Featured Alumna: Temeika Fairley

Facing Congress, facing stage fright

screen_shot_2019-07-31_at_4.47.24_pm_0.pngFor most of her life, Temeika Fairley has had terrible stage fright.

Part of her job as a senior health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires her to speak at Congressional inquiries, testify at hearings, give media interviews, and conduct other public outreach. To get through those experiences, she attempted to memorize everything she wanted to say about efforts to prevent breast cancer in young women. It wasn’t easy.

Then a colleague suggested she take a workshop at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

“I learned that you can still be true to your science and true to the guidelines of your organization and not bore your audience. You can do all that and still be engaging,” Fairley said. “The Alda training helped me connect to my love of storytelling. I remember making that connection and the stars aligned - this is what I’ve been trying to do my whole life.”

Fairley had been working for several years at the CDC and conducting research about cancers that have genetic components: breast cancer in adolescents and colorectal cancer. In 2009, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz went public with the story of her diagnosis and battle with breast cancer in support of the EARLY Act. The Act authorized the CDC to initiate a public-health campaign about breast cancer in women younger than 40. Fairley was one of the few people at CDC working in that area, and she was tapped to lead the initiative.

As the initiative got underway and grew, Fairley was increasingly called upon to speak in front of Congress and other large groups. Her stage fright became a problem, and her boss, who had previously participated in an Alda Center workshop, encouraged her to sign up for one.

“I got a lot of coaching around my stage fright and they told me to focus on the audience, not myself,” she said. “It was an easier way to move forward. My old habits were really hard; I was memorizing a script. This way was easier for me to focus on my audience and make sure i was in the moment. I essentially walked back into Congressional hearings and media interviews and talking to young women with breast cancer. I just dove back in with these new skills and strategies.”

Now that she has become more comfortable speaking publicly, Fairley is looking for a new challenge: podcasting. After speaking to so many women - some as young as teenagers - she is eager to start a show that focuses on women’s health through a blend of science and storytelling. She’s already done a few appearances on existing CDC podcasts, and says she hopes to start her own - either through her employer or independently - later this year.

“It’s young women who faced cancer and their stories, and in some cases their family members’ stories of their diagnosis and treatment. They received some training so they were comfortable with the medium, but it wasn’t scripted and it wasn’t staged,” Fairley said. “There’s not a lot of work out there in this kind of space - this governmental, CDC kind of space.”

To learn more about how to create a podcast worth listening to, Fairley returned to the Alda Center, to participate in its 5-week podcasting course. Working in an online classroom and Alda Center instructors, each student learned how to translate empathic listening skills to a digital, voice-only format.

“I would love to see this training offered more to those of us in the federal health space.

When you get federal communication training, it’s with this mindset that you just have to get through the presentation or whatever it is,” she said. “With the Alda Center, it’s not about just getting through it. It’s about giving your audience something to remember.”