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Paula Apsell: A Storied Life in Science


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-12-01-2016
Volume 36
Issue 12

Pharm Exec sits down with veteran journalist Paula Apsell, the driving force behind the long-running PBS science series NOVA. Apsell offers straightforward advice to the biopharma industry: make your business a business of inspiration, where the return is measured in passion-and the sheer, simple pleasure of finding things out.

A veteran journalist and driving force behind NOVA, the longest, most successful science series on television, has some straightforward advice to a complex industry with an image problem: make your business a business of inspiration, where the return is measured in passion-and the sheer, simple pleasure of finding things out


Communicating the value of medical research is a challenge that continues to dog both big Pharma and the small biotechs that depend-literally-on the kindness of strangers. Even though a recent Pew Research Center poll found that medical innovation, including new drugs, is by far the largest driver of positive public attitudes toward science, the industry still faces a skeptical audience. The perception is that interactions with external stakeholders are fragmentary and one-sided, leaving unresolved basic questions of public interest like where ideas that lead to new medicines originate, the real cost of private-sector R&D, and the transparent disclosure of test results.

Appealing, inclusive answers to these questions are frankly hard to come by. Many experts contend the industry must take the leap in confronting its own vulnerabilities, addressing facts that are inconvenient rather than underplaying or avoiding them altogether. But how? What is the best way to communicate, inform and engage in a manner that is credible and compliant with regulation and the law, while incorporating the interests of diverse stakeholders, from investors to payers to the individual patient?

As an accessible “people” read, Pharm Exec believes that popular support

Paula Apsell with Dr. P. Roy Vagelos, chair of the Prix Galien USA Awards Committee.

for the industry demands more than just doing great research; it’s important that people understand its inherent virtue, too. The Galien USA Foundation, which plays a singular role in recognizing the best in new drug innovations, brought new attention to effective communication in science by giving its 2016 Pro Bono Humanum public service award to one of the leading lights in science journalism: Paula Apsell, senior executive producer of NOVA, the US Public Broadcasting Service’s (PBS) long-running TV science program.

Combining state-of-the-art visuals with creative story-telling-inviting viewers inside to see how real scientists “do it”-NOVA has transformed how we educate on the big, mystery-laden questions that have always been the special realm of science. Debuting in 1974, it’s been on the air in the US for 43 years, a time span that exceeds the duration of legendary series I Love Lucy, Seinfeld and Friends-combined. The stats on NOVA speak for themselves: an average four million viewers per episode, with more than one million digital impressions per day logged through its various associated platforms, all connected through an integrated website.

On the margins of the Prix Galien USA Foundation dinner awards program on Oct. 27, Pharm Exec sat down with Apsell to obtain insights from her four decades covering science, public health and the R&D industry. The conversation includes her unique perspective on improving the way the biopharma industry communicates value to the public and other stakeholders whose actions are likely to set the future prospects for innovation. Her bottom-line advice? Tell a good story; uncover a mystery to be solved, which are replete in basic drug research; and make it matter-because it pinches the human soul.


PE: Can you highlight the key influences on your life and career? As a young woman, what brought you into journalism and television broadcasting? How did science turn out to be central to the endeavor?

APSELL: I struggle to find a direct relationship between what I was when I started in this business and where I am today, decades later. I grew up in Marblehead, Massachusetts, a town on Boston’s north shore, with deep roots dating back to the pre-revolutionary era. My parents were both born in the US, the children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They believed strongly in education. Neither would call themselves intellectuals but it was expected we would study hard and do well in school. What helped my growth as a person is the support-and confidence-I got from my parents. They thought anything I did was just wonderful.

I took an early interest in science in high school, particularly chemistry. I then went to Brandeis University, a liberal arts college very strong in the sciences, which encouraged, and still does, students to stretch themselves and sample courses in a wide variety of disciplines. In contrast to young people today, who seem so fixated on their future, I wasn’t all that concerned about what I might do with my education. I had no money, but I was too busy consuming a daily smorgasbord of tantalizing ideas to worry about what I was going to do with my life. I was on scholarship, so I was assigned a work-study job in the high energy physics lab, where I scanned bubble chamber images for the research team. Conveniently, I met a PhD student at the lab named Sheldon Apsell, who eventually became my husband and father of my two daughters. Sheldon is an inventor and entrepreneur who is now CEO of a non-profit called the Academy of Applied Science, which runs several programs to encourage kids to develop an interest in the sciences and invention. We have two daughters, one a physician, the other a television news producer.

