STONY BROOK, N.Y. – Martha Furie stormed into the room and huffily sat down in a chair. "Well, you know, I've been working really hard, studying Lyme disease," she said, her voice tinged with disdain, to the woman sitting in the next chair. "It's been a long process. It's hard to talk about it." The other woman, Bernadette Holdener, was somewhat befuddled. "How does it make you feel?" she asked. "Lyme disease?" Furie sneered. "It can have all sorts of bad things."
The two were participating in an improvisational acting exercise. But they are not aspiring actresses or comedians. Furie is a professor of pathology at Stony Brook University, Holdener a professor of biochemistry and cell biology.
"Anyone have any inkling what is going on?" asked one of the instructors for the session — Alan Alda, the actor who played Hawkeye in the television series "MASH" more than three decades ago.
The exercise, called "Who am I?," challenges one of the participants — Furie, in this case — to convey an unstated relationship with another, and everyone else must try to deduce the relationship. People guessed variously that Furie was a Lyme researcher who had contracted the disease, that she just been denied tenure and was venting to the head of her department, that she was expressing passive-aggressive anger toward her spouse. "You're so close," Alda said.
Furie explained that Holdener "was my long-lost sister who stole my husband away." The participants laughed at the convoluted setup.
Alda said that Furie, focusing on her role as a wronged sister, intently observed her audience — Holdener — and the effect of her words.
"What I find interesting about this is you're suddenly talking about your work in a way you've never talked about it before," Alda said.
The idea of teaching improv to scientists came from Alda, now a visiting professor. The objective is not to make them funny, but to help them talk about science to people who are not scientists. "Not jokes, not cleverness," Alda said. "It's the contact with the other person."
Alda has long held a deep interest in science. In the 1990s, he collaborated on "QED," a play about the physicist Richard Feynman, with Alda playing Feynman. He also hosted 11 seasons of the PBS program "Scientific American Frontiers." In interviews with hundreds of scientists, he found that he could draw out engaging explanations.
Alda started suggesting to university presidents that they teach scientists how to present their research to the public.
No one expressed interest until 2007, when Alda visited Stony Brook and met Shirley Strum Kenny, then the university's president. "I said, 'What do you think? Do you think both could be taught at the same time so you can graduate accomplished scientists who are also accomplished communicators?' " Alda said. "And she was interested."
The next year, he tested his improv idea at the University of Southern California on 20 graduate engineering students. The students first talked briefly about their work. "It was OK," Alda said.
Then came three hours of improvisational acting exercises. At the end, the students talked about their work again. "The difference was striking," Alda said. "They came to life."
Stony Brook established the Center for Communicating Science in 2009 as part of its journalism school. Two graduate programs now require students to take the center's classes. All medical school students receive 10 hours of training. "This is a big cultural shift," said Howard Schneider, the dean of the journalism school. In addition, four organizations — Dartmouth College, the University of Vermont, the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey and the American Chemical Society — have become affiliates. Other universities are considering setting up similar programs.