Frederic Bertley's Epic World
Standing in front of the judicial bench inside the Supreme Court of Ohio building, Frederic Bertley begins with a story. It’s one he tells often, about his origins and a video game gone wrong. Some 200 high school students, teachers and the Supreme Court justices listen while he recalls the moment of his scientific awakening.
In this story, Bertley is 9 years old and wants to play an early handheld video game, but he keeps burning through the batteries that power it. So he finds an old lamp, cuts off the cord, wires it to the back of the game and plugs it directly into the wall—“best 10 seconds of my life!” he exclaims in the courtroom. It draws a big laugh, like always.
In the 11th second, everything goes haywire. The game explodes, flames char the wall at the outlet, and his father barrels downstairs to see why his youngest son is trying to burn down the house. In that moment, little Frederic has an epiphany: Electricity is interesting. He wants to understand the magic behind the wall.
It’s a good story, made even better by everything that followed: The curious, clever, mildly mischievous 9-year-old eventually became a Harvard-trained scientist and the president and CEO of the Center of Science and Industry. Bertley tells this story time and again because it serves as a charming introduction. It’s amusing, and it’s easy to visualize that moment. But it works best of all because he tells it with the same boundless enthusiasm every time. The sparks don’t come from the outlet, they come from him.
Bertley’s natural zeal requires some extra effort on this frigid February day. He’s been struggling to suppress a sharp cough, but he wasn’t going to miss the chance to be the guest speaker at the Supreme Court’s annual Black History Month Celebration. He’s here to talk about science and STEM careers, but more importantly about race and our collective blindness to scientists of color, as well as their overlooked contributions. It’s also an opportunity to plug his most ambitious project yet, the inaugural COSI Science Festival in May.
Through the Supreme Court windows, COSI is visible just across the river, where it occupies prime real estate on the Scioto Peninsula. For most people, it’s an occasional family destination or a beloved institution from childhood, but its value among civic powerbrokers and its geographic position between Downtown and Franklinton make it vital to the city’s development.
From above, COSI resembles an alien spacecraft on a peninsula beachhead facing the rapidly developing Franklinton neighborhood. After Bertley took the reins in January 2017, COSI spent a year creating a new strategic plan, COSI 5.0, which emphasizes that the center’s future success is tethered in part to its role as an anchor of the peninsula’s emerging cultural district, the longtime dream of uber-donors Les and Abigail Wexner.
It’s not rare for an institution like COSI to be the linchpin of an urban revitalization, says Allen Proctor, who runs his own social-enterprise advocacy firm and has consulted for COSI in the past. But being the harbinger of change for the two decades since COSI’s move to Franklinton wasn’t always easy. When Bertley’s predecessor, David Chesebrough, took over in 2006, a third of COSI was closed and there were no cash reserves. The building was too big to house a science center and was built more as an architectural icon, Chesebrough says. Perhaps it was a forward-looking design as the centerpiece of a future cultural district, but it wasn’t viable for the institution’s purpose.
Along with renewed investment from city leaders, Chesebrough improved the finances by reimagining COSI. It went from a standalone facility to a hub of scientific activity by partnering with Battelle, Ohio State University and others to fill the building with programming at no cost to COSI, while also generating money from the spaces organizations leased. By the time Bertley arrived, COSI was back on stable financial ground.
In Bertley’s view, the development of the peninsula and Franklinton will only boost COSI’s prospects. “Selling tickets is based on flow,” he says. “Well, they’re building all this flow around me.” But that flow can come at a cost. As Proctor points out, the development of Dorrian Green park required the sacrifice of COSI’s surface parking lots and the associated revenue. The institution has consistently been a willing partner for these sorts of changes, Proctor says. “I think the real issue is, does the pioneer get rewarded or punished for being the pioneer.”