PE: So how did you find that first job?

APSELL: Graduation from Brandeis was followed by a hard landing. I had to find a job, and like many young women at the time, I sought a position in social work. I actually fantasized I might be a probation officer and save the world. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t find a job. One day, I was on my way back from an interview, when I got lost. I ended up in front of a building in Allston that turned out to be the home of WGBH. I walked in and asked the receptionist about job postings. She looked at me and said “I think Janie and Nike are looking for someone.” She dialed them up and both came down to the lobby to meet me. The two women, only a few years older than I was, worked in the station’s scheduling department. They were looking for someone to assume a job they were fervently hoping to shed-typing up the daily broadcast logs to document every piece of content that ends up on the air. An incredibly tedious task, made worse by the fact I was a horrible inept typist; mercifully, this job has been automated for years. But since the logs had to be circulated everywhere in the station, the job gave me face time with senior executives as well as the opportunity to learn the logistics of television producing. I was quite lucky that a position no one wanted turned out to be a great launching pad for me.

After a year in that role, I developed an idea for a radio program, The Spider’s Web, dramatizing children’s literature. I convinced the head of WGBH’s FM radio unit to let me do it as a volunteer, while still typing the TV logs. He said yes, for reasons I still don’t understand, and I think it surprised both of us that it turned out to be a pretty good show, won many awards, and stayed on the air for years after I decided to move on as part of WGBH Radio’s news team. I became an on-air news reader and was assigned to cover the Massachusetts State House.

I had great mentors at the station, including my friend Judy Stoia, and I learned a huge amount about how to identify the lead in any story and how to write fast-skills that I still use constantly. But after a couple of very exciting years covering state politics, a wonderful opportunity opened up for me and a chance to move out of radio and into film and television.



PE: Is this what led you to NOVA?

APSELL: Yes. At the time, NOVA was a fledgling initiative entering its second season on Boston’s WGBH Channel 2. The unit was looking for a production assistant (PA). Back in my days as the station log typist, I had gotten to know Michael Ambrosino, the WGBH programming executive who came up with the idea for a documentary series focused on science. A true visionary, Michael prevailed despite enormous skepticism in the broadcast industry against anything so “heady.” The idea of NOVA took me right back to the passion for science I had developed in high school and college. I knew right away I had to apply for the PA position, even though, as a full producer in radio, I was making good money. And, frankly, I didn’t know one end of a film camera from the other.

I was also intrigued by the new people Michael brought in to help launch the series. Most were British, from the BBC, due to its commitment-fairly unique at the time-to make science relatable through great storytelling and top-quality photography. When NOVA broadcast its first hour-long program in 1974, our sister series, BBC Horizon, had already been on air for at least a decade.

PE: How did you fare in those first few days as a NOVA production assistant?

APSELL: I started the job with not much in the way of training; it was pretty much sink or swim. On my first day, I was told we were doing a program, called The Plutonium Connection, where we had a graduate student devise a recipe to build an atomic bomb and then asked nuclear scientists to assess his

work and the likelihood of nuclear weapons technology falling in the wrong hands. I was told to set up a three-week shoot all over the country, and somehow, with the help of colleagues and my radio journalism training in asking questions, I figured it out. I won’t say it wasn’t intimidating, but I came to

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love this improvisational, learn-by-doing approach, and I had some very talented people to learn from. I have never looked back-and it’s been a very long time.

PE: What was novel and distinctive about NOVA? To what factors do you attribute its success?

APSELL: Our success comes down to one thing, which has not changed over the years. NOVA was designed to tell good, accessible stories about science. To show viewers something with a visual impact they could not get in ordinary life; and to depict scientists as characters-real people with a great passion for what they were doing. Michael Ambrosino always said science is story, and if we tell it right, with great pictures and strong characters, people will watch.

