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Alan Alda honored by Stony Brook University

Alan Alda being honored at an event at

Alan Alda being honored at an event at Stony Brook University where they are expecting to raise $4 million for scholarships. (April 24, 2013) Credit: Agaton Strom

Stony Brook University is naming its Center for Communicating Science for Alan Alda, the acclaimed actor and science enthusiast who seven years ago pitched the idea of teaching researchers how to relay complex discoveries to the public in simple, understandable ways.

Alda, 77, host of "Scientific American Frontiers" on PBS, was honored Wednesday night at the school's 14th annual celebrity gala, which drew more than 800 people to Chelsea Piers in lower Manhattan.

"Scientists are very passionate people, and they soon realize they can talk about their work in really technical terms or talk about it in a way that reflects passion for science," the Manhattan-born Alda said before the gala.

The event was expected to bring in $4 million, university officials said. The funds are to be split between student scholarships and expanding The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at the university.

Alda said he was thrilled, adding with characteristic self-deprecation: "I've never had anything named after me before. Well, except once a woman wrote to tell me she named her horse after me. This is so much better than that."

The lifelong science buff played a primary role in the center's 2009 founding. As visiting professor, he has helped train 230 young scientists -- graduate students at Stony Brook -- using acting techniques such as improvisation.

He said he was always interested in science as a child. That interest waned in his high school and college years, he said, giving way to a four-decade-long acting career.

Famed for playing Army doctor Capt. Benjamin "Hawkeye" Pierce in the 1972-83 sitcom "M*A*S*H," Alda has won seven Emmy and six Golden Globe awards over the course of his career. He was an Oscar nominee for "The Aviator" and more recently played Laura Linney's oncologist in the HBO series "The Big C."

Learning about science remains a hobby, Alda said. For 13 years, he has interviewed hundreds of scientists in a conversational manner on his PBS show.

In 2006, Alda, who lives on Long Island and in Manhattan, approached Shirley Strum Kenny, then Stony Brook University's president, with the idea to make communication training a component of science education.

Kenny, a literary scholar, took up Alda's idea and set up a panel of faculty and scientists. In conjunction with Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor laboratories, Stony Brook University won a $200,000 federal grant to found the center, which is part of the journalism school.

School of Journalism Dean Howard Schneider, a former Newsday editor, said naming the center for Alda will "open doors" with potential donors and other influential people.

"He has not lent his celebrity to this cause casually," Schneider said.

"He's already identified with the center. This will make it more official."

Alda is respected among scientists as well, said Elizabeth Bass, director of the Center for Communicating Science.

The center, in addition to training Stony Brook graduate students and teaching assistants, is exploring ways to offer its series of courses to undergraduates. This year, the center's Flame Challenge, a science contest for schoolchildren, tasked scientists all over the world with answering the question: What is time?

"One of the goals is to get students who come into science to stay in science," said Bass, a longtime science journalist and former Newsday editor.

The center also has put on workshops at various meetings and other gatherings of scientists, and has trained people from 60 universities across the country, including those from Rockefeller University, Stanford University, University of Georgia and UCLA, Bass said.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Alan Alda's birthplace. He was born in Manhattan.

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