The Medical Alley Podcast, presented by MentorMate

Honoring Earl Bakken's Legacy with Alissa Light and Adrian Fischer, The Bakken Museum

March 18, 2024 Medical Alley
The Medical Alley Podcast, presented by MentorMate
Honoring Earl Bakken's Legacy with Alissa Light and Adrian Fischer, The Bakken Museum
Show Notes Transcript

Forty years ago, Earl Bakken  helped establish Medical Alley to ensure that Minnesota's healthcare ecosystem remained strong. Prior to helping found Medical Alley, Bakken famously founded Medtronic. But his inspiration and love of science and technology started as a kid when he fell in love with the movie "Frankenstein." Many years later, Bakken's legacy and his love of innovation and curiosity — and electricity — is preserved and told at the Bakken Museum in Minneapolis.

On this week's Medical Alley Podcast, Bakken Museum President and CEO Alissa Light and Adrian Fischer, curator of exhibits and collections at the museum, join to share more about the Bakken Musuem as an incubator for innovation. They also discuss the ways in which the Bakken Musuem is helping future generations of entrepreneurs and innovators by fostering a love of STEM in children through various programs and educational opportunities.

Learn more about the Bakken Museum or find out what you can expect when you visit at

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Frank Jaskulke  01:15

Good morning, good afternoon. And good evening to everyone out there and Medical Alley. This is Frank Jaskulke, your host for the Medical Alley Podcast. And today we have a really great episode as Medical Alley enters our 40th anniversary, we're going to be talking with a couple of people from the Bakken Museum, a place I bet many of you have been to but may not know the, the history or its impact or its connection to the broader community. So I'm so excited today to be joined by their CEO Alissa Light, and by Adrian Fisher, who is the curator of exhibits and collections. We're going to have a bit of a discussion today, and I hope after you hear this, you're inspired to go check it out, maybe for the second time if you've been before or a first time if you haven't been. Alissa, Adrian, thank you both so much for joining us today.

 Alissa Light  02:17

Thanks for having us. It's great to be here.

 Adrian Fischer  02:19

Thank you.

 Frank Jaskulke  02:19

Well, maybe the place we could start, some people will appreciate this, but maybe not all know this. But what does Frankenstein have to do with the Bakken Museum and the history of this community?

 Alissa Light  02:34

You know, I think my first response is that Frankenstein has just about everything to do with the Bakken Museum. And really, it starts with our founding. So Earl Bakken, co founder of Medtronic, founder of the Bakken Museum, co founder of Medical Alley, was inspired by the movie Frankenstein. And I bet a lot of you know this story when he was eight years old, growing up in Columbia Heights. Earl snuck into the Heights Theater to see the movie Frankenstein. And I don't know how many of you out there have eight year olds in your lives. I know for me, my eight year old would have been terrified by that movie. But Earl was incredibly inspired by this idea of animating life with electricity. And when you think about the power of that storytelling, and what it meant to eight year old Earl, who then went on to invent the external battery powered transistorized pacemaker, saving millions and millions of lives and founding the incredible innovative company Medtronic, there was a seed planted when Earl saw Frankenstein. And so I think for us at the Bakken Museum, we're really interested in expanding that seed planting for more and more and more people to see their own inherent innovator inside of themselves. And also to connect to that story of Earl as a young kid who got inspired by this story. And then at the Bakken Museum, we actually, we kind of pull at the layers even more. So we asked the question, who wrote the story Frankenstein? And, of course, it's a teenage girl growing up in the early 1800s, Mary Shelley. And so we invite our visitors to think about what was the context around Mary Shelley, what were the fringe medical innovations of that time that might have inspired this young woman to pave a path and really invent a genre of science fiction at a time when she couldn't even have her name associated with the book because she was a woman, and a young woman at that. And so we really get inspired by all of these threads and connections of the power of storytelling, the power of your own inherent innovator, and really inviting people of all ages to see themselves in that context. 

 Frank Jaskulke  04:51

Oh, that's amazing. And I love that connection, that thread that you just tore there of the history, how far back in time it goes, that has created impact still today. You know, we're 150, nearly 200 years away, and there's still impact coming in. And it reminds me of a story that a number of Medtronic people have told me about this poster of the human body being in Medtronic that Earl had written on there, all the different places where he wanted to have technology that would impact health care tied to electricity. And to think, a book written well before he was born, turned into a movie planted that seed. And here we are today getting to plant new seeds. And maybe that's a good place to then back up and ask for both of you. What is the Bakken Museum? How would you describe what the museum is and what its places in our community?