And they did, from the start. Our premise was that curiosity is an innate human trait and there’s a thirst to know more about science and engineering and the mysteries of the world around us. Nevertheless, PBS, then in its infancy, and my station, WGBH, took a huge risk in supporting the series, especially in the early years, when there was so much on the line. Commercial broadcasting had a terrible track record in this area, Mr. Wizard’s World notwithstanding. Walter Cronkite was passionate about science, but even he could not persuade CBS to keep his series Universe on the air. To counter that, NOVA had to add something special. We needed to be in the entertainment business and in the education business; but most of all, we needed to be in the inspiration business.

PE: What do you mean by that-the business of inspiration?

APSELL: Our objective was to depict science as a quest for knowledge, driven by the hunger of researchers and scientists to understand the universe and our place as human beings in it. Every NOVA program seeks to engage our viewers’ curiosity by searching for answers to some critical questions. That approach mirrors the paradigm of science as the process of finding something out, rather than just a collection of facts to be learned. We want to show what goes on in scientists’ minds. What leads them to adopt a particular perspective, conduct an investigation, and come up with an answer-one that may have to be reevaluated in the light of new evidence? Ultimately, following this interconnected process is the story NOVA aims to tell.

One of the most inspiring early assignments I had at NOVA was a program on the eradication of smallpox. At that point, I was an associate producer, setting up a shoot in Bangladesh of what were then thought to be the last two cases of smallpox in the world. My producer, an incredibly talented man named John Angier, was very excited about this and crushed, as we all were, when a coup d’etat in Bangladesh prevented us from going. It turned out to be a lucky break for me, because I was deputized to create the program from archival footage and interviews that could be done in the US. And what an opportunity-to spend hours filming public health doctors like Don Henderson, who just recently passed away, the incomparable Bill Foege, and many others responsible for one of the greatest achievements in medicine. It was my first film, and was I ever hooked!



When I had my first daughter, I left NOVA and eventually went to work at the ABC affiliate in Boston, WCVB, as senior producer of medical programming for Dr. Timothy Johnson, another amazing mentor. After my second daughter was born, I was extremely fortunate to be accepted into the first year of what is now called the Knight Science Journalism Program@MIT. This led to an invitation to return to NOVA as the series executive producer.

PE: Can you name other programs that brought NOVA to the attention of the medicines profession and healthcare community?

APSELL: Certainly one of the best was the life stories of seven students at Harvard Medical School, whom we followed in a series of programs broadcast over 22 years, the last of which we ran just a few years ago. We followed a similar concept to UK director Michael Apted’s “Seven Up” films, tracing the life trajectory of the students and how each of them took different paths; some with great results, others not so great. The scars imposed by a life in medicine showed through in that series, which allowed us along the way to raise questions about healthcare in this country. We showed quite graphically through the twists and turns in the lives of our seven subjects what a career in medical practice is really like, in terms of both the toll it takes and the rewards and joys. I loved working on those shows, and I think they showcase the unique nature of NOVA. After all, how many broadcast series get the opportunity to tell a story that extends out 22 years?

NOVA has also been a leader in documenting progress in medical research. Together with my colleague Graham Chedd, I made the first TV documentary on genetic engineering and recombinant DNA in the late 1970s. After that, we made a multipart series on genetics called “Secret of Life.” This was followed years later by a special on the race to sequence the human genome and, more recently, an episode on personalized or genetic medicine.

We are planning to build on that tradition with a program explaining and exploring the impact of CRISPR technology. Working with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, we broadcast a powerful program on the vaccination controversy. And this past season, we showed “Can Alzheimer’s Be Stopped?,” reflecting the progress being made to understand the disease and developing drugs to treat it. All of these programs have extensive educational resources for teachers and students and a broad array of digital features on pbs.org/NOVA.

PE: What have you learned about the scientific method over the course of your career in television programming?