COSI also continues to evolve internally, most notably with the November 2017 opening of two galleries from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Chesebrough says Les Wexner secretly brought that idea to him several years ago as a way to strengthen COSI. Wexner chipped in $2 million to make it happen, along with $5 million from the state legislature. Bertley repeatedly emphasizes that COSI’s AMNH partnership—the only one of its kind—is a huge win for the city, but he says that it does put pressure on him to deliver on the generous investment others made before he arrived to help hash out the finer points of the deal.
The AMNH partnership also coincided with WOSU’s studio moving out of that space, forfeiting the type of rental revenue that once helped stabilize the institution. Josh Sarver, COSI’s vice president of exhibits and programs, and COSI board member Cindy Hilsheimer say the losses of parking and rental income have been offset by increased philanthropy and ticket revenue from interest in the AMNH exhibit. COSI’s attendance has been increasing, from 670,041 in fiscal year 2016 to 719,189 in 2018. Through February 2019, AMNH’s permanent dinosaur exhibit had 813,509 paid visitors. Nearly 23,000 households have annual memberships, up from 19,239 in 2016.
The most dramatic change is still on the horizon. The COSI Connection Corridor would be a glass-ceilinged walkway through the building, complete with restaurants and shops, from the planned 21-acre development west of COSI straight to the riverfront. It remains to be seen whether a public retail passageway would force another overhaul of the institution’s operations, but it’s clear Bertley is a believer in the greater vision for the peninsula, and that COSI’s stakeholders believe he’s capable of transforming the center to meet whatever changes may come.
In 2016, when Chesebrough announced his impending retirement, local executive-search firm BeecherHill was tasked with finding a replacement. With input from COSI’s board of trustees and an advisory search committee of corporate and city leaders, BeecherHill put together an executive-profile summary calling for an innovative, visionary collaborator with ample political and business savvy, and proven networking and fundraising skills—plus a dozen other superlative qualities.
It was tough to find, says Hilsheimer, BeecherHill’s founder, who was appointed to the board after the search. Yet had they crafted an executive profile tailored specifically to Frederic Bertley, it would have been at least as difficult and improbable to fill.
He was born in November 1970 to Leo and June Bertley, natives of Trinidad and Barbados, respectively. They had 11 academic degrees between them and raised their four children in a music-filled home in Montreal, Canada. Bertley wanted to be a pro skier, then a pro hockey player, then a pro basketball player. When he graduated from 11th grade, the final year of high school in Montreal, he asked his parents if he could go to the U.S. to play college basketball. He was 15 years old. Their answer: hell no.
Instead, Bertley attended Montreal’s McGill University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in physiology and then his doctorate in immunology. He completed his postdoctoral fellowship researching HIV vaccines at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital. Throughout grad school and his fellowship, Bertley traveled abroad to measure the impact of vaccines in developing nations—a transformative experience, he says. In post-coup Haiti, at age 22, he worked in Cité Soleil, a district of concentrated poverty in the capital of Port-au-Prince, where people lived in cardboard houses. The following year he continued the work in the Sudan. In both places, he was struck by the warmth of people who had so little.
“All my preconceived notions of who’s better”—that subconscious yet ingrained first-world mentality—“were all thrown asunder because I realized these people are some of the most majestically, amazingly caring, humane people that I’ve ever met,” Bertley says.
In 2008, he was hired at the Franklin Institute, a renowned museum and science center in Philadelphia, where he eventually served as senior vice president for science and education. That’s where Hilsheimer and her team discovered him, one of about 1,000 potential candidates. Dale Heydlauff, AEP’s vice president of corporate communications and a member of the search committee, says Bertley won the CEO job for his energy, his enthusiasm for science education and his commitment to Columbus.
His credentials and global perspective went beyond Hilsheimer’s lofty expectations for the role. She calls him “the phenomenal outlier.”
