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Weill Cornell Gunning for Video Win in NIH Science-Communication Competition

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Videos from the Clinical and Translational Science Center and from Two Weill Cornell Scientists Illustrate the Importance of NIH-Funded Research

Edited 5/16/2014: The CTSC rap video was among the competition winners, announced on May 9, with more than 1,000 likes on YouTube. The video by Drs. M. Elizabeth Ross and Christoper Mason performed well and garnered more than 800 likes to date.

It's a truism among communications specialists: Explain your science in a way that Grandma can understand. Geneticist Christopher Mason didn't need an expert to tell him that; he's been practicing the technique since his own grandmother asked for a plain-language explanation of his research when he was a graduate student.

"It underscored the need for scientists to concretely explain to non-scientists what we do and why it matters," said Dr. Mason, an assistant professor of physiology and biophysics at the HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud Institute for Computational Biomedicine and an assistant professor of neuroscience at the Feil Family Brain and Mind Research Institute. "Genetics and epigenetics are pivotal from the very first cell of life, and every cell onward."

Speaking in relatable terms was Dr. Mason's goal in a video he and research collaborator Dr. M. Elizabeth Ross entered in a contest sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. The NIH Common Fund 10-Year Commemoration Song and Video Competition, which Weill Cornell's Clinical and Translational Science Center also entered, encourages investigators whose research is supported by the NIH Roadmap/Common Fund to submit short songs and videos that creatively and engagingly break down their complex science into easily digestible language.

"Our aim was to encourage our grantees to explain their important biomedical research in entertaining and public-friendly ways to bring excitement to the dynamic and transformative goals they are striving to achieve," said Dr. James M. Anderson, director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives in the Office of the Director at the NIH.

The top four or five videos that receive the most "likes" on YouTube by May 9 will be anointed the winners and recognized at the NIH's 10-Year Commemoration Symposium next month. Scientists involved in the winning videos will also receive certificates signed by NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins, who champions effective communication as a means to demystify science. He's written and sung songs, given a TED Talk and has been a guest on The Colbert Report. (In his most recent appearance on the show, he used the tried-and-true strategy of analogy to explain neuroscience, likening scientists' current understanding of the brain to mapping the circuits and wires of an iPhone without knowing how the mechanical guts make the phone function).

Dr. Julianne Imperato-McGinley

Dr. Julianne Imperato-McGinley and her team at the CTSC hope their rap music video "Go with the CTSC and the NIH Common Fund" will earn one of the top spots.

Through lyrics written and performed by Tim Baker, a program specialist at the CTSC, the video captures the work the center does, with NIH Common Fund support, to translate research breakthroughs from the bench to the bedside. CTSC writer Jesse Jou produced the video, which features music by Kojo Kisseih, one of Baker’s musical collaborators.

"We saw this as a great opportunity to showcase the spirit and creativity of the CTSC while celebrating the enormous impact of the CTSC and the NIH Common Fund on biomedical research," said Dr. Imperato-McGinley, program director of the CTSC and associate dean of translational research and education at Weill Cornell.

The CTSC, a multi-institutional consortium in New York City, was established in 2007 with a $49 million grant from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, the largest federal grant ever awarded to the medical college by the NIH. The NIH renewed the original grant in 2012, providing an additional $49.6 million to buttress the CTSC’s goal of accelerating new patient preventive interventions and treatments through translational research.

Baker, who is an administrator of the CTSC's clinical and translational research education program, is no stranger to writing and performing rap music. An amateur hip-hop group he started with a couple of friends in college became his professional gig when Hangar 18 scored a record deal with independent label Def Jux in 2003 (click here for the group's back catalog). Hangar 18 toured the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom for the next five years, playing upwards of 250 shows a year, until Baker and his friends grew tired of a nomadic life, he said. While he left the music industry, his passion for rap never waned.

"It was a fun process putting it together and tapping into that side of my mind again, and giving back to the CTSC, which has given me a lot over the years," Baker said of the video.

Drs. Mason and Ross hope their 90-second video, "Try It Another Way," will score one of the top spots.

Dr. M. Elizabeth Ross
Credit: John Abbott

In the video, which also features doctoral student Priyanka Vijay, the scientists explain to a hopeful couple just how their NIH-funded research is helping to promote healthy babies. The key to learning how the likelihood of disease at birth is shaped by environmental factors lies in understanding how they affect epigenetic "switches," which determine how a body reads its own genetic blueprint.

That reading can mean the difference between sickness and health. But in order to share that knowledge with the couple, Drs. Ross and Mason first have to leave their complex lab language behind.

"Chris and I feel incredibly privileged to get to work on these ideas and head towards a goal that hopefully will actually impact lives positively," said Dr. Ross, the Nathan Cummings Professor in Neurology, a professor of neurology and a professor of neuroscience in the brain and mind research institute.

"I think it's important for all of us in our communications — even among colleagues who are sophisticated scientists but who work in different fields — to not lose the forest through the trees," she said. "To be able to conceptualize and encapsulate ideas is important to communication in general, but we tend to get so deeply immersed into our own science that we don't try as hard as we could to make things clear and simple. I think these kinds of challenges are a lot of fun."

To watch, vote for and share "Go with the CTSC and the NIH Common Fund: A Rap," here and for "Try It Another Way," click here. You must be logged into a Google service to "like" the video and register your vote.

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