Prof. John Pollock on winning Emmys for promoting sleep

Photo courtesy John Pollock.
Photo courtesy John Pollock.
Photo courtesy John Pollock.

By Kailey Love | The Duquesne Duke

John Pollock, a biology professor at Duquesne, recently was awarded two Mid-Atlantic Region Emmys for creating a TV show on health literacy. We caught up with him to find out how it feels to win two Emmys and to delve into the subject matter of his award-winning show.

Q: First, I’d like to congratulate you on your dual Emmy win for your creation of the program, “Are You Sleeping? Dormez Vous?” Can you explain what this is, exactly?
A: This is a TV show, broadcast on public television stations nationwide, designed to be fun and interesting for kids who are about 10 to 14. That actually addresses a big gap in public television; we have lots of great shows for little kids, but nothing there for what’s called “tween” kids. So we designed a science-based show that doesn’t really come in heavy-handed on science. It’s more like a drama for kids, and one of the key things is that we really wanted to tap into the worldview of a 12-year-old. That’s the real trick, to figure out what’s important to them, and then to show them that science is happening every day, all around them.

Q: So what inspired the creation of this video on the subject matter of sleep deprivation occurring in tweens?
A: Well, I’ve always known that sleep was important – I’m a neuroscientist and I study how the neuro system works and I know that different patterns of sleep are critical for learning and memory. There was a radio show by Terry Gross several years ago talking about sleep in teens and kids, it was stunning that the studies on kids were showing how big a difference sleep and lack thereof makes. This show kicked me into saying, “People need to know this,” and the audience that really needs to know it are the people who need it the most, which are kids.

Q: How do you think the program will help children to realize how important sleep is to them?
A: In the show we try to depict it as not just a problem for the kids, but ultimately a problem for the whole family. Everyone has an issue for why they aren’t sleeping – the little brother is playing too many video games, the heroine of the show is worried about her academic performance and studying all night, the mom is an astronomer who has to stay up at night but isn’t taking enough naps and drinking too much caffeine, the dad is stressed about work. We felt the need to depict real-world issues, and ultimately the family realizes that they can all change their behavior and strive to have quality sleep.

Q: What do you think is causing sleep deprivation in children?
A: Number one would be technology, and parents not recognizing that they can be the adult and say “time to put that down and go to bed.” When you’re a kid that’s gotten a phone, you think that you’ve got this 24-hour conversation and if you don’t uphold your end of the deal, you’ll be ostracized. Lots of studies are showing that kids are texting through the night, and that isn’t quality sleep. That wrecks your learning and your ability to have control of your emotions. These are things that are so important to teens. And this is also true for college students – there is a lot drawing on college students’ time and energy, and a desire to stay up way later than you really should. Pulling all-nighters is not the way to study. Your brain actually needs the sleep. Every aspect of what you’re trying to do in college will be bettered if you figure out what’s really a good night’s sleep, and if you’re not getting it – take a nap.

Q: Did you ever think when you created this it would be winning two Emmys?
A: No, simply no. I strive to produce high quality things regardless of what we are doing. With a TV show, the challenge is that I want kids to watch it; I want families to watch it. If it doesn’t look as good as anything else on TV, people will immediately dismiss it. We [the whole team] put a lot of time and effort into making it, so it’s a real vindication to win the awards, it’s delightful.