APSELL: As NOVA’s executive producer, I see my mandate is to explain how everything in science, including the life sciences, begins with basic research. We saw how the so-called “War on Cancer” declared by President Nixon did not result in the cures that were hoped for. Cancer, like so many diseases, is complex, and the process of curing and treating disease has to start at a much more rudimentary level, with an awareness of how life evolves, how cancer cells take root and multiply in the human body and what therapeutic tools and platforms are most relevant to destroying these invaders. All strands of the problem have to be disentangled, requiring enormous investments of time, resources and money before you get a payoff. But of course, the struggle is worth it in that new medicines and diagnostics will keep us healthy and cure illness. I believe NOVA’s body of work

in medical science makes this important lesson very clear.

Like other professions, patience in science is a virtue and this spills over to our field as well. Making films for television is still a handcrafted industry. Each program is bespoke; it’s built by hand. And now, of course, with the digital revolution, we have a much bigger canvas to fill. TV is just part of our mandate, and we’re working on applying the same focus on creativity and craft to a medium with different demands-the online space.

PE: Do you strive to be provocative in how you create these stories for the viewer? Isn’t creative tension fundamental to the scientific inquiry?

APSELL: I love to make programs on topics that the public thinks you can’t render well visually. Mathematics is one that comes first to mind. We did a program called The Great Math Mystery, funded with a grant we obtained from the Simons Foundation. It posed the question-is mathematics a human invention or a discovery rooted in nature? This idea arose when I attended a lecture by the scientist Mario Livio, who was speaking to a group of high school kids about his book Is God a Mathematician? The teens’ reaction was so enthusiastic, we started to think seriously about making this show. What ultimately persuaded us was how fascinating the question was. Still, we needed to figure out how to visualize a very abstract topic. This program was nominated for an Emmy, and was incredibly popular both on TV and online, a heartening affirmation that we can successfully offer our fans programs on demanding topics if the story and the visuals are right.

PE: Where do you get your best ideas?

APSELL: Ideas for programs come from everywhere. Scientists approach us frequently. We review all the scientific journals and the general press. Independent producers pitch us ideas, and we work with international production companies on co-productions, where we have editorial input and control over the US version. We want to focus on important science topics, but topics don’t necessarily make good stories. So we’re looking for a natural storyline-a mystery to be solved, a mission to be accomplished, an obstacle to be overcome. That’s the basis of any good story, and a science story is no different.

PE: In a broader sense, how hard is it to be in broadcast journalism today? Are the many disruptive challenges, including social media, eroding the public’s faith in your business model? Is all the background noise of populist rhetoric degrading the commitment to quality in science programming?

APSELL: No, none of the above. NOVA is doing very well, and while cable channels will from time to time produce science docs, any direct competition is minimal. Anyway, competition makes you stronger and we have a lot of stylistic range to experiment with to make the series even more distinctive-without dumbing it down, which is something we will never do.

 The big challenge for us is financial. Quality is expensive. PBS supports NOVA generously, but that doesn’t allow us to do everything we want to do. Like miniseries and specials. Like the other signature series at WGBH, which produces a large proportion of PBS programming, we expend a huge amount of energy raising money from foundations, individuals, and corporations who want to be associated with what’s often called the “gold standard of science programming.” We have a good track record, including in the pharmaceutical industry. Johnson & Johnson was NOVA’s sponsor for more than a decade and companies like Merck and Pfizer have also stepped up to the plate. Right now, we’re underwritten in part by Cancer Treatment Centers of America. But across the PBS landscape, it’s become more difficult in recent years to find corporate support, and that’s been disappointing. To be completely transparent, I hope perhaps the award I received from the Galien Foundation or this article might inspire some interest from the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. Sponsoring NOVA conveys a very important message-that science is crucial to understanding our world and ourselves and to living more healthy and productive lives-and that surely is something we can all agree on.



PE: Isn’t the main competition to NOVA coming from the digital space?

