn Conway, director of public relations, interest in media training sessions is growing. . Our goal is to provide faculty with a communications support network to ensure that their messages are delivered accurately, clearly, and efficiently,. says Ms. Conway.
In a one-hour introduc-tory session of the media training program, individuals learn how the press works and what they should expect during media interviews. Topics include how to handle hostile interviews, the truth about . off the record. and other interview ground rules, and tips to avoid being misquoted.
An extended session or customized training from media coaches is available for faculty desiring more intensive training. Participants have the opportunity to record a mock interview and receive critical feedback on their performance.
The Benefits of the Spotlight
Dr. Pardes makes himself available for newspaper and TV interviews by reporters who want to know about research. "You have to develop as many strategies as you can to achieve the largest possible support and reach the largest number of people," he says.
A New York Times article last year (Sunday, Oct. 4, 1998) regarding Health Sciences campus real estate seems to have boosted the medical center. s public image a few notches. "Now people know that this is an excellent institution, Columbia is active in building the community, the neighborhood is improving, and diverse and responsive research is done here. We. ve built P&S to be as strong as possible. something of high quality that people want to be a part of," says Dr. Pardes.
Dr. Samuel Silverstein, John C. Dalton Professor and Chairman of Physiology, agrees that it is crucial for physicians and scientists to educate the public about the benefits of medical research, to enlist the help of their friends and colleagues in this cause, and to advocate with members of Congress and other elected officials for research support. "We cannot count on automatic funding for our endeavors," Dr. Silverstein says. As president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology from 1994 to 1995, he testified several times before Congress in support of increased federal investments in research.
"Fifty years of sustained Congressional support, albeit at a level significantly lower than needed to make optimal use of scientific opportunities, have allowed us to neglect responsibility for communicating with the public and with elected officials," Dr. Silverstein says. "Yet they are the principal supporters of fundamental life science research."
Dr. Silverstein also has called for an image overhaul for scientists. "Despite the distorted image the public has of us, we have done little to correct it.
"Some say it is self-serving for physicians and scientists to advocate for funds to support their work. But if advocating for funds for the research that will identify ways to prevent HIV infection, slow the progress of Alzheimer. s disease, and cure cancer is self-serving, then let. s have more of it," adds Dr. Silverstein. "That. s the kind of self-service the world needs more of."
Since the public receives very little information about the social and economic benefits of its investment in research,