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Dr Frederic Bertley of COSI discusses diversity in STEM and his hopes for the future

Dr Frederic Bertley is President and CEO for the Center of Science and Industry, and one of the Blooloop 50 Museum Influencers 2020.

Dr Frederic Bertley COSI copy

We spoke to Dr Frederic Bertley to hear about the innovations he is bringing to the Center of Science and Industry (COSI), the issues facing the contemporary world of science, and the factors that drew him into the sector.

“When I was nine years old, my parents let me buy a really cool handheld video game, literally one of the first handheld video games, with my paper route money,” he says, on his early interest in science.

“It would chew through those square batteries. It took those nine-volt square batteries, and it wasn’t energy efficient.

“I was like, ‘This is ridiculous, I can’t afford to keep buying batteries.’ So I went downstairs to the basement and I found an old lamp, I cut off the cable, and I attached it to the video game, to the red and black wire where the batteries go. And I plugged it in the wall.

“I’m telling you, that was the best 10 seconds of my life. It was working perfectly. And I remember thinking, ‘I can play this before school. I can play this after school…’ By the 11th second, boof. My game exploded. The wall was charred. My parents were from the Caribbean; my dad was from Trinidad. He comes down the stairs saying, ‘Son, what are you doing? Are you trying to blow up the house?’”

An early interest in science

“What that made me realise was that this thing called electricity that we take for granted, is way more complicated and mysterious than I had imagined,” says Bertley. “That just got me hooked on curiosity, and wanting to discover how things work. That is when I really got into science.”

After graduating from McGill University where he studied Physiology, Mathematics and earned a PhD in Immunology, Dr Frederic Bertley worked in preventative medicine and vaccines in Haiti, Sudan, and the Canadian Arctic.

He then joined a research group at Harvard Medical School focusing on the development of DNA vaccines for HIV/AIDS.

“Prior to coronavirus, HIV was the most studied virus in the history of the planet. AIDS was discovered in 1981. Then they isolated the virus in 1984.”

Investigating viruses

When the HIV virus was first isolated, it was believed that a vaccine would be developed within a few years:

“Now, forty years later, we still don’t have a full vaccine that works all the time for HIV. I got my doctorate in viral immunopathogenesis, looking at how viruses make people sick. And then the opportunity came to do my fellowship postdoctoral training with the research group at Harvard Medical School. When you’re from Canada, Harvard’s big deal, so if you get the opportunity, you take it.”

COSI Team Photo 2019

“It was fascinating because we were looking at a novel way of thinking about a vaccine. Most vaccines work by giving the pathogen itself. The measles vaccine is actually measles virus, but in a weakened form, so it doesn’t cause you to be really sick. Or you might have a piece of measles or a piece of bacteria protein. Those are normally how you develop vaccines.

“With DNA vaccines, instead of putting bits of the whole virus, or bits of the bacteria, the protein, you actually put the genetic code for the bit of the protein that you want.

“And the reason why that’s really cool is if you inject DNA in most cells, the cell doesn’t know that it’s not its original DNA. It just goes into a replicating cycle and produces the protein. So at the time, in the late nineties and early two-thousands, it was a new way of thinking about how to generate vaccines.

“So, for me, DNA vaccines were futuristic, Harvard Medical School was really cool, and moving to the US was interesting at the time. That’s why I jumped at it.”

Dr Frederic Bertley and COSI

Dr Frederic Bertley has been CEO of the Center of Science and Industry since January 2017. Before that, he was Senior Vice President for Science and Education at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, another great science museum. Here, he oversaw a diverse portfolio of initiatives supporting innovation in STEM learning regionally, nationally and internationally, as well as directing the 200-year-old Benjamin Franklin Awards Program.

“I was really comfortable there, enjoying Philadelphia, frankly. But, first of all, there’s a turnover of science museum heads; the older white guys with the beards are all turning over and retiring. So, there is the question of the next generation – who is going to head up these science museums?”

Virtual Science Festival with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Dr Frederic Bertley

“And so, because I was a Senior Vice President at Franklin Institute for a while, headhunters would call, and say, ‘There’s this job here… And this one there, CEO positions…’

None of them was ideal until COSI came calling.

“COSI was great because it was a top ten science museum, it was big enough that I felt I was going to a legit science museum, and it wasn’t in a state of disrepair, so as my first CEO-ship I didn’t have to take on a sinking ship.”

Thinking outside the box

COSI Connects Mobile App

“The search committee and the board really wanted somebody who was creative and would think differently, and think outside the box,” says Bertley.

“COSI Stands for Centre Of Science and Industry. It’s incredible because it’s a great mixture of fantastic exhibits in the building, and a rich legacy of programming.”

