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Profile: ‘ER’ Writer/Medical Advisor Channels Storytelling Towards Social Activism

Television writer, producer, activist and practicing pediatrician Neal Baer, MD.
Television writer, producer, activist and practicing pediatrician Neal Baer, MD.

It has become compulsory for modern medical (or scientifically-relevant) shows to rely on a team of advisors and experts for maximal technical accuracy and verisimilitude on screen. Many of these shows have become so culturally embedded that they’ve changed people’s perceptions and influenced policy. Even the Gates Foundation has partnered with popular television shows to embed important storyline messages pertinent to public health, HIV prevention and infectious diseases. But this was not always the case. When Neal Baer joined ER as a young writer and simultaneous medical student, he became the first technical expert to be subsumed as an official part of a production team. His subsequent canon of work has reshaped the integration of socially relevant issues in television content, but has also ushered in an age of public health awareness in Hollywood, and outreach beyond it. Dr. Baer sat down with ScriptPhD to discuss how lessons from ER have fueled his public health efforts as a professor and founder of UCLA’s Global Media Center For Social Impact, including storytelling through public health metrics and leveraging digital technology for propelling action.
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Profile: Jorge Cham, Author of PHD Comics

Piled Higher and Deeper

To people who might wonder what three most important factors helped me navigate the rigors of higher education, I’d say passion, persistence, and good old-fashioned hard work. Yeah, right! More like coffee, my iPod and PHD Comics. Oh yes, three times a week, as I’d saunter to my graduate mausoleumoffice, serious decisions had to be weighed: pipette smelly bacteria or laugh along to a spot-on comic strip spoofing the ups and downs of all things academe? You know I made the right choice every time!

What is PHD Comics? Its official name, Piled Higher and Deeper, is derived from one the oldest inside puns about ascension on the ladder of knowledge: if a BS stands for bullshit (pardon my Swahili), MS means more of the same, and attaining a PhD means you’re piled higher and deeper. (Empirical observations have validated the veracity of these acronyms.) Often relegated to fringe sidelines in media and popular culture, the junior Ivory Tower set is composed of a bustling microcosm sporting its own culture, mores, axioms, and idiosyncrasies. Illustrated and composed by scientist Jorge Cham, PHD Comics celebrates, spoofs, but most importantly, spotlights, this world with remarkable humor and authenticity. I have had too many “Oh my gosh that is SO true!” moments reading this comic to count. But a few notables:

Graduate students’ love of free food, so true, so desperate, so universal.
Graduate students’ love of free food, so true, so desperate, so universal.

Ennui of the daily research grind (psst inside secret: yes, sometimes the days are very boring and graduate students waste time)
Ennui of the daily research grind (psst inside secret: yes, sometimes the days are very boring and graduate students waste time)

Frustrations with nonresponsive graduate “advisors” (we’ve all worked for or encountered a Professor “Smith”).
Frustrations with nonresponsive graduate “advisors” (we’ve all worked for or encountered a Professor “Smith”).

The writing of the thesis (basically the bane of any graduate student’s existence).
The writing of the thesis (basically the bane of any graduate student’s existence).

Jorge Cham got his undergraduate degree at Georgia Tech University He then completed doctoral studies in mechanical engineering at Stanford University with a research focus in Robotics. Jorge built robots that mimic natural biological functions in their technological design, resulting in some of the fastest running prototypes ever created. He also completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Caltech University, where his research specialized in the design of “smart” biomimetic neural implants. His impressive body of work includes 24 scholarly articles, invited talks at prestigious universities and leading corporations, as well as teaching experience as a lecturer at Caltech. Oh, yeah, and he can draw pretty well too!

PHD Comics embodies the notion of a mighty tree growing from a small acorn. Initially published as a black and white strip at the Stanford University Daily while Cham was a PhD student, it quickly built a devoted cult following. Especially popular among grad students, scientists, engineers and other tech-geeks, the strip eventually found its way into a plethora of college dailies and mainstream national publications, with the official site generating over 12 million monthly pageviews. To date, the comic has evolved into a full color publication, including posters, song parodies, and book collections that have sold over 60,000 copies. You can (and absolutely should!) catch the latest PHD Comics on the official website, follow along on Twitter or on Facebook.

A couple of standout hits hand-picked by the ScriptPhD:

“Who Will Grade Your Work?”, a song parody of Jewel’s “Who Will Save Your Soul?” (particularly appreciated by those of us who have had the…er…distinct pleasure of being Teaching Assistants). Click the link for the mp3.

“If TV Science Was More Like Real Science….” This strip was my favorite, and particularly apropos for our site, because we do cover the very best of science and technology in entertainment. Sometimes it’s really hard to ignore the worst!

ScriptPhD.com was extraordinarily fortunate to catch up with Dr. Cham, who graciously and generously lent us some time in-between updating his strip and promoting the new addition to the PHD Comics books on a campus tour.

To read our exclusive interview with Jorge Cham, illustrator of PHD Comics, please click “continue reading”.
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