Shout out to improvising STEM professionals

After a couple of weeks on the road, it’s nice to be able to sit and reflect on the events that took place. And when those events include courageous, playful colleagues, it’s a pleasurable recollection. So, what happened?

At the Tapia Celebration of Diversity and Computing, our panel Building a Career for you: An improvisational art and practice, followed the plenary session of James McLurkin of Rice University. He spoke of his work at the interface of computing and robotics. He has created playful, engaging and educational teaching contexts that build on the social dynamics of bees and the social nature of learning. Check out his Swarm and Bee Festival. One could say he was a hard act to follow. Especially when he ends with a slide saying, “Play hard!” Yet for a set of improvising STEM professionals, it was a wonderful offer.  So, play we did.

After warming up in the hallway with a bit of soundball and word association, we entered our beautiful Eliza Auditorium prepared for a session like no other at the Tapia Symposium. With shoulders back, arms wide and voice raised, I welcomed the audience. “Welcome to a session like no other at Tapia. Yes, you’ve joined the Building a career for you! An improvisational (pause for affect) art and practice.” You have to imagine a cross between game show host and circus MC. You’ll have to ask some of the hundred attendees to describe this improvised introduction. The goal, set the tone for something new, introduce performance and improvisation and to invite the audience to create the session with us.

Let me introduce our panelists, Elizabeth Bautista, lead of the Operations Group at Lawrence Berkeley Labs (LBL). She comes racing to the stage as the winner of a spot on the Price is Right. Oops wrong show. She sits. Next we have Luis Melara, applied mathematician of Shippenburg University. He strides to the stage and nods in a composed style befitting a mathematician. He his followed by Stephanie Pulford, a writing lecturer and consultant whose career trajectory is as non-linear as the rest of us on the panel.

The audience was given cards to fill out as we spoke so that they might ask questions as we went along. After a couple of moderator launched questions on improvisation and our work, we walked through the audience to retrieve questions. The first pass, nothing. The second pass, gold. Armed with eight questions from the audience, we re-distributed the responsibility of the moderator to the panel. We all answered questions that were on cards in front of us. Then it happened. “Well,” Stephanie leads,” I could answer this or we could role play.” As a good improv director seeing the opportunity for even more audience participation, “What do you think? Role play?” The audience gave an fairly unanimous if not synchronous nod of yes. And that got us going. The scene: a shy student approaching a condescending professor. The scene was chosen by the audience and performed by Stephanie and myself. Characters cast by audience. What did we do? Improvise! 

And of course, we kept improvising. Between reading questions, giving our answers, improvising scenes and being candid in our replies, the panel succeeded in being fun for the panelists and helpful to the audience. How do we know? Well, from a small sample set of ~15-20 people who came up after the workshop and during breaks to say, thank you and ask more questions, I feel confident that the panel was a raging success. (Shh, and it was fun).

I must admit, I would never have asked the panelists to perform scenes. We had talked about maybe doing some games. But typically, I ask audiences to perform, not panelists. It was the offer that Stephanie made, my willingness to pursue it and audience participation that led to the success of this panel. Follow up questions included: How do we practice? Where can I continue to get better at building relationships (which is the key to good improvisation)? I’m happy to say that improvscience is starting Online Mentoring Groups (OMG!) to provide students and postdocs with opportunities to practice building professional relationships in which they can grow. The questions related to Building a Career for You and the art of improvisation are questions of practice. As Alan Alda said in his Keynote at AAAS, “I can’t give you tips on how to play the piano in a symphony orchestra.” The skills are ones that need to be practiced. 

We’re creating those practice locations for scientists. To join us in the OMG! or other training opportunities, sign up for workshops via the Newsletter or send an email to

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