As COSI prepares to welcome dinosaurs, its new president and CEO couldn't be more in vogue.
Young, stylish and energetic, Frederic Bertley is quickly becoming as much of an attraction to the city's science museum as a life-sized Tyrannosaurus rex model is expected to be early next year.
And whatever else he is, Bertley is a scientist to the core, an identity that was sparked in childhood and continues to define his life approach. Along the way, he developed an affinity for teaching as well.
Summing up his new position at COSI since Jan. 2, Bertley says, “I have an administrator leadership role that I have to fill, but I absolutely every so often want to play scientist, or at least science educator.”
Bertley was serving as senior vice president for science and education at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia when COSI contacted him last year to see if he might be interested in coming to Columbus to succeed David Chesebrough, who had announced he was retiring after leading COSI for 10 years.
Bertley wasn't looking to make a move, but COSI had impressed him in 2012 when it hosted an annual conference of the Association of Science and Technology Centers.
“I never forgot my experience of coming to Columbus because it was the best ASTC experience, and the reason it was so good was the folks at COSI were so wonderful. They were accommodating, they were engaging, they were sharing, they were open. It was an unbelievable experience. So fast forward, when this opportunity came up, I'm like, well, I already know I'm digging that place,” Bertley recalls.
“Frederic walked into a great situation,” says Michael Louge, COSI board chair and OhioHealth executive vice president and chief operating officer. Louge explains, “COSI is stable. It's successful. Under David's leadership, it is doing things that it hadn't been doing in a long time, and then with the growth of the (Scioto) peninsula, he's just in a great position to be able to help us reach that (next) level.”
Louge says the COSI board hoped for a new CEO with “a freshness of ideas, somebody that we felt had the enthusiasm and the vision that could take COSI to the next level.” What sold the board on Bertley was “his youth, his prior experience and what he had done at the Franklin Institute. He was a leader that tried new things and found a lot of success there. And to the extent we could find all that and still find a scientist, we wanted that, and that's what Frederic is.”
The task ahead of Bertley is not easy: He is being asked to improve on a science museum that is already nationally renowned and consistently wins accolades. It was honored as a Top 5 Science Museum in the US in 2015 by Family Fun magazine's Travel Awards and was named a 10 Best Museums for Families in 2014 by USA Today. In 2008 it was recognized as America's No. 1 Science Center for Families by Parents magazine.
But the Franklin Institute is also a Top 10 science museum, and Bertley is credited with using his eight years there to improve science education from kindergarten through college levels, increasing science literacy for families and engaging diverse communities in science, technology, engineering and math.
One of the ideas Bertley and a colleague at the Franklin Institute developed and implemented with great success in Philadelphia is already on his radar to transplant to Columbus—a community-engaging science festival that culminates on science center grounds with a daylong carnival.
“The one we did in Philly was nine days, a little long,” Bertley says. “We'll probably think of doing a four- or five-day (at COSI).”
The Franklin Institute festival boasted “literally a hundred distinct events in a nine-day period. We are in schools, we are in pubs, we are in restaurants, we are in clubs, we are in YMCAs, we are in churches. You name it. All these things are happening throughout the week and then the capstone experience is a science carnival,” Bertley says.
The science festival concept revolves around a mantra that Bertley repeats often: Take science to where people live, learn and lounge.
“It's exciting because it helps demystify science, because now you're in a carnival atmosphere. You're going to these events throughout the week. It's not the hallowed halls or ivory towers of academia. …You're comfortable going to a pub crawl but it's all about the science of beer and science of alcohol,” Bertley explains.
“Again, we live, learn and lounge. Bring stuff to the people where they're at because they're comfortable in their environment. That way they'll be open to seeing and experiencing and it won't be a foreign, they're-dropping-this-on-me type of experience. And so it's really successful.”
The culminating carnival would be on COSI grounds, with various businesses and community organizations hosting tents with activities related to science, technology, engineering and math.
“And the way we pull it off, by the way, is we do it through partnerships. We literally have 200 partners. And Columbus is the land of collaboration and partnership, so what happens is you have all these partners, and in the case of COSI, we will kind of oversee it and help each partner think about having a hands-on experience that they can showcase at the carnival. We'll walk them through how to do that but they're responsible for that booth,” Bertley says.
His irrepressible enthusiasm and appetite for taking on new challenges is a big part of what caused an 18-member advisory search committee to recommend Bertley to the COSI Board of Trustees.
“Frederic embraced the idea that we were doing of all this development on the peninsula and that there was a new parking structure going in and that we were putting dinosaurs in COSI. He sort of thrived and was energized by all of that stuff going on, and I can't say that was true of every candidate,” says Tom Dailey, who chairs the COSI Board's nominating and governance committee, which was tasked with finding Chesebrough's successor.
“The process took nearly a year,” Dailey recalls, with the committee taking full advantage of the time allotted from Chesebrough's decision to retire, announced in January 2016, until he actually stepped down at the end of the year.
“We realized that it was different than the last search, where COSI was in a much different position, financially, and just moved to the new building,” Dailey says.
“The board had already made the decision to do the partnership with the American Museum of Natural History, so we knew we were putting dinosaurs in COSI. It was a very exciting time, but there was so much going on, so we wanted to identify not only what are the attributes that we want to see in a 21st century science center leader but someone who could juggle all those balls and see that as an opportunity and not as a distraction,” he explains.
“We were also looking for someone who could deeply engage with the community. With so much going on in Columbus and so much on the peninsula, it's very important that the leader of COSI looks not only inside the walls but outside the walls in terms of partnerships, revenue, working with city government, working with the (Columbus) Downtown Development Corp. So we wanted somebody who had demonstrated an ability to do that as well. And the last thing we heard from the community and the board is we wanted a world-class leader for COSI,” Dailey says.