The business crowd has settled in for the Westerville Area Chamber’s quarterly luncheon when COSI vice president Josh Sarver hauls a canister of liquid nitrogen to the front of a Medallion Country Club ballroom. “Like any COSI experience, we’d like to start with a cloud,” he announces. Sarver encourages everyone to stomp their feet, take a deep breath and then exhale, putting extra dust and moisture into the air. It sounds like a corporate pep rally. He pours the subzero nitrogen, and a frosty plume wafts across the foot of the stage.
The frozen pyrotechnics serve as Bertley’s opening act. He’s here to give the COSI STEM Star award to Dennis Blair, the founder of a local IT firm, who helped design an augmented reality sandbox to teach Westerville students about topography. A total of 13 STEM Stars will be awarded, and the recipients will serve as grand marshals of the COSI Science Festival.
In Bertley’s office later that afternoon, he and Stephen White—COSI’s vice president of external affairs, strategic initiatives and business development—discuss plans for the festival, which White is spearheading alongside Sarver and project manager Kaitlyn Majewski, in coordination with 11 area mayors’ offices, other government agencies, businesses and community organizations. Based on a concept Bertley co-created at the Franklin Institute, COSI’s version includes more than 100 semi-independent pop-science events across Columbus and the suburbs from May 1–3. Then, on May 4, the Big Science Celebration will bring everyone together on COSI’s campus for a carnival with hands-on activities and interaction with organizations like Honda, OSU and NASA, which will bring staff from its 10 research labs to one location for the first time ever.
The science festival is a microcosm of COSI’s current aspirations. It emphasizes the center’s role as a peninsula destination by creating a COSI-centric festival, and it simultaneously ramps up engagement outside its walls, another important goal from the 5.0 strategic plan. This year the festival will be limited to Franklin County, White says, but next year it will expand to contiguous counties and then all of Central Ohio. The hope is that it eventually goes statewide.
The festival also helps COSI assert a central selling point. STEM careers are growing, but so is science illiteracy, and the strategic plan notes that there are 2.4 million unfilled STEM jobs in the U.S. If COSI can convince local leaders that it can instill scientific passion, or at least curiosity, in the next generation while putting them in touch with employers, then the science center begins to look like a key piece of the workforce puzzle.
Bertley found a receptive partner for that message in Lou Von Thaer, CEO of Battelle, the research and development company. Von Thaer shares Bertley’s concerns about STEM labor, especially as the Columbus tech sector continues to grow. Last May, when Bertley and his staff announced the festival at COSI, Von Thaer handed over a check for $850,000 for the first three years. Battelle will have 60 volunteers and a 40-by-40 booth at the carnival. On working with Bertley, Von Thaer says, “He’s one of those people you just don’t want to say no to.”
In conversation, Bertley is ebullient and bordering on theatrical. His scientific bona fides may have helped him win the job, but he’s at least as much of a showman, storyteller and hand-shaking pitchman. He appears to be genuinely beloved by his staff, though they joke about his propensity for taking photos with the same “ta-dah!” pose, known as “doing the Frederic.”
More than anything else, people comment on his seemingly endless reserves of energy. “I don’t know when the guy sleeps,” Sarver says, laughing. “He’s kind of the Energizer Bunny incarnate,” Von Thaer adds. When asked what he’s like outside work, his wife, Heather McPherson, answers, “Let’s just say there is not an off switch.”
Bertley and McPherson met in Montreal at age 21, nearly 30 years ago, on the No. 68 bus. Over the course of three bus rides, she noticed he was always reading the scientific journal Nature or some research paper. His attire also caught her eye—usually a colorful knitted hat, some stylish jeans and shoes, an oversized shirt or jacket and large beaded necklaces.
“I don’t think that many people could have pulled that off, but he certainly did,” McPherson says. Bertley approached her on their fourth bus ride, she says, and they talked for almost two hours at the stop. They married nine years later.
His fashion sense now has an executive polish but is still distinctive, down to his customized COSI Converse sneakers. He sometimes gives pairs to colleagues and keeps a whole cabinet of them in COSI’s offices. Those little touches matter, Von Thaer says, and have helped foster connections around town.
