Alda stresses importance of pairing science, communication at SUNY Poly

MARCY — Wearing a homemade MASH shirt, Korean War veteran Alexis Santiago was wheeled up to meet actor Alan Alda after a keynote speech at Project Fibonacci Wednesday at SUNY Polytechnic Institute.

Santiago was a part of the first Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) unit in Korea, so naturally he has a deep affection for the actor who played the chief surgeon on the TV show of the same name.

He didn’t have much to say, but Santiago’s eyes said it all: His entire year had been made in one moment.

Alda wasn’t in town as an actor, he was here to promote the importance of communication in science fields as the keynote speaker for Project Fibonacci, a week-long STEAM conference teaching students how to integrate science and math with the arts.

“The art of communication is so important, you have to bring that together with science,” he said. “I thought, ‘What if we train scientists to communicate while they’re learning to be scientists?’”

His down-to-earth, understandable approach comes from a lifetime spent communicating emotions with viewers.

From there, Alda went on to host “Scientific American Frontiers,” where he spent a lot of time helping scientists to better communicate innovations in the field to the audience. And from there on out, he’s been a champion of the issue.

“I found out while I was doing ‘Scientific American Frontiers’ that I had something I could do to help scientists,” he said in an interview after the event. “I thought if we could train them so when they go out by themselves in the field, they have that open feeling that we had when we were just having a conversation would be beneficial. Now we’ve trained thousands.”

After Alda’s speech was over — which attracted hundreds — the more than 100 students participating in Project Fibonacci were wide-eyed and excited.

Jacob Polivka, 20, of Rome, could barely contain his excitement. The computer engineering major at SUNY Poly took a lot of notes and can’t wait to get with the Alda-style communication program.

The biggest takeaway for Polivka was Alda’s point about teaching scientists to improvise and to speak on the same level as the audience they have in front of them.

“Oh my God, I’m sitting here amazed ... I was glued to the entire thing,” Polivka said. “I wrote tons of notes. ... And I’m just like ‘I’ve got to work on this.’ My big thing is research and this is never something I thought about, so I’ve got some great new material to study. And it will be helpful.”

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