How the Museum of Medicine and Biomedical Discovery Aims to Bring Scientific Achievements of the Past, Present, and Future to Life

A Conversation With Mace L. Rothenberg, MD, FASCO

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Several years ago, a visit to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, so fascinated and inspired Mace L. Rothenberg, MD, FASCO, about the history of flight, he wondered why there was not a similar museum showcasing the past and present achievements in science and medicine. The result is an ambitious plan to create the Museum of Medicine and Biomedical Discovery to highlight not just medicine’s past and current successes, but to imagine future medical advances as well. Using artificial intelligence, interactive technology, immersive reality, and digital storytelling to chronicle how medical advances have changed the world, the museum endeavors to inspire visitors’ imaginations and engagement by making them active participants in both past and future scientific discoveries.

Mace L. Rothenberg, MD, FASCO

Mace L. Rothenberg, MD, FASCO

“There are a number of great medical museums around the world where visitors can view important artifacts of the past, such as ancient surgical instruments, anatomical drawings, and collections of classical medical texts,” said Dr. Rothenberg, President and Executive Director of the Museum of Medicine and Biomedical Discovery. “The problem is the presentation is of medicine as a static entity; a snapshot of how it existed in the past.”

Connecting With the Historical Changes in Medicine

Plans for the establishment of the museum, which is expected to be completed in 2028, will be rolled out in three phases. In phase 1, content on the museum’s website will be expanded to include virtual walk-throughs of exhibits visitors can expect to see once the museum opens, including encounters with scientific figures from the past through the use of holography, interactive kiosks, and immersive reality.

In phase 2, a pop-up prototype of the museum will be designed to take to schools, universities, and other museums to get feedback on its content. The final phase will be the construction of a building that will accommodate between 200,000 and 300,000 visitors a year. A permanent location for the museum has yet to be determined.

“What we are trying to do is create a venue that will engage visitors in the exciting journey of how scientific discoveries are made and how they are translated into medical advances that change our world. The key will be telling these stories in an enjoyable, interactive, and memorable way,” said Dr. Rothenberg.

Marking a Stellar Medical Career

Dr. Rothenberg has devoted much of his 30-year medical career to the field of oncology, serving as Special Assistant to the Director of the Division of Cancer Treatment at the National Cancer Institute before moving on to positions in academia. From 1991 to 1998, Dr. Rothenberg served as Associate Professor of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and Executive Officer of the Southwest Oncology Group. He spent the next decade at Vanderbilt University, where he served as Professor of Medicine and Ingram Professor of Cancer Research.

He joined Pfizer in 2008, as Head of Clinical Development and Chief Medical Officer for Oncology. There he oversaw research for new cancer drugs, 11 of which received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval during his tenure. He later became Chief Medical Officer of Pfizer, during which time the company developed and obtained emergency use authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Rothenberg retired from Pfizer in 2021. He is a fellow of the American College of Physicians and ASCO.

In a wide-ranging interview with The ASCO Post, Dr. Rothenberg discussed the types of exhibitions planned for the new museum, as well as how the use of narrative storytelling, artificial intelligence, and interactive displays will bring past contributions to life, capture the present, help visitors imagine the future, and restore a sense of public trust in science and medicine.

Showcasing the Moment of Scientific Discovery

Please talk about how the Museum of Medicine and Biomedical Discovery will engage visitors and make science exciting, especially for young visitors.

Let me give you a nononcology example. One of the rooms of the museum will be devoted to how medical advances changed the world and will include the story of the development of insulin in the treatment of type 1 diabetes. Imagine walking into the room and being met by a hologram of a 10-year-old girl from 1920. You can see she is pale, thin, and frail. She begins to describe how difficult her life is, not being able to keep up with other children.

This firsthand account of what it was like for patients before the discovery of insulin will help draw visitors into her story. When the hologram disappears, visitors will then move on to see Canadian scientists Frederick Banting and Charles Best working in their laboratory, barely able to contain their excitement as they review data showing how they were able to dramatically reduce hyperglycemia in a diabetic dog with the injection of a pancreatic extract. After a few seconds, they will turn toward visitors standing in front of them, show them the data they are so excited about, and explain its significance.

This interaction with museum visitors will help convey the excitement and joy of laboratory discovery. Subsequent portions of the exhibit will depict other key advances, such as the development of long-acting insulin and how recombinant DNA technology enabled large-scale manufacturing of human insulin. Toward the end of the exhibit, another hologram of the same 10-year-old girl would appear, but now she is in the year 2024. She is vibrant, healthy, and able to fully engage with her friends, all due to the glucose monitor and insulin pump she is wearing.

The very end of the exhibit will focus on challenges still to be overcome. In the case of type 1 diabetes, it would include issues such as understanding the role of the immune system in its genesis and the potential role of stem cell transplantation in its treatment. The presentation is intended to encourage younger guests to envision how they might be able to contribute to future scientific discoveries and medical advances.

This is just one story among many we could highlight. Just think of the great stories we can tell about the progress in oncology care, including the emergence of chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy, and the advent of radiation and combined-modality therapies, and how those treatments have led to limb- and organ-sparing surgery, just to name a few advances.

