T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T      M A R C H  –   A P R I L   2001


by Cyynthia Delgado, OSE
Anne Baur

The NIH Speakers Bureau started 10 summers ago with a list of six names—six friends of then–Office of Education director Michael Fordis, who’d been getting calls from local groups asking for speakers. "He knew these friends of his were good speakers, so he put them on a list and gave the list to me and asked me to organize a speakers bureau," Gloria Seelman, now with the Office of Science Education (OSE), recalls.

Today the Speakers Bureau is under OSE jurisdiction and is administered by Anne Baur, who calls it "one of NIH’s best kept secrets"—but a secret that has a website that has had its share of hits every day since its launch in 1998. Those who click will find a directory of speakers (with their profiles, their fields of expertise, and questions they are eager to address) and an extensive list of specific medical and ethical topics that Bureau troops are ready, willing, and able to talk about.

At the moment, Baur says, there are 61 speakers in the directory, but she hopes to have "100 by the start of the school year [2001-2002]" and to expand marketing efforts beyond the current "word-of-mouth" that generates about 180 calls for speakers each academic year.

The speaking venues are diverse, ranging from elementary schools to retirement communities. And someone who signs up as an expert in a particular medical field can find herself or himself adapting the information for an audience of curious children, concerned consumers, or prospective scientists, to name a few possibilities.

Everybody associated with the project benefits, Baur says. The Speakers Bureau supports the OSE and NIH mission of disseminating medical information and contributing to the public’s understanding of medical research; each speaker gets the opportunity to develop a variety of effective verbal communication skills while, often, expounding on his or her own scientific achievements; the audience gets to hear state-of-the-art scientific achievements "straight from the horse’s mouth"; and the program sponsor, the Office of Research on Women’s Health, has another outlet to showcase accomplished women and minorities in science.

NCI’s Kathleen Higinbotham is one such volunteer who last year spoke of her experiences as both a breast cancer researcher and breast cancer survivor at a women’s health symposium organized by Sara Grove, an associate professor of political science at Shippensburg (Pa.) University, and her students. A student who had undergone chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s disease and awaited radiation therapy found Higinbotham’s talk "encouraging and amazing," Grove says, adding that she found the Speakers Bureau website "very user-friendly and impressive." She plans to use the resource again.

Women’s health, Baur says, is one of the topics that commands the greatest interest and, within that realm, osteoporosis and breast cancer are the most frequently specified. She would especially like to expand the bureau’s roster of speakers in this area.

To become a full-fledged NIH Speakers Bureau speaker, one need only be an interested NIH scientist, administrator, or support staff—or, actually, an employee of any federal agency that promotes science and health research. Participation in the program is considered official duty for which a speaker may not accept compensation other than to cover travel expenses.

Once someone signs up for service, he or she can expect to be called upon two or three times a year. "If anyone is so popular that their requests are interfering with their job performance, I can take them [off the list] and give them a rest," says Baur, adding, however, that the speakers have complete control over which requests they accept or decline, as well as how long they will participate in the program. (The website is set up to enable direct e-mail communication between a requestor and a selected speaker.)

To volunteer as a speaker, request a speaker, or learn about other OSE programs and resources visit the website.

Never Too Old Give and Take

Maria Giovanni, assistant director for microbial genomics, NIAID, and organizer of the Bethesda Elementary after-school science club, invited NCI’s Marian McKee, a staff scientist in the Biotherapy Section of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, to the club. "We were looking for hands-on activities, not another lecture, says Giovanni. What they got was a creative painting project that showed the way microorganisms are transmitted from one person to another. The best part, Giovanni recalls, was McKee’s enthusiasm, a characteristic to which the kids really respond. "It was a very positive experience; [the kids] are a critical group, and they really liked it."

Marian McKee

For McKee, the best part of talking to elementary school students is their enthusiasm and their curiosity. She is "struck," she says, by "how thoughtful many of the questions are, even from the younger (K–2) students." She’s remained on the speaker list, she says, because she enjoys "demystifying the world of the white-coated lab worker" for the children. There’s also the fact that she invariably returns to the lab "in a more positive frame of mind."

Barbara Biesecker

A "commitment to help shape public understanding of genetic research" brought Barbara Biesecker, associate investigator in the NHGRI Medical Genetics Branch and co-director of the collaborative Johns Hopkins University–NHGRI Genetic Counseling Graduate Program, to the Speakers Bureau. She particularly enjoys speaking with senior groups. "Their collective life experiences lead them to ask informed questions and appreciate the subtleties of ethical dilemmas," she says, adding a more personal reason for enjoying her interchanges with older people: While handshakes, smiles, and verbal "thank yous" are usually forthcoming wherever she speaks, in the company of her elders, she has also been hugged and treated like a daughter.

. . . Or Too Young
Alfred Johnson

Alfred Johnson, director of the NIH Undergraduate Scholarship Program and an investigator in the NCI Laboratory of Molecular Biology, was already speaking before he joined the group. But, he says, it’s "nice to have a formal process in place to assist the effort." He speaks to students in kindergarten up through high school and to adults about cancer-related topics and about careers in science. He recalls an especially poignant moment when a third grader asked why people die, a question that eluded a satisfactory scientific answer but somehow evolved into an exchange that called forth genuine group laughter.

Having students tell you that you have "sparked their joy in science is overwhelming," he says.



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