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John Cohen excites the public about science


One of the biggest challenges to scientists is trying to explain their work to the public in an interesting way, a way that not only holds their attention, but that those without scientific training can also understand.

Dr. John Cohen, professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, has dedicated his life to not just his own medical research and teaching, but teaching the public about science and medicine. He won the AAAS award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology in 2010.

Cohen started the CU Mini-Med School in 1989, a free, non-accredited, eight-week program for those without scientific backgrounds who want to improve their understanding of the human body. With more than 15,000 "graduates," the program continues to be one of the most popular and anticipated events offered by school.

Cohen was also inspired to create the Denver CaféScientifique, where science buffs meet up at a pub and hear an informal talk on an interesting current scientific topic, led by an expert.

Dr. Cohen spoke with AAAS MemberCentral to describe his public engagement work and why he finds this activity so important for the scientific community.

AAASMC: First what different elements do you enjoy about both your scientific research and your public engagement work?
J. John Cohen, MDCM, Ph.D., Professor of Immunology and Medicine, University of Colorado, Denver:
The common thing about them is working with people who want to learn new things. Certainly, my teaching is about that. And working in the lab is about developing the careers of young people. At my stage, I'm not concerned about my own career anymore. I'd rather help and watch students and trainees get to where they are going. And that is what the public outreach is all about.

AAASMC: In 1989, you founded the Colorado Mini-Med School as a community outreach effort. What did you want to accomplish when you first launched this initiative, and how would you describe its impact in your community?
At the beginning, it was mostly an effort to let the public know what was happening on our campus. We were sort of a mysterious place. The old campus was in the middle of this residential area. People would walk by, and we didn't think they even knew what we were. So, it was a way to invite people onto our campus, and say, 'here's what we do at your school.' And that gradually became a little bit of paying back. After all, it is their taxes that support us. So, the idea was to tell the public what we are doing; and to show them what sorts of things are being done with public funds.

Gradually, it morphed into trying to equip people who come to mini-med with the tools to have more responsibility for their own well-being. To help them understand that they can understand this stuff. They don't have to put up with their health care provider saying, 'oh you won't understand. Just take this pill.' But to let them say, 'wait a minute. No, I can understand. I've been to mini-med school. And I understand what DNA is, so I can understand what that pill is, if you explain it to me in everyday language.' And that's where we are right now, trying to change that behavior.

AAASMC: You originally helped organize Denver CaféScientifique, a forum for interactive community education. Please describe the forum's interactive approach, and why such a format is important to its success.
It's very important for us that it's highly interactive. We do that in a couple of ways. First of all, it's held in a pub. So people are sitting, they can get a drink and snacks. It's an environment that is associated with relaxation. Not with sitting in your seat, upright, and learning. The second thing, we don't allow the speaker to use power point or slides, because that makes it more like a lecture. Instead the person just stands there, and talks off the top of his or her head. As soon as they are done with their short talk, we are into questions, answers, and comments. It is as interactive as we can make it.

The teachers, the scientists who come, tell us that it is a unique experience for them, and they love it. We had one speaker, who is the chief scientist at IBM, and he told us that he never in his life had given a talk without slides. He was kind of reluctant and uncomfortable. But, as soon as he started, he just relaxed. He told us later, it was the most fun he'd ever had.

AAASMC: When in your career did you first develop a passion for engaging members of the public in your scientific work, and what currently sustains your motivation to continue this work?
Once I actually started doing my own research in graduate school, I found that I really got a big kick out of telling people about it. And since most people, especially my mother, were not scientists, working to explain what I was doing was important to me. And I guess, gradually it grew, as I got more confident.

There is a key moment when you are a teacher or a lecturer. There comes a time when you are finally comfortable enough to actually look at your audience while you are talking. So, while your mouth is talking, your head is saying, 'hmm, that's interesting. That guy is about to fall asleep; I wonder what I can do to wake him up. Those people are leaving, I wonder what that is about.' Once you get to that stage, all of a sudden it becomes a complete hoot. And the more I do it, the more I want to do it. People are scared to go to restaurants with me, because they know I am going to grab the waiter and give him a lecture on the science of cooking or something. It's the feedback, my guess is. They say stand up comedians are looking for love. I wonder if a lot of teachers are too. There is nothing more satisfying than teaching, and seeing the lights come on, of people saying, 'oh, is that how it works, that is extraordinary."

AAASMC: What insights might you offer to your colleagues to help encourage future scientists to become involved in this work?
I think a lot of people would like to do more public engagement. But they don't have a venue, they don't know how to do it. They are used to lecturing to their classes, or their students in the lab. But, they don't know how to go to the next step. If somebody calls them up, and says, 'hey, can you come and lecture to our high school?' They would go in a minute. But, they don't get the opportunity. So, my job is to create opportunities. People are eager to teach at the mini-med school. I don't even have to recruit people for cafésci. They write me, saying, 'I've heard about cafésci, or mini-med school, can I come talk at it?"

AAASMC: How would you change the field of science, or encourage change in other scientists, to make it more accessible and engaged with the public?
If you really want to do it, you can identify opportunities relatively easily. For years now, if I know I'm going to be out of town somewhere, I get in touch with the local high school, which usually I have to find on the Internet. And then I write them. I say, 'I'm a scientist, and I'm going to be in town. And it looks like I have Tuesday afternoon free. If you'd like, I'm glad to come talk to your kids about immunology, or about how to get into medical school, or whatever the kids are interested in talking about.' And I've never had a school say no! That is making an opportunity out of nothing.

AAASMC: What do you think is the most pressing scientific issue that needs more public outreach, whether because of public misinformation, lack of information or simply importance?
I'm an immunologist. So for me, the thing that worries me most is the growing skepticism, or outright hostility, to immunization. That seems to be not only in the states, although it is pretty major here, but it's in many of the developed countries.

Take for example, measles, the most infecting disease there is. Young parents who haven't done as much reading as they should, or doing the wrong kind of reading, because its so easy to get wrong information on the web, decide not to immunize their kids. It worries me and I try and address it whenever I'm doing outreach.

The AAAS Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology has been renamed the AAAS award for Public Engagement with Science. We are currently accepting nominations for this prestigious award, details below.

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"There is nothing more satisfying than teaching and seeing the lights come on," says AAAS member J. John Cohen (photo: Helen MacFarlane)
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