Pediatrician and TV writer Neal Baer talks about an unconventional professional trajectory and the value of embracing liberal arts.
By Gigi Kisela ‘17 “I’m not doing anything I studied in my undergrad years,” says Neal Baer, who earned an undergraduate degree at Colorado College, and went on to earn degrees from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Medical School.
A self-described “liberal arts poster child,” Baer – EdM ’79, AM ’82, M ’95 – is a pediatrician, award-winning TV producer and writer most notably for ER and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. He’ll bring that hybrid expertise to the workshop “Private and Public Storytelling: How to Use Digital and Traditional Technologies for Social Change” 4 p.m. Jan. 21 at Fong Auditorium, Boylston Hall, during Harvard Wintersession and the Office for the Arts January Arts and Media Seminars.
Baer’s journey from political science to medical media maven is more coincidental than intentional. It comes down to openness and curiosity. One night at a Harvard party he voiced dissatisfaction with his work in sociology. Another person at the party suggested he try an introductory documentary course with pioneering filmmaker Ed Pincus in the Visual and Environmental Studies department. Pincus hadn’t planned to open the course to graduate students, but Baer got a pass – and he got so much more. In Pincus (who passed away in 2013), Baer found a long-time mentor, and, in the course, he found the roadmap that allowed him to bushwhack past the humanities-sciences fork in the road.
Having always been interested in medicine (a shared interest among his father and brothers), Baer attended Harvard Medical School. His bushwhacking manifested into splitting time between HMS and Los Angeles where he was making a name for himself as a writer.
Moving through the world in such an exploratory fashion with such success is something Baer attributes to a fundamental love of knowledge. “I’m curious about the world, and I like learning things,” he says. “We’re not in a vacuum. There are so many things we can’t control. If I hadn’t been at that party, I wouldn’t have heard about the VES class. I wouldn’t have met Ed. Who knows where I’d be?”
That same openness underpins his success. He doesn’t discount academia as an important component of success – clearly, education has been a driving force for him – but he quietly discourages students from going to film school straight out of high school. In his own case, understanding social theory and learning to analyze complex material have made him a more effective professional.
If you know Baer’s work, you can see that medicine has clearly influenced his writing career, but how has his work in the arts influenced him as a physician? To answer, he spoke about his appointment to the Board of Fellows at HMS, where members actively acknowledge the power of atypical candidates in the medical field. They seek out football players and dancers. And humanities concentrators. The addition of non-science fields makes for well-rounded physicians and more diverse approaches to public health, practice, research and medicine overall, he says.
Baer embodies the power of intersecting disciplines soldered together with passion. Indeed, he was recognized by the American Medical Association for contributing to a better understanding of medicine in the media, a testament to work that is enjoyable, remunerative and meaningful to the larger world.
Neal Baer will present the workshop “Private and Public Storytelling: How to Use Digital and Traditional Technologies for Social Change” 4 p.m. January 21 in Fong Auditorium at Harvard Yard's Boylston Hall as part of Harvard JAMS! during Harvard Wintersession. To register, and for more information on other workshops, visit the Office for the Arts JAMS! page.