APSELL: In some sense, yes, that’s true. Some years ago, the National Science Foundation (NSF) reported that the Internet has overcome television as the place where most Americans get their science news. But, as you know, the Internet is still a wild frontier, with voices coming from every direction and no check on quality. In the digital landscape, NOVA stands out, as a source that people trust. This has created great opportunity for us to reach out to a large, diverse and generally much younger audience than we serve on broadcast. We are able to provide our long-form episodes, as well as short-form videos like our popular Gross Science series on YouTube, which has almost nine million views; Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers; and a new series called What the Physics?! We have NOVA Labs, a digital platform for teens that enables them to get involved in research, and a series of thought-leader columns on science policy, NOVA Next. This has driven social media, and NOVA was the first PBS primetime series to surpass a million followers.

The challenge is connecting all these new platforms in a seamless and integrated way-one big NOVA that incorporates many forms of video, audio, the key social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, our website and of course the weekly broadcast series on PBS. An example of this multi-media approach is the program we did in 2015 when the New Horizons probe reached Pluto, taking the first clear pictures of that dwarf planet, so far from Earth. This proved enormously successful in the number of people being able to access it in many different ways, all connected with the NOVA brand.

The point is I see the digital revolution not as increasing competition but as extending our reach and the potential for enhancing public understanding of science. It’s certainly expensive to maintain and grow this presence; our digital commitment requires a mounting level of investment in order to stay current with technology and to realize the potential of this medium to engage new audiences that may not even own a television. And by doing so, I am confident we are ensuring NOVA’s future.

PE:You cited NOVA Next as a short-form program focused on science policy issues. Where are you taking this concept around the big policy issues confronting the science enterprise? What additional efforts are you making to extend and embellish the NOVA brand?

APSELL: One thing we are doing is to provide more analysis and context around breaking science news. NOVA Next provided a very early report on the CRISPR gene editing platform with a detailed and easy to follow explanation of the technology and its revolutionary and controversial implications. New long-form articles come out weekly, with daily updates and shorter features. We focus on science stories like artificial intelligence and climate change, which have important policy implications. NOVA also has a broadcast spin-off called NOVA scienceNOW, now rebranded as NOVA Wonders, which focuses on current research with a slightly more segmented approach, telling in each program a number of stories that can be knitted together around a single, salient question; for example, can we build an artificial brain? One of the areas of research we will cover in NOVA Wonders is the research and treatment potential of the microbiome.

PE:Is science successful in making its case to the public, other stakeholders and the political establishment? Why is it important that science is seen by the public as an institution of integrity with the capacity to improve the future?

APSELL: When I began producing NOVA, most scientists I encountered thought that being on television was a waste of time. Communicating science to the public was not seen as carrying much value for the profession. Today, the situation has changed, and that’s great for us, because NOVA could not have continued this long without the support of the scientific community. Scientists now recognize that public support is absolutely necessary to advance their work. We see many scientists who have turned out to be articulate, skilled communicators in their respective fields, and some like Neil deGrasse Tyson, who appeared on NOVA and hosted NOVA science NOW for many years, have become stars in their own right.

Yet, I am dismayed by the lack of public understanding of science that I see. Numerous studies reveal that significant numbers of people are skeptical of climate change and reject evolution, and that a small but vocal minority questions the value of vaccination, probably the most important public health tool we have to protect children and fight disease. We are filming a program now on the impact of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The breakdown in public confidence caused by the failure of government to protect the safety of the water supply has induced a health crisis where the public is not heeding basic hygiene warnings because it comes from authorities they no longer trust. All this testifies to the fact that the connection between science and the public is not strong enough, and that there is plenty of work yet to do.

PE: Are there pressing issues that NOVA has covered that require more understanding and dialogue between scientists and the public?

APSELL: One of the most difficult issues to explain to the public is climate change. Climate itself is a hugely complex system and predictions about our climate future involve significant doses of uncertainty. It’s a largely invisible, long-term problem that-let’s face it-given our inaction is inherently depressing. Not exactly the stuff that big audience grabbers are made of! Yet it’s critically important that we take it on, find new ways to make the story compelling, and engage the public around what might be the most important science issue of our time. NOVA has been making programs on climate change since the 1980s, and while I won’t pretend to have it knocked, there’s no question-we will keep on doing them.



PE: What has changed in your perception of the willingness of scientists to cooperate in confronting the major policy challenges in medical research? Do you agree that improving health through research requires joint actions to ensure resources are effectively deployed?

