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Professor Unravels Mysteries of Medicine

In free lectures to the community, John Cohen strives to make technical language understandable

Professor John Cohen, who has received nearly 30 Excellence in Teaching Awards from the University of Colorado School of Medicine, is now sharing his knowledge with the wider community.
Professor John Cohen, who has received nearly 30 Excellence in Teaching Awards from the University of Colorado School of Medicine, is now sharing his knowledge with the wider community.

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Shelley Schlender

It’s been said that while everyone loves learning something new, people don’t always like being taught. A scientist from Colorado is working to change that.

Professor John Cohen still remembers his very first lecture, decades ago. "My slides didn’t work and I talked too fast and nobody knew what I was talking about and my knees were knocking. It was awful."

That’s not the case today. In 40 years as a professor of Immunology, Cohen has received nearly 30 Excellence in Teaching Awards from the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

"Dr. Cohen is incredibly enthusiastic in his lectures," says one of his students. "Very knowledgable."

"He’s one of the best lecturers I’ve ever heard," says another.

A third medical student agrees. "You just can’t help it to usually pay attention."

Cohen's approach is to not only help his students understand immunology, but also to allow them to enjoy learning about it. He thanks that first, awful lecture for his teaching success today.

"What I did figure out was, I’ve got two choices, like everyone else," he says. "I can go on saying, oh my God, that was awful, I’m going to do as little teaching as I possibly can because I’m no good, I hate it, and they hate me, or I’m going to become better at it."

Professor John Cohen, with guest lecturer Dan Bessesen, at a Mini Med School gathering to discuss the science of medicine with members of the community.
Professor John Cohen, with guest lecturer Dan Bessesen, at a Mini Med School gathering to discuss the science of medicine with members of the community.

Bringing high-tech science down to earth

He got so much better, that he took his lectures on the road.

In 1989, Cohen began a free series of lectures for the community about the science of medicine. The purpose of the lectures is to enlighten people by providing a scientific background that will improve their understanding of the human body and help them take charge of their health.

Cohen expected his Mini Med School to attract just a few science fans. However, more than 17,000 people have attended Mini Med over the past 20 years. It has inspired similar programs in more than 80 schools and hospitals around the world.  

Helen McFarlane, who manages Mini Med, says its down-to-earth explanations empower people to expect the same from their doctors. "If there’s something going on with your own health, You can say, wait, I don’t quite understand this. Explain to me what this words means, and then I’ll get through and understand what’s happening."

Cafe Scientifique

Cohen organizes another innovative teaching gig called Cafe Scientifique. Every month, it packs a Denver brewpub with more than 100 people, eager to hear a local scientist discuss cutting-edge research. Cohen is a big fan of the informal discussions about science, which began in 1998 in England. His Denver Cafe Sci is one of the longest-running and most popular in the U.S.

Presenters have included researchers, professors, clinicians and, recently, physiologist Inigo San Millan. "I have to say this is a new format for me. I feel like a little bit naked."

Cohen says most of the scientists and clinicians who speak at Cafe Sci find a receptive audience, and realize that giving a talk is not that scary.

"I have lots of clinical colleagues who take care of patients, and I’ve never heard any of them say to me, 'Oh, I’m a terrible doctor, I kill half of my patients.' Nobody says that, and nobody feels that. My research colleagues never say, 'Oh, I’m a terrible researcher. My experiments are stupid and half of them don’t work.' But it’s amazing how many people say, 'Oh, I’m a terrible teacher, I’d do anything to get out of it, and it’s a waste of time for me.'"

He believes the more someone gets into teaching, the more fun they have. "And you teach everybody. I go to a restaurant, I start to explain the biochemistry of the food to the waiter."

Now Cohen is developing a Cafe Pedagogique, where students and teachers, together, can brainstorm even better ways to teach.  It’s just another reason why the American Association for the Advancement of Science recently presented Cohen with its top award for Promoting Public Understanding of Science and Technology.

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