 Alissa Light  05:52

Well, I'll start and then I'll look to my colleague, Adrian as well. But you know, to me, the Bakken Museum is an incubator for innovation. It's a place where people can come and feel a sense of connection to each other, feel a sense of wonder and curiosity. We really invite people through the museum experience to explore and keep an open mind just as Earl would about the many different modes and ways we might come at innovation. We invite people to think about and connect to their own lived experience and personal story and really see that as a formative part of being an innovator. And I think, you know, the Bakken Museum is also it's a it's a community — well, it's a community museum. So we see ourselves as a place where many different people can find a place and a sense of belonging in the museum. But we don't stop there. We also look to really our founding route with Earl's tinkering habits and sense of failure and ready fire aim concept. And we really imbue that in our education programs. So we have leading edge education programs, both on site in our maker space in the museum and science studios, which is free with the price of admission, really weekend experience at the museum, as well as our summer camp program, which explores really project based open ended inquiry hands-on STEM invention for young kids. And then we take that model, and we bring it out. So we do workshops in schools around the state, actually 43 counties, 150 school partners, 20,000 kids. And we bring workshops and residencies that invite laughter and science theater and hands-on experience in these core STEM concepts that I think informs some baseline STEM literacy and STEM confidence. And even more than that, a STEM mindset, which is to us a mindset that's open to failure and iteration, and celebrates that process of problem solving. What I didn't talk about though, which I would love for Adrian to talk about is our incredible rare book and artifacts collection, which is an incredible heart of the Bakken Museum.

 Frank Jaskulke  08:13

Yeah, please.

 Adrian Fischer  08:14

And that's yeah, thank you. I appreciate that. And that's actually the origin of the institution is the collections. So Earl Bakken in the early Medtronic days started a collecting program, collecting rare books and artifacts, medical devices. Really, the scope of the collection was the history of electricity of magnetism, and the intersection with that in the life sciences and medicine. So that comes straight out of his interest for Frankenstein, right. And so this was first housed at Medtronic. So it was a small team that would kind of acquire these pieces. And the basic idea for starting this collecting program and initiating that collection really was to take a look at what had been tried in the past, what had been done in the past, what had been written about in the past, and think about and be curious about those kinds of things. And think about where we may take some of those concepts in the future, right. And so it was not just for Medtronic employees, but it was for Medtronic employees for sure, as well. But anybody who was interested, anybody who kind of was interested in that kind of topic, to come and really get their hands on. Again, he was a hands on emphasis, I think, that is so important to understand Earl and those early Medtronic days and kind of his philosophy. Really, we tried to get people you know, can use and do research or look at pretty pictures, I sometimes say. We try to make that all happen, right? So the collections are open to the public. Anybody can come and do research in those collections. So we have about 2,600 artifacts, objects, and about 11,000 books and manuscripts that kind of span quite a few centuries, so to speak. Where do you see those today getting used the most? Is it still the the technical community? Is it the research community? Or how is that collection would you say being use today? It really varies widely. There's some technical aspects people do come and look at things and, you know, think about okay, what did they try to do back then? How did it look like? You know, what did they put together? You know. And we want to maybe apply similar concept, you know, and then kind of get inspired by some of those things. But we also worked and do work with a lot of artists, you know, that look at, you know, to approach us, you know, to health, you know, to well being, and those kinds of things, right. And it's very interesting that maybe you've got photographers, and maybe writers, you know. It's really broad. We also have worked with kids, you know, working on their History Day projects. So really get them some original kind of content, you know, essentially that they can look at, and use for their projects, whatever that may be. So we're really open for anybody to come and kind of see what they're interested in, and then kind of helping them in making it happen, and providing them with the kind of the resources that we have.

 Frank Jaskulke  11:22

I love that. It's a beautiful impact. I mean, I think if I come back to the Frankenstein piece for a moment, that would see man face and I can remember reading it as a kid, I can remember seeing like the Robert De Niro movie as a kid. How science fictiony it seemed, right, like, oh, that's absurd. And then fast forward to today, and how many applications there are of using electrical stimulation to treat conditions and how advanced it is now getting, you know, when we talk about like neuromodulation and bioelectronic medicine, that spark truly was inspirational and has created impact for probably hundreds of millions of people. I'm curious then, you started talking a little bit about the educational programs. Could either of you expand a bit more on those and the the impact they're having? And maybe for the listeners who might have kids in school today, what they should know about them if they want to take advantage of them? 

