Institute teaches stem cell researchers how to give elevator pitch

March 21, 2013 10:35:03 PM PDT
There's no doubt that the science behind stem cell research can be complex. So, now the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is launching a unique effort to help the public better understand it, all by getting researchers to rethink the way they communicate.

Bettina Steffen, M.D., works for CIRM -- the taxpayer funded institute that pays for stem cell research. What exactly does she do? She'll explain it on an elevator ride.

"I fund stem cell research, finding an interesting discovery in a laboratory model, and try to help them move that to clinics so it can be studied safely in humans," she said.

The institute recently launched a campaign called the elevator pitch challenge. The idea is to teach cutting edge researchers how to explain their work to a stranger in the length of an elevator ride and make them care about it.

Directors at the institute scored the videos on brevity, clarity, and creativity. Some of the researchers were born performers, while others looked as if they'd be slightly more comfortable in front of a microscope than a camera, and there were those whose mastery of cell biology was a bit stronger than their mastery of the 30 second deadline.

While all the contestants were brilliant researchers and good sports on top of it, CIRM Science Officer Kevin Whittlesey believes their future often hinges on convincing the people paying the bills. "By and large science is done with tax payer dollars, so it's really important for the public to be able to understand why that money is well spent," he said.

Researchers were advised to skip explanations of epigenetic regulators and pluripotency and move straight to who might get cured and how.

"It's really scientists' jobs because they're the ones doing the work," Whittlesey said.

The goal is not to dumb down the science, but to broaden the audience for it.

Winners will be announced this week, with the prize being more in the gift certificate range, than a large funding grant.

Written and produced by Tim Didion.


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