Dr. Neal Baer may have graduated from Harvard Medical School, but he’s not working as a doctor — at least not in the traditional sense.
Instead, AAAS Member Baer uses his scientific chops in Hollywood, where he’s spent decades writing for a slew of highly rated television shows, including the medical drama “ER,” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” the longest-running prime time live-action series in television history.
Right now, the Emmy-nominated writer works as showrunner for “Designated Survivor,” a political thriller airing on Netflix that wrapped its third season in June.
As showrunner, Baer has creative authority for the television program. He hires writers, actors, editors, and directors, runs the writing room, and oversees scripts and writers.
Baer's show “Designated Survivor” stars Kiefer Sutherland as Thomas Kirkman, a fictional Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary named designated survivor for the State of the Union address. After a bomb goes off in the U.S. Capitol killing everyone ahead of Kirkman in the line of succession, he’s sworn in as president. The show explores the challenges he faces as president while he tries to investigate the attack.
The show also dives into the potential of an enemy force using the gene-editing technology CRISPR as a biological weapon. CRISPR allows researchers to alter DNA sequences and modify gene function, and it could potentially be used to treat and prevent the spread of disease, fix genetic defects, improve crops, and more.
CRISPR has sparked discussion among scientists, Baer says, because a Chinese scientist created twin girls from an embryo whose DNA the scientist used CRISPR to modify. The scientist’s goal was making the girls immune to the virus that causes AIDS, but it may have done .
“This is a technique having profound possibilities … to alleviate suffering from a genetic disease,” Baer says of CRISPR. “It also has the potential to create lethal viruses, the likes of which we’ve never seen.”
Baer juggles “Designated Survivor” with teaching at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Global Health and Social Medicine and at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.
However, his path from Harvard to Hollywood wasn’t linear.
In 1983, a year after completing his Harvard doctorate in sociology, Baer landed AAAS’ Mass Media Fellowship that allowed him to spend a summer working as a writer, producer and editor of science and news features at WEWS-TV, the ABC affiliate in Cleveland.
“I always loved telling stores and I loved science, so that fellowship gave me the opportunity to meld both,” Baer says.
Baer secured a directing fellowship at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles in 1984, and from 1985 to 1988, he completed his premedical school science requirements at the University of Southern California.
The following year, Baer co-wrote and directed his first network production: “Private Affairs,” an ABC Afterschool Special about sexually transmitted diseases.
In 1990, Baer landed his big break as co-writer for “China Beach,” a show on ABC that focused on combat medics during the Vietnam War. At the same time, he was interested in practicing medicine because his father was a thoracic surgeon and Baer loved making the rounds with him. So, the following year, he enrolled in Harvard Medical School.
Baer juggled his medical school responsibilities with his burgeoning television career, and in 1994, two years before he graduated from medical school, Baer got the call to produce and write for “ER.”
During his tenure on the show, Baer wrote 19 episodes, devised medical stories for all episodes through the seventh season, and was nominated for seven Emmys — five for writing and two for producing.
“That was fantastic because it was the highest-rated drama of the last 30 years,” Baer says, noting he was the physician overseeing the storyline about Jeanie Boulet, one of television’s first openly HIV positive characters — a storyline he helped develop. “It’s wonderful to have such a massive audience and to write about massive topics that still resonate.”
He left “ER” in 2000 and spent the next 11 years working as executive producer, showrunner and writer for the Emmy-Award winning “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” where he managed the writing and production of 239 episodes.
While working on both hit shows, Baer completed his internship in pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
“My son said, ‘You’ve been on call my entire life’ when he was 11 years old,” Baer quipped.
Baer’s had the good fortune of working with Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg and best-selling author Stephen King on “Under the Dome,” a science fiction series based on King’s eponymous novel. Baer served as its showrunner, executive producer and writer.
From Spielberg, Baer learned the importance of visuals and emotion in a story. King, meanwhile, taught Baer “to be very parsimonious in using adverbs” in his writing.
When it’s in a pop culture context, science can help people understand and appreciate it in their daily lives.
For example, “Designated Survivor” not only deals with the threat of CRISPR, but it also takes on real-world issues, like how increasing insulin prices affects diabetics, what it means to have HIV and be undetectable, the opioid epidemic, and the ensuing coverup from the companies that made prescription opioid pills.
“These have a huge impact on people’s daily lives, and we bring that to the forefront of our show,” Baer says.