COSI's new CEO: “the apparel oft proclaims the man.”
Dr. Frederic Bertley arrived in Columbus in January as the new president and chief executive officer of COSI. A scientist and immunologist, he most recently served as the senior vice president of science and education at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Below, he chats about his keen fashion sense and his plans for COSI, and then he reveals the driving force behind building his new wardrobe.
The word around town is that you have a great personal style. Can you tell us how your style of dress has developed throughout your career? I blame it all on my dad—he loved style, fashion and literature. He used to read Shakespeare to us and in “Hamlet,” Polonius says to his nephew, “the apparel oft proclaims the man.” As a 9-year-old, I had no clue what that meant, but as I grew older, it became exceedingly clear. Fashion, that rarified combination of fabric, design, style and personality, allows us to communicate an authentic message and start a silent dialogue with all those around us. Whether or not you pay attention to what you wear, how you dress, how you choose to fix your hair, how you accessorize, it all contributes to that message about your outward facing identity. I choose to consciously curate that message.
You're a scientist and an immunologist. How did you become a museum director? Being the president and chief executive officer of a science center like COSI is the perfect professional mashup of my three favorite things—science, education and inspiration. The capacity to engage and impact so many more individuals around the excitement of science and the importance of a scientifically literate society is far greater at a science museum than in the ivory towers of academia or industry.
Do you always wear a suit, even if you're involved in kids' camps at COSI? As a scientist, I often find myself breaking the stereotype of what a scientist is expected to look like. That's true whether I'm in a stylish, three-piece suit or donning a polo shirt or T-shirt and jeans and some brand-new Chuck Taylors. Kids, young adults and grandparents alike, take notice, and realize that scientists, indeed, come in all shades and manner. Time and time again, this deconstruction of their scientist image helps them resonate more with me and we connect on that human level—and then you have their full attention to wax poetic about how cool science is.
When you were in Philadelphia you started a program called The Color of Science. Can you explain the program? I often ask the question, “Can you name a scientist?” No matter where I am in this country (and often throughout the world), I get the same answer: Einstein. To be sure, Einstein was a phenomenal scientist and is an important figure for us to remember, but the consistency of that answer underscores the idea that most people's image of a scientist is an old, white man with thick glasses and a pocket protector. The Color of Science program was created to showcase to kids—and adults alike—that women and persons of color have and continue to contribute significantly to the fields of science, engineering, technology and mathematics. If you have seen the movie Hidden Figures, it would be fair to say that John Glenn, our hometown hero, would approve of The Color of Science program at COSI.
Given your acumen for science and fashion, can we expect some experiments at COSI that may lead to patents? For example, polyester was invented by two British scientists so maybe COSI can create a new type of fabric or something. It's funny you asked that. As you mentioned, fabrics and materials themselves are analyzed scientifically and can be engineered for all sorts of purposes—and patents can then be filed. We won't be working on that at COSI. But, how our brains interpret fashion—now that's a great space where COSI can play and have an impact. Perception has always been a hot science topic, and with our advances in neuroscience, there is much we can showcase and teach about how the brain processes or perceives color arrangement, textures, patterns, etc. and help us better understand what we like and like less. Wouldn't it be great to have an exhibition on the science of fashion and style?
Seriously, what attracted you to Columbus and the position at COSI? Three things: First is COSI, itself. It's a nationally ranked top science center and the staff there, now my team, is just amazing.
Second, is the people. Folks are just lovely here [in Columbus] and there is a great sense of community.
Third, is the city of Columbus. Already a great city, yet it continues on this incredible transformational trajectory. The number of national firsts Columbus has won in the last few years; the investment in and development of Downtown; the tech startup proliferation; being awarded the Smart Cities grant—all of this is proof positive of an amazing, world-class city. Toss in the arts and culture scene, the festivals, the diversity—there is a terrific energy and excitement in this city, and it's palpable.
However, had I known how great the restaurant scene is in this city, I may have moved here years earlier. Funny enough, this helps with my affection for fashion, because the weight I am gaining is forcing me to build up a whole new wardrobe. Have you seen the size of Thurman's burgers?
Finally, what advice would you give to your summer interns at COSI about their personal styles? Going back to “Hamlet,” Shakespeare said it best, “to thine own self be true.” In today's youthful vocabulary, “do you!” Stay true to yourself.