Rob Goldstein, 31, is vice president of communications and public affairs for the ALS Therapy Development Institute, a nonprofit biotechnology lab in Cambridge, Mass. Staff scientists there use mouse models to study the causes of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and work with the pharmaceutical industry to help develop effective therapies. The ALS Therapy Development Institute also provides support and resources to individuals and families affected by the disorder.
A native of Nashua, N.H., Goldstein started working at the ALS Therapy Development Institute as an intern shortly after graduating from the University of Maine in 2004 with a degree in mass communication and a minor in public relations. In 2008, while still working full time, he completed a Masters of Science in Public Affairs from the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
What do you find most satisfying about your work at the ALS Therapy Development Institute?
I get to create something new nearly every day. No two days are alike when I walk into our research center. I could start my day giving a tour to a group of ALS patients and their families, meeting with venture philanthropists looking to change the world or making a presentation to a potential scientific collaborator. Each day brings a different set of challenges and new potential for accomplishment. A lot of people don’t get the chance that I do to make a difference at such a young age, so I take what I do very seriously and with a large dose of humility.
How have you developed the scientific and medical knowledge necessary to work effectively in that environment?
I listen more than I speak. For me to be an effective communicator, I need to understand the jargon and language used by clinicians and neuroscientists. Only through developing a clear and personal understanding of scientific concepts and approaches can I create honest and compelling information for the various audiences I speak to. In today’s rapid-fire information delivery world, I have very little time to get a concept across, so I need to really know my stuff.
Are there aspects of your job that have surprised you?
How amazingly positive people can be in the face of impossible odds. The people we serve are given two to five years to live and have no effective treatments available to them. Yet, ALS patients and their families remain unconditionally hopeful and they put that hope in people like me and the team of scientists I work with.
How does your expertise in mass communication and public affairs extend to your interactions with patients and their families?
The people I work for are living with a horrible disease. My job here is funded through their gifts, so in essence they are paying me to talk and to tell the truth. They aren’t paying me to mince words or mislead them. Being honest with someone can seem hard at first, but ultimately you learn that it is the easiest thing to do because it is the right thing to do.
Using my training to deliver the truth to a person – no matter how difficult it may be to both hear and speak that truth – is what makes me an effective communicator. You’d be surprised at how few people are willing to be on the phone and just listen to someone who has been told they’re going to lose their dad in 18 months. Yes, we have to deliver key messages in our jobs, but we have a greater responsibility to be honest and humane first.
Why did you choose UMaine?
I still remember coming for the campus tour with my dad. The long drive from Nashua made it seem like I was actually going somewhere. I never wanted to go to a big-city school. I felt secluded at UMaine, but in a good way, because the campus felt so alive. Originally, when I thought that I would be an engineer, that program was a big part of my decision. We met with different professors and students and saw the labs. I was very impressed with the small class sizes and structured approach to the program.
How did UMaine prepare you for your career in communications?
As a communicator, I have a choice of how I am going to deliver a message, how many metaphors and similes I am going to use, or how much detail I am going to give – or not give – in an answer. I think back often to my classes in media ethics and philosophy.
Also, being at UMaine during the 9/11 attacks affected the way I thought about communication.The media and pundits on TV and radio suddenly became so much more visible in our lives. That visibility and the total inundation of social media have created a very different reality for communication professionals today. I think this new world requires us to be more creative than before, which always brings us back to thinking about audiences, ethics, etc.
Professor Paul Grossweiller’s book “The Method is the Message” is on the shelf in my office. That concept is so important today. There are huge differences between sending something out on Twitter versus Facebook, a radio public service announcement versus email or snail mail. These mediums all have implied socioeconomic, emotional and cultural messages rooted in them. Now that I have been apracticing communication professional for several years, I understand these nuances and can choose the medium more purposefully.
The public speaking courses I took, my work for the UMaine radio station and my involvement in Student Government all gave me the confidence to stand up in front of any group of people, no matter what the situation, and deliver an honest, cogent and persuasive message.
How were you supported in your academic choices at UMaine?
I wasn’t a good student. I was terrible at taking tests and easily distracted. I felt lost after I realized that engineering wasn’t right for me. I was afraid that I had made a huge mistake, convinced that I only had one chance to get that choice right, and I had obviously failed. I was wrong. My roommate and floor-mates in Gannett Hall provided great support and shared their own academic choices and struggles. My family also was very supportive after that very tough first year of being away from home for the first time. Eventually, after speaking with academic advisors, I immersed myself in the field of communications. Whether it was fate or some other cosmic force, if I meet it someday, I’ll say thank you.
Who on campus was your most positive influence?
A lot of people influenced me at UMaine, but I can’t think of anyone who had more impact on me and on my future than (Vice President for Student Affairs) Dr. Robert Dana. When I was trying to figure
out what I wanted to accomplish academically, I did some crazy things that a lot of young dudes at that time did and as a result I had a lot of interactions with university administrators. Dr. Dana, who was dean of students at the time, realized I was struggling and took the time to reach out to me. If he hadn’t done that, I hesitate to think where I would have ended up.
What courses almost did you in, academically? Which courses did you love?
Bob Whelan (lecturer in English) taught a course on the literature of the Vietnam War. I didn’t do well in his class, but in my opinion he epitomized a great college professor. If I could give anyone advice, I would say don’t take astronomy or music appreciation thinking they’re going to be easy, slack-off courses. They were both very challenging and way too important to take lightly. I didn’t do well in either and regret not taking them more seriously at the time.
How does UMaine continue to influence your life?
My experience at UMaine taught me that my life was a series of choices I was going to make, and that it was time for me to grow up and make decisions about my life. I left UMaine with a sense of confidence I didn’t have when I got there. I still stay in touch with a few of the guys and gals I met at UMaine. We became friends because we happened to be in the same place at the same time, and we remain friends because of our UMaine connection. Here in Boston, I am fortunate enough to get to see our Black Bears tear up the ice a lot. I go to as many games as I can when they are here in town playing Boston College, Boston University or Northeastern. I also hit up events with the Black Bears of Boston alumni group whenever I can. There’s nothing like singing the Stein Song in a bar on Bolyston Street.
Image Description: Rob Goldstein