Since the centre has been closed due to COVID-19, COSI Connects, an interactive digital portal, has been launched, drawing audiences of all ages into a universe of science through online videos, activities, and a free mobile app that enables science exploration even when offline.

“Like every museum, we had to figure out how to stay connected to our audience. Luckily, we had a lot of assets, so we were able to just upload them, and have some cool products. We have everything from podcasts, to all kinds of science challenges, to citizen science. If you click on an icon, we match you up to scientists.

“We’ve got interactive videos and 3D videos of six of our exhibits. Not only can you do a virtual tour, but we have these QRC codes that you can click on and you can get augmented reality. Even though we’re physically closed, you can still get a pretty cool experience going through, and it’s all free.”

The COSI Learning Lunchbox

“We also layered on all these other things. For example, we wanted to make sure people could still have a hands-on experience, so we created something called the Learning Lunchbox.”

COSI has partnered with Children’s Hunger Alliance (CHA), the City of Columbus and Franklin County to distribute grab-and-go meals with the new COSI Learning Lunchbox, a resource kit filled with hands-on science activities, to children in need, helping to feed both lives and minds in Columbus during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. There is a variety of boxes, covering a range of science topics.

Handing Out COSI Learning Lunchboxes with Government Officials in Parma Ohio

“There is all kinds of cool stuff inside,” Dr Frederic Bertley says. “Unlike other kits, you have everything you need to do to do five different experiments. You don’t have to go to the pharmacy or the local store; everything that you need is in there.

“In the US, each state has its own science learning standards that the classrooms and the teachers have to address. All the experiments in the Learning Lunchboxes are linked to those standards.”

Reaching digital deserts

In the poorest communities, while people have smart devices, they frequently lack connectivity.

“They can’t afford the service. We call these areas digital deserts, here in the US,” says Bertley. “So we took one of our travelling science shows, COSI on Wheels, which, before coronavirus, would go to schools and host big science rallies. We made it a digital hotspot, so we can work with community centres and under-served communities.”

COSI on Wheels Out in the Community Dr Frederic Bertley

The COSI on Wheels: Curbside experience has Wi-Fi capabilities and serves as a free internet hotspot location. This brings science learning to school parking lots, parks, libraries, and outdoor community locations. In addition to the STEM content students and their families can download from the COSI Connects Mobile App, COSI Connects Kits and Science Snacks are distributed to attendees.

“Then we launched a state-wide roadshow, partnering with the Ohio Mayors Alliance, and Mayors’ Partnership for Progress.”

Joining forces with local mayors in cities across Ohio, the project provides free Wi-Fi and STEM resources to break down barriers to education during the crisis.

COSI and NASA

“We also hosted a 15-person socially distanced conference here for a number of high-ranking officials,” says Bertley. “We gave a kit to the States Secretary of Energy, who reports to Donald Trump and runs all the energy industry for the United States. He got so excited. And so now the US government is sponsoring us for the energy kit, which is really cool. supported by the government.”

Learning Lunchbox - Space Edition

COSI has partnered with NASA on numerous different programmes:

Jim Bridenstine, the CEO of NASA, also got excited about the kits, so they endorse a space kit. This actually has ‘NASA’ on the box. All my colleagues across the US are like, ‘ How’d you get NASA to sponsor a box?” It’s just been really fun.

STEM education

In addition, Virgin Hyperloop has picked COSI to be their National Education Partner, to disseminate STEM education and the science around Hyperloop technology to everyone, creating dynamic STEM opportunities.

“We’re thrilled about that,” Bertely says. “Richard Branson himself was so excited about it he went on Twitter and Instagram to post about the partnership with COSI.”

COVID-19 isn’t the only hazard COSI, as well as countless other institutions, has been negotiating. The Trump administration has had an impact on STEM learning across the US.

Virgin Hyperloop Roadshow Kickoff Dr Frederic Bertley

Dr Frederic Bertley says:

“It has impacted too much, in a negative sense. Trump is not a fan of climate science. He has significantly defunded so many of the science funding buckets, so it has been a challenge. What is interesting, though, is that it has emboldened the other side, those who are really passionate about science, and passionate about science learning.

“And so in a weird way, even though he wasn’t a support for science, and defunded it throughout his administration, it has galvanized the science community and the educated community to say, okay, we’ve got to double down and make sure we can find alternate ways to get this good stuff out.”

Reaching wider audiences

Reaching diverse audiences, Bertely maintains, is of critical importance:

“If you ask somebody to close their eyes and think of a scientist, they will first think of a white male – usually Albert Einstein.”

If you ask somebody to close their eyes and think of a scientist, they will first think of a white male

“Then, if you force them to think of a woman, it’ll be Marie Curie. They were phenomenal, obviously, but they have both been dead for ages. If it’s black history month in the US, they might think of George Washington Carver. No-one thinks of a modern scientist to begin with. If you tell them to name someone still alive, they might get Neil deGrasse Tyson, but they won’t know many.