APSELL: Absolutely. I see far more focus on work that is interdisciplinary and linked to partnerships that can advance progress. There is less of a division between pure science and applied science than in the past. In fact, it’s been years since I have seen these two terms in common use. Back then, a scientist might be insulted if you suggested that there might be a commercial objective for his or her work. This no longer seems true. Many scientists are very happy to know that what they do plays a role in actually helping people. Providing that this goal doesn’t detract from basic research, that’s got to be good for society.

PE: How well is the R&D-based biopharmaceutical industry faring in promoting the virtues of medicines innovation to patients and society? From your perspective as an impartial science communicator, what are the industry’s strong points?

APSELL: NOVA programs have always emphasized how difficult it is to make progress in human health. In terms of complex systems, the human body, including the brain, is in a class of its own. Additionally, as I have come to see through our medical programming, there are many ethical, logistical and financial issues associated with the clinical trials that are needed to assess the safety and

effectiveness of any new potential treatment.

One show I produced decades ago when I worked with “Dr. Tim” Johnson was about Alzheimer’s disease. Called Someone I Once Knew, it was particularly fascinating to me because it revealed a new understanding in gerontology that dementia is a pathology, not an inevitable condition of old age. And that meant it might be treatable or could even be cured, if science could lead to a better understanding of what’s going wrong in the brain of the victims of this terrible disease.

 We followed this perspective in more detail in the recent NOVA program, Can Alzheimer’s Be Stopped?, in which we documented the complex course of several clinical trials testing different drugs to treat and even prevent this emerging public health emergency. The program attracted a large viewing audience and, I believe, provided a real public service in showing people how important both basic research and clinical trials are to finding treatments for the diseases we worry about.

We could not have done this program without the cooperation of drug companies, like Genentech, Lilly and Biogen that took a real risk in letting us cover trials without any idea whether they were going to be successful or not. It’s crucial for the industry to take these risks with credible science journalists, and let the real stories come out, whether it’s a success or failure. The public needs to understand the role that failure plays in science, especially medical science, where more drugs fail in trials than succeed. But those failures ultimately lead to cures.

We did many events around the country to promote NOVA’s Alzheimer’s program, and from the response we got, it helped people understand the need to enroll in clinical trials and what a slow, difficult and costly process it is to create the medicines we need to treat and cure disease.

Another NOVA program told a similar story about the difficult nature of creating new drugs. Cracking Your Genetic Code told the story of the growth of personalized medicine, based on an individual’s genetic code. Among other diseases, we looked at cystic fibrosis and how the pharmaceutical company, Vertex, succeeded after more than a decade of study in creating a medicine able to help just 4% of children with this often fatal condition. That is not a lot of children, but it changed their lives immeasurably for the better and, hopefully, will lead to additional medications that will treat even more children who suffer from this debilitating disease.

PE: Are there organizations that you can cite as effective communicators in making science resonate with the public?

APSELL: The NSF has a consistent record in making large investments in making science accessible to the public. So, too, does the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). There are several foundations that come to mind as well. The Carnegie Corporation of New York is one; another is the Moore Foundation, and the Sloan Foundation is an amazing supporter of efforts to enhance public understanding of science in media, books and even on the Broadway stage and feature films.

These foundations also place a strong emphasis on community outreach, education and digital innovation, which is so important in positioning science for the long-term. There are also a number of private foundations and individuals who support the work we do.

I think backing solid science journalism is a good investment and studies show it brings with it significant public appreciation and good will. We are certainly appreciative of the funding we receive from external donors, which this season includes Farmers Insurance, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, the David H. Koch Fund for Science and, of course, PBS and CPB, which provide the bulk of our funding.

As I mentioned earlier, the pharmaceutical industry has given us support for NOVA and specific projects, in particular Johnson & Johnson, Merck and Pfizer. We welcome new partners, who share our commitment to science, public understanding and science education to benefit society and improve the lives of untold numbers of people.


William Looney is Pharm Exec’s Editor-in-Chief. He can be reached at william.looney@ubm.com

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