 Alissa Light  12:23

Yes, yeah. You know, and I love what you said. The Bakken Museum is inspired by imagination. And I think science fiction has offered us a way to really marry the power of narrative change and imagination and vision and dream. And then we can also see how that's made manifest the pathways for incredible technological innovations in our Medical Alley community and beyond. And I think that that does inform the seed planting that we started with is what our education programs I think really root themselves into. And that seed planting is both a sense of confidence, so I am confident in my ability to come up with a project that's meaningful to me, to use tools like soldering irons and band saws, and make electrical circuits. And I'm confident in my ability to mess it up and try again and ask for help from my friends in this camp, to the educators who are here in the makerspace with me. And at the end, I'm going to be confident in sharing what I invented. And so our education programs use an innovation philosophy of wonder, try, discover, share. And we invite young people to see how through that process, they can not only build their sense of the concepts in STEM, but what's most important is that mindset that is about, I can innovate, and I can iterate and I can get things wrong, and I can keep improving. And the resilience is really underpinning what we want to see through these pathways so that as young kids maybe starting in second grade and experiencing a Bakken camp, coming back in fourth grade for a field trip with their schools, then welcoming our Bakken staff through our outreach education programs in their middle school where we do residencies and workshops, and then they come back and they serve as a summer camp counselor in their high school years. And then they go on to college, some of whom go on to work at Medtronic, some of whom go on to start their own tech companies and everywhere in between. And so we're walking alongside young people in their journey. And the idea in our education programs is that we're supporting the mindset and the capacity to continue and persevere in a STEM field, and ultimately in a thriving life because we think all of these skills actually come down to supporting you to live a thriving and vibrant life. But I will just say that the maker space summer camp programs are some of the most incredible education tools I've ever seen, because the kids are using truly hands on tools and project based exploration to come up with something that they make for themselves that's relevant to them. And I think in our STEM education models, we sometimes forget how important that relevance connection is to sustaining someone who hasn't perhaps historically seen themselves as a part of STEM to start to see themselves as a part of STEM. I belong because this is relevant to me. And I've been invited to think about how my own relevance is actually very valuable in STEM as well.

 Frank Jaskulke  15:40

You know, I almost feel like we should run some of those for the companies. That wonder, that perseverance, that willingness to fail, there might be a few of our corporate members who would find that, I think invigorating and useful for their teams as well. I'm curious though, you've then also got the exhibitions going on drawing from the collection. Maybe a really basic question, Adrian, to start, there's probably some of our listeners who don't know what it means to curate or to be a curator. Could you tell 'em what is a curator? And then could you talk about how do you approach it? How does the Bakken Museum approach curating exhibits for the broader community?

 Adrian Fischer  16:21

Yeah, this is a very good question. A curator role, starting with the collection, it's really about, you know, managing the collections, kind of preserving the collections, right. We want to make sure that these pieces that we have are, you know, going to be preserved for generations to come. We also, of course, take on new items into the collection. So collection also changes over time, right, and a curator is kind of there to guide that kind of development of a collection. With exhibits, it's really, the question really comes down to relevancy, and what we can provide that as relevant to the community. Sometimes, you know, it's broader. It talks about innovation and inspiration in general, right? It's just essentially an outlet for people to kind of try things out and be curious about the world or principles or those kinds of things. Sometimes, it's really just providing pieces from the past that people can kind of be inspired by, can look at, can think of like, what they did in the past, who used it, you know, what is the social cultural context, essentially, for those pieces. We also, of course, you know, understanding that, you know, stem has predominantly, you know, has been predominantly male and white, you know, we also want to kind of, you know, inspire people essentially through exhibits, to feel they belong also in that field. People of colorm women, other kind of, you know, diverse kind of aspects of, you know, of the field. And also finding, of course, these stories within kind of the history of science technology that are inspirational, right, that are not being told, right, that are quite often forgotten. And so, you know, finding those stories, presenting them, and I think that's also a huge kind of part of what we were trying to do.

 Frank Jaskulke  18:22

I mean, I'm hearing a theme from both of you of storytelling, and of providing new storylines for our community and for our industry. And that deeply resonates. When I think back to the history in the founding of Medical Alley, which Earl Bakken was involved with, Governor Perpich, and then a guy named Lee Berlin, who came out of 3M. What they really wanted to do was to change the story that this state told about itself to the world to be the state that took care of people, delivered better health care, whether it was through care delivery, or payment models, or technology innovation. And, you know, we're coming up on our 40th anniversary. And we're realizing how powerful that storytelling can be. If we tell ourselves as a community a story of decline, we will decline. If we tell ourselves a story of opportunity and growth and that we can change things, we will grow and we will change things. And I'm hearing this theme of whether through the exhibits or the educational programs at the Bakken Museum, providing those storylines, providing inspiration from our history, but making it relevant to people today. I mean, it's very inspiring. And so, Alissa, I'm wondering, as you all approach that 50th anniversary, what do you think about the future vision of the museum? How does, you know, not that you can project the future but how does the next 50 years look for the Bakken Museum?

