John Herr died unexpectedly in late September. Dr. Herr was the director of our Center for Research in Contraceptive and Reproductive Health. He was working on a new form of birth control for men, and he was the creator of SpermCheck, a male fertility test you can find in pharmacies around the world. He took incredibly complex scientific research done here at UVA and turned it into something useful.
Dr. Herr and I had a good-natured philosophic disagreement when it came to presenting science to the public. I maintained that we need to make science accessible to the people by distilling it to its essence, to make it understandable. He thought we should educate people sufficiently about science so that they could understand his work. A 30-second TV segment, I argued, isn’t really the venue for that. But more than one reporter came through and received a crash course in the structural characterization of proteins found in sperm.
Dr. Herr could get away with this for two reasons: One, the idea of a new male contraceptive, something akin to the pill for women only without side effects, is tremendously exciting. Anytime I did a press release involving his work, reporters would cover it. The fundamental appeal of his research allowed him to lace the discussion with the sort of scientific terminology that would normally frighten reporters away. But there was a second reason as well: He had charm, a lovely twinkle and an easy laugh. He might strike you as stern at first, but once you got to know him, you would often see a wry smile peeking out from his snow-white beard. It’s rare to end up smiling after a disagreement, but I often did with Dr. Herr.
Dr. Herr was right, ultimately, that there is a danger in oversimplifying science. We live in an age when we tend to glance and share, absorbing headlines rather than engaging with concepts. As I try to translate our research into understandable language, I will bear his arguments in mind.