“He’s just so passionate about contributing to the betterment of our community that goes well beyond his parochial interests in COSI,” Heydlauff says. “He has become invested in Columbus.”
Bertley serves on the boards of Experience Columbus and the Columbus Regional Airport Authority, and he’s the co-chair of the Commission for Black Girls, founded last July by Columbus City Councilmember Priscilla Tyson. The commission seeks ways to intervene early in the lives of girls to counter the problems that too often afflict black women—far lower wages, higher eviction rates, elevated risk of maternal mortality and countless others. Tyson asked Bertley to help lead the commission because “he gets it”—he wants to make sure kids of color have better access to STEM curriculum.
In late 2018, COSI unveiled a pair of programs Bertley has implemented in previous jobs, both of which aim to increase STEM access and participation. The Color of Science highlights the overlooked scientific discoveries and developments of women and people of color, and The Platform commits long-term resources toward STEM learning for underserved kids in Franklinton. Funded by CoverMyMeds, whose new headquarters will be in the neighborhood, The Platform will identify promising students for weekly sessions with hands-on labs and research throughout middle school and high school. Bertley is also working with local universities to get commitments for providing full-ride college scholarships to participants. The program will begin accepting students in 2020, and he hopes to find other corporate partners to expand it to Linden and the South Side.
Given enough funding, Hilsheimer says Bertley would travel coast to coast to find kids with untapped potential for such programs. “That is probably Frederic’s most passionate personal mission.”
Bertley tells the Supreme Court audience to shout out the name of a scientist. Albert Einstein emerges from some otherwise indecipherable mumbling. Bertley clicks to the next slide in his presentation, and sure enough Einstein’s picture appears on the TV screen. “If I asked you to name a woman scientist, who do you say?” he asks. This answer comes clear as a bell: Marie Curie! Bertley clicks to the next slide. Boom, Marie Curie.
“This is not a magic show,” he says. “I knew you would say that.”
His guesses aren’t clairvoyant but instead point to the public’s ignorance and predjudice. He’s sure Einstein will be the initial answer because the perception of scientists is so uniform: an old white man in a lab coat. Also, both examples are dead—people know few scientists, even fewer when they’re limited to the living. So the question, especially during Black History Month, is who should represent a multicultural society that’s so dependent on science and tech?
Bertley’s Color of Science program provides a litany. He displays slides that juxtapose celebrities everyone knows—Morgan Freeman and Angela Bassett—with scientists they should: James West, co-inventor of contemporary microphone technology, and Sharon Haynie, a researcher who helped create synthetic materials for vein replacement.
Another slide features Katherine Johnson, the lead character from the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures.” She’s a brilliant mathematician and was an essential part of the NASA team that launched John Glenn’s 1962 space flight. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, yet most people had never heard of her until the film’s release. Bertley feels it’s essential to highlight stories like Johnson’s in a country where people of color make up 41–47 percent of the population and women constitute 51 percent. To ignore them is to miss out on the value of entire pools of genius.
“Imagine if we knew about her 40 years ago, 50 years ago, 60 years,” Bertley says. “Imagine how many more women would have gone into science and engineering.”
He drives his point home with a few more slides and then includes his obligatory sales pitch for the Science Festival and the new AMNH exhibit, Mythic Creatures. Afterward, he talks with a group of students from Westland High School and takes photos with them. Once they disperse, Bertley spots a young black boy named CJ, maybe 5 to 7 years old, lingering near the front row. He walks over and asks CJ if he likes science. Yeah, the boy says shyly, he likes mixing stuff together. Bertley has his smartphone ready. “Can I take a picture with you, CJ?”
It’s hard to know what someone so young will learn from this presentation. But maybe, just maybe, he’ll remember the scientist who held everyone’s attention on the big stage, the one who later introduced himself and asked CJ questions, the one he could imagine becoming someday.