 Alissa Light  20:00

Thank you for that question. Yeah, I think for us at the Bakken Museum, when we dream into the future, what we imagine is more and more people finding themselves, feeling inspired, awake, open, imagining another world that's possible that we can do through innovation, we can do that through our sense of connection to each other. And we can do that, I think, through a path of wonder and curiosity. And so, you know, really, I think, in our next 50 years, the Bakken Museum continues to awaken the innovator inside of each of us. And that each of us is more intersectional, is more far reaching. There's more young kids of color, more trans and queer kids, more kids with many different abilities, more neurodivergent kids, more families, more people who really light up at the idea of their own inherent innovator. And we have so many portals in to have people see themselves in that big, bold world. And we have such complex problems that I think you know, so many of our Medical Alley partners are looking to solve, the Bakken Museum is trying to, you know, stand in alignment to solve some really big societal and cultural challenges through this concept of innovation. And to us, the way we do that in a more and more and more inclusive way is centering folks who have been most marginalized to really see themselves in the center. And so 50 years from now, we're going to be doing that in bigger, bolder ways that we couldn't even imagine because it's going to be co created with the people that we partner with and the people that we grow our programs in collaboration with.

 Frank Jaskulke  21:56

Right on. Well, maybe last think I'll ask, then, for each of you, you know, we're we're still early in the year when we're recording this right, right at the end of February. We've got a whole bunch of stuff coming up this year. I'm curious, what are each of you most looking forward to at the museum this year? What should we be on the lookout for, make sure not to miss?

 Adrian Fischer  22:18

Actually, we're doing a book club that's quite exciting. So we're reading a book, 'We are Electric' is what it's called. And we will supplement essentially the reading with pieces from the collection to give us context. And to kind of talk about more, you know, other you know, principles or concepts that are related to the book. So that's usually very exciting. It's a very intimate kind of atmosphere. And so that's usually a highlight from our perspective. We're also currently working on an experiential plan. So we're thinking about ahead, you know, 5, 10 years, what our spaces kind of will, you know, look like, what they can be used for, you know, what else can we kind of do? Who can we partner with to achieve all the things that Alissa just mentioned, right? Because there's way more out there that still we can kind of, you know, connect to and kind of, you know, work with and that, you know, we can't do it all ourselves, right. So yeah, and there's a couple of fun events, obviously, happening for the public as well.

 Alissa Light  23:24

I can't wait to I need to order my book club book. Are there seats still left?

 Adrian Fischer  23:30

Yes, there are still some seats left.

 Alissa Light  23:34

You know, I love every single season at the Bakken Museum because our campus is so profound. So we have restored wetlands, we have a green roof, we have a medicinal garden. And of course, it's you know, the vibrancy that you experience on the gardens and grounds in the summer is just profound, but every season just takes takes the outside world and brings it into the museum and vice versa in different ways. But I must say I'm really looking forward to the summer season when you can walk through the wetlands and see how they're transforming as the environment changes. We have Cooper's hawks that visit us, we have bees and an active set of beehives that beekeepers keep, and of course the medicinal garden which is named for Earl Bakken's mother Florence, is one of the most I think, hidden gems in the city. And so I would love for listeners to know, you know, every season at the Bakken Museum is a great time to visit and the gardens and grounds are just an additional experience in the summer that is really worth the trip. You can bring lunch and sit in the medicinal garden. And then we have we're doing our third year of our big sort of not gala gala fundraiser on August 17. And that is a really amazing event to kind of showcase the whole museum. Many staff are a part of coming up with activities, hands on activities for grownups. And Adrian always curates something really fun that he pulls out of the collection for people to experience. So it's a way to really tap into the many different forms that the Bakken Museum takes, as well as support the community museum aspect.

 Frank Jaskulke  25:24

And you said August 17. Perfect. Yeah, folks, if you're out there, make sure to check it out. You know, if you don't support the institutions that have supported your community, we don't have this community in the future. And so I think that's a really good place to wrap it up. Alissa, Adrian, I gotta say, thank you so much for sharing a little bit more of the story of the Bakken Museum and its connection to the broader Medical Alley community.

 Alissa Light  25:47

Thank you so much, Frank. 

 Adrian Fischer  25:49

Thank you Frank. Appreciate it.

 Frank Jaskulke  25:50

And folks, that's been another episode of the Medical Alley podcast. If you're not already a subscriber, and how could you not be by this point? Then you need to get over to, or you can find us on Apple, Spotify, now on our YouTube channel, or anywhere else you find good podcasts. And hey, would you do me a favor? Would you share this episode with one other person? If everyone listening did that we'd help spread this story in so many other incredible stories coming out of your community so much further. I'd really appreciate it. Until next time, have a great day.