To make sure important community stakeholders had input in finding the next CEO, Dailey's committee invited business, education, government and cultural organizations to be part of the advisory search committee with COSI board members. AEP, Battelle, Bob Evans Foods, L Brands, Nationwide and JPMorgan Chase were represented, along with Ohio State University, FutureReady Columbus, Mayor Andrew Ginther's office, Experience Columbus, TourismOhio, the YMCA, the Columbus Partnership, the Greater Columbus Arts Council and the Columbus Downtown Development Corp.
“When we put together the committee and we identified who we thought would be representative of a broad spectrum of the community … not a single person said ‘no' to us. Or you know, ‘I'd like to do it, but I don't have time.' We didn't get any of that,” Dailey says.
Bertley still talks about his surprise at such deep community involvement in the search process. But Dailey says, “I don't think any of us thought twice about the fact that we were all in the room together until he pointed it out. … We told him that's a little bit of a hallmark of how Columbus works, and maybe it's a little bit unique for us but he just wasn't used to that kind of thing coming from Philadelphia.”
Philadelphia was just the last stop for the youngest son of a mother from Barbados and a father from Trinidad. “I was the ‘oops baby's' younger brother,” Bertley jokes. His world tour began with a childhood in Montreal, more schooling and work in Boston, then research trips to Haiti, the Sudan and Egypt before landing in Philadelphia. His parents met at McGill University in Montreal, and he continued a family tradition by getting both his bachelor of science degree in physiology and mathematics and his doctorate in immunology from McGill. He started college at 16, and his parents insisted he was not mature enough to go to school farther from home, Bertley says. Staying in Montreal turned out to be a great move.
“That's how I got to Harvard,” Bertley says. “Harvard picks for their post-doc fellowships. McGill is a big name, so that got me into Harvard Medical School for the fellowship. And then when I worked in a law firm, this A-list, top law firm… the only Canadian undergraduate university they recruit from is McGill.”
His work at prestigious WilmerHale involved using his medical research background to examine patents for the intellectual property department. He could have had law school paid for by the firm, but Bertley says he realized he didn't want to be a lawyer.
Attributes that have stayed with him include his passion for science, a love of sports, music and fashion, and an affinity for teaching.
His parents were both educators, and he began teaching while still in school. “Math came really easy to me, and so I started tutoring other kids in math.” Later, he taught middle and high school classes while in undergraduate and graduate studies at McGill. The best teaching experience, though, was during his post-doctorate fellowship at Harvard, when he taught at Roxbury Community College.
“Roxbury would kind of be like Linden or Franklinton, to give you a sense of the demographics; so a tough area,” Bertley says. It was a school that accepts any applicant, regardless of academic history. “Roxbury Community College goes down as one of my most favorite educational experiences because I was teaching science. I was teaching anatomy, physiology and microbiology, and I was able to work with these high school dropouts, people who had no science training, no experience, I was able to make a difference to them and get them excited around science. … I really felt valuable there.”
Bertley likes to quote French chemist Louis Pasteur as saying, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” and he notes its application in his life. “I'm very lucky, I'm very privileged, but by virtue of all these different experiences, I've always been prepared for when an opportunity came up.”
Settling in to Columbus, Bertley and his wife, Heather, are enjoying an empty-nest apartment at 250 High, which allows him to walk to work and keeps the couple close to Downtown restaurants, theaters and other attractions they are happy to explore. Bertley jokes, though, that gaining weight is a challenge, thanks to Columbus' “amazing restaurants” and a heavy schedule of breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings and presentations as he introduces himself to the community.
In meetings that often number three a day, Bertley reports, “They all say the same thing: ‘Hey, we're really happy you're here. Tell us how we can help. We love COSI.' And that's just like, it can't possibly get better than that. They really appreciate COSI and so, along with welcoming me to the city, the fact that they're so vested in the future of COSI is so encouraging.”
What got you interested in science?
A video game (at 9 years old.) … After a while, I couldn't afford the batteries. So I opened the back of the game. You know those 9-volt batteries, how they have a little tab that clicks on them? I pulled that off and there's a red and black wire there. I went down to the basement. I found an old lamp. I cut the cable off the lamp and I wired it to the red and black wire. I plugged it into the wall and it was the best 10 seconds of my life. It was one of those moments of, ‘Oh my gosh, this works!' And then the 11th second or thereabouts, poof. There was a little explosion by the outlet and the wall's charred. And my game kind of blew up a little bit and died. … At that moment, I was piqued by science ... and I was so curious as to what is it, what's behind the walls.
When did you first think of yourself as a scientist?
It was when I graduated with my Ph.D. I graduated and then we drove to go out to dinner, and I remember being in the car thinking, ‘Wow, I did it. I'm a scientist.' What's interesting, now that I'm older and I reflect on it…we are all scientists by practice, because all science really is is asking questions, whatever you're interested in, and then collecting data, analyzing the data and making a judgment; the way babies learn to walk. That's called pilot test and learn.
How much do you get to practice science at COSI?
I haven't been in the weeds as much as I want to be. ... Every day when we open our building, we do something called the cloud ceremony. That's where we play with liquid nitrogen, and we gather a bunch of kids who are around and we do a mini liquid nitrogen show called the cloud, because it looks like a cloud. … So my very first event I got to be a scientist and an educator, which was really fun.
What can parents do to encourage a science interest?
The most important thing is support and foster (kids') natural creativity and curiosity. We shoot out of the womb, pardon the expression, curious about the world. That's how we learn to talk, to walk. We're born curious. While you support them playing baseball or swimming, piano class or whatever it is you want to do, and those are all great things, definitely support them in letting them explore.
Mary Yost is the editor.