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Having Fun, While Staying on Message

Conquest - Fall 2011

Ronald DePinho, M.D., discusses his research on 
"The Colbert Report" with Stephen Colbert.
Photo: Courtesy "The Colbert Report"

‘Colbert Report’ Allows DePinho to Connect With Young Audience

By David Berkowitz

Last winter was an unusually busy time for Ronald DePinho, M.D.

When his team of Harvard University scientists at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute partially reversed age-related degeneration in mice for the first time, it drew attention from the research community and the media.

“I was doing interviews every 20 minutes,” DePinho says.

Study findings reported in the journal Nature led to widespread coverage, including articles in The Boston Globe, Popular Science and The Wall Street Journal, and television pieces on BBC World, ABC News and CNN.

“Then this email arrives from the producer of ‘The Colbert Report,’ which I was about to delete when my secretary came into my office and said, ‘You have to do this one,’” DePinho recalls.

Not taking himself too seriously

He wasn’t familiar with Stephen Colbert, who hosts the late-night show on Comedy Central known for its satirical presentation of political and other news topics. But with a little encouragement from his team, he accepted the interview.

“I’ve interacted with the media for standard scientific communication, but this was different. It was a singular experience,” DePinho says.

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He looked at it as an opportunity to reach a different demographic.

“I’m always trying to educate the public in different ways. This was a chance to connect with a younger audience about what’s going on in science,” he says.

In his introduction, Colbert stated that DePinho “may have found the secret to eternal youth.” During the segment, he referred to DePinho as “a mouse scientist” and pulled a large, foam-stuffed chromosome model from under his desk to help their discussion.

“The nature of the show is to keep people off-guard and to blind-side them as much as possible. What I tried to do was have fun and not take myself too seriously, but to stay on message,” DePinho says.

Which is exactly what he did.

“While he has this public persona, I learned that Stephen Colbert is a kind-hearted person who’s very smart and asks very good questions,” DePinho says.

“But it definitely was different than speaking with Katie Couric.”

Resources: "The Colbert Report"

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