The general public has the misconception that science is dull and laborious, most likely because they do not get the chance to hear firsthand from researchers about how they felt the moment they saw the data or got the results that validated their hypothesis and changed the course of their research. When I have asked researchers to describe that moment of discovery in their own careers, they often get quite emotional. These moments are tremendously impactful and every bit as thrilling and exciting as any game-winning event in sports, except they are not witnessed by millions of people on television. This is what the general public needs to see, and this is what the museum will provide.

Audience Participation

How will these exhibits encourage audience participation?

One of the exhibits we are planning is called The Science Behind, which would use a surround-sound experience to explore the underlying biology of a specific disease, the body’s response to it, and how medical intervention impacts the disease process. For example, imagine you are in a theater with a 180-degree screen, and you are seeing a cell being infected. On the periphery, elements of the immune system are being shown, but they are dormant.

As the infection takes hold and begins to spread, visitors will see how the immune system becomes activated to respond to the infection and then the very careful choreography of immune response—first to control the infection via the innate immune system and then to specifically recognize and selectively kill the invading pathogen via the adaptive immune system. The illustration would also depict how medicines, including vaccines, can enhance that process and prevent the infection altogether.

This exhibit could even include audience participation by assigning responsibilities for each element of the immune system to specific audience members. If each element responds in an appropriate fashion, the infection is cleared, and the individual is cured. If not, the infection spreads, becomes more severe, and even life-threatening. Through the exhibit, audience members will see how their choices and actions have a direct impact on disease outcome. This is one way of making the museum experience participatory and engaging, which I think is really important.

Curating the Exhibits

How will the museum content be chosen and curated? Do you have a board of directors and a scientific committee involved in planning the exhibits?

Yes, we have a wonderful board of directors with expertise in science, medicine, communication, and museum planning and design. We are also putting together a group of scientific and medical advisors to make sure the exhibits depicted are accurate and up to date.

Restoring the Public’s Trust in Science

One exhibit you are planning will be devoted entirely to medical errors, misinformation, and disinformation, which have contributed to the public’s distrust in science. A recent survey by the University of Chicago found that, overall, only 39% of adults said they had “a great deal of confidence” in the scientific community, down from 48% in 2018 and 2021.1 The U.S. Surgeon General and the World Health Organization have declared that misinformation is a threat to public health because it can encourage people to ignore science-based recommendations about which behaviors to practice and which ones to avoid.2 How would the Museum of Medicine and Biomedical Discovery help to mitigate distrust in science and restore confidence in scientific discovery?

As a scientific and research community, we do not do a great job communicating our work to the public. Careers in our professional communities succeed or fail based on the merit of our ideas, the quality of our research, and how well we present our results to other experts in the field.

If we are successful, our manuscripts are published in peer-reviewed journals, we are given the opportunity to present our work at conferences, and our research grants are funded. But one important element is missing: communicating our results in terms that are understandable to the general public. The irony is that research grants are largely paid for with tax dollars that come from the general public.

We cannot overlook the role that misinformation and disinformation have played in fomenting the growing skepticism of the general public about the veracity and reliability of science and medicine. The current approach of trying to dispel or refute these false claims with facts and evidence alone has not been successful. We need to shift away from a defensive, responsive approach to one that engages the public by telling the stories behind these medical advances in a way that is engaging, enjoyable, and memorable.

As a scientific and research community, we do not do a great job communicating our work to the public.
— Mace L. Rothenberg, MD, FASCO

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The mission of the Museum of Medicine and Biomedical Discovery is to educate, inform, and inspire, so visitors will leave feeling, “I know. I trust. I can imagine myself.” Engaging the public in this way can help restore the trust that has been lost.

Confronting Ethical Lapses in Research

Do you also plan to have exhibits featuring events that have justifiably contributed to the public’s distrust in science—for example, the Tuskegee syphilis study in African American men, during which penicillin was withheld from study participants.3

Yes, absolutely. We envision an exhibit that will describe errors, misjudgments, and ethical lapses in medical research. Such an exhibit would give us an opportunity to help visitors understand the background of [the Tuskegee study] and other controversial studies, how the scientific community responded or why it did not respond, and describe changes that were made so similar ethical lapses cannot happen in the future.

In terms of medical errors and misjudgments, we want the public to understand that the information we publish is only as good as the knowledge we have today. Science is not linear and is constantly progressing. That progress may include unexpected results and new insights that lead us to question the dogma or best practice in the past. We may need to revise our theories or practice in light of those new data.  In fact, it is only through this iterative process that medicine progresses and we develop new, more effective interventions for diseases like cancer. 

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Rothenberg is President and Executive Director of the Museum of Medicine and Biomedical Discover. He reported no conflicts of interest.


1. AP/NORC at the University of Chicago: Major declines in the public’s confidence in science in the wake of the pandemic. Available at Accessed March 18, 2024.

2. Boyle P: Why do so many Americans distrust science? Association of American Medical Colleges. Available at Accessed March 18, 2024.

3. Tuskegee University: About the USPHS Syphilis Study. Available at Accessed March 18, 2024.