“It’s bizarre. Yet, if you ask them to name an entertainer, a musician, an athlete, they will know them all. So we have created this program called the Color of Science. I actually created it 11 years ago, but I brought it here when I came to COSI.”

Dr Frederic Bertley’s The Color of Science

The Color of Science, which Dr Frederic Bertley founded and directed while at the Franklin Institute, is designed to promote and showcase diversity within STEM fields, inspiring the next generation.

“The concept is that all scientists aren’t old white men with thick glasses and pocket protectors,” he explains. “That women make fantastic scientists and engineers, so do black and brown people; so do people from the LGBTQ community. Scientists have no shape or form.”

Color of Science Kickoff Dr Frederic Bertley

“It has been a hugely successful program because people see themselves in the scientists. What we do is host an in-person panel discussion with five scientists. Instead of flying in famous scientists, we bring in people that live in the community – ‘So-and-so is a biochemist? So-and-so is an engineer?’

“We bring these people in, local scientists who might be from Ohio State University, or  Denison University, or Patel Research Labs. We pack the auditorium, do a one-on-one interview, then a panel discussion – and they come alive. All of a sudden, the audience is like, ‘Wait a minute. I can relate to her.'”

Diversity in STEM

“We humanise them. It’s really interesting,” says Bertley. “We knew this would work from the audience standpoint, we knew their minds would open up and they would see that scientists come in all different shapes and colours and sorts. So, we knew that was going to work.”

It’s about diversity and equity; that brilliant scientist can be a little girl from an under-served community

“But the other cool piece that happened at the end of these programs, when the scientists stay for the cocktail reception with food, where the audience has a chance to go up to the panellists – they get asked for autographs. It’s a completely unexpected outcome, and the scientists themselves are so moved by this. For the first time, they’re really feeling valued beyond the laboratory.

“It’s just a really cool program. It’s about diversity and equity; that brilliant scientist can be a little girl from an under-served community. It could be that black kid from the hood. Everybody needs to have access to this stuff.”

Women in science

Across the globe, there are still fewer women going into STEM careers than men:

“In the US, in the life sciences, at the undergrad level, more women are studying life sciences than men. When you get to the PhD level, it’s about 50:50. But when you go to engineering, computer science, physics, astrophysics, 80- 85 of scientists are men. It’s just not even close to being equal.”

There is a range of reasons, Bertley contends, for girls still feeling that science is not for them:

“One, exposure. If you’re a girl growing up, you’re not bombarded by female scientists. You have to dig to find those role models. Two, it’s a male-dominated society, still. We keep making progress, but the reality of Western society is that it’s dominated by white males.”

The Rooms@Easton at Easton Town Center

“Three, there is the pressure involved in being a female scientist or a scientist of colour. The scientific community is supposed to be made up of some of the smartest people, the most academically savvy, erudite scholars. And yet it is among the most homophobic, misogynist, racist communities.

“So if you’re a female trying to navigate that scientific hierarchy and get tenure, if you have a professorship, or to be the director of a lab, if you’re in a for-profit research area, you got all these men who are pushing you down.

“It’s terrible. I’ll be blunt: it is a challenge. We have made progress, there’s no question, but we’re certainly not there yet.”

Dr Frederic Bertley on COVID-19

COSI Learning Lunchbox Pick Up Dr Frederic Bertley

As an immunologist, Dr Frederic Bertley has an insight into the COVID pandemic currently sweeping the globe. We are in a time of pollution, deforestation, escalating anthropogenic climate change, with resultant fires, floods, and mass movements of the population:

“The concept of a perfect storm is what we are seeing here,” he says: “The confluence of all of these factors leads to an ecosystem that can better support new and crazy things like COVID-19 to pop up and rear their ugly heads.”

However: “There is a silver lining. The good news is, there is a critical number of people, scientists, laypersons, across culture, across country, across borders, across oceans, that get this. They continue to work tirelessly to help.”

Hope for the future

“One thing that I’m really optimistic about is young people of around university age around the globe. For the most part, they think differently.

“Take the automobile. Kids are graduating from college and choosing not to have a car. They’re using a bicycle, public transport, walking or ride-sharing. That’s just completely different.”

Battelle at the 2019 COSI Science Festival

“My generation wanted the house, the car. But they don’t want big houses, they don’t want cars. They want small apartments. They want to be energy efficient. And so I do think that next-generation coming out into the workforce from university has a different sensibility about what’s important.

“I think they care more. And so I’m hopeful that we’ll get there. For now, we’re still in the middle of a  perfect storm to breed more and more tough stuff for us.”

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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