Andy Larkin was the second place winner in the April 2013 Scholar’s Insight competition sponsored by the Oregon State University Graduate School. He is an Oregon State University graduate student in both toxicology and statistics. His major professors are David Williams of the Linus Pauling Institute and William Baird of the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology. Andy shares here what he’s learned about communicating science to the public. Below that is a link to the video of his three-minute presentation at the competition.
That’s how I began my presentation, and it was also the best self-advice I could give as I looked out onto the audience. Sitting in the first few rows were my peers: grad students and fellow competitors in the Scholar’s Insight competition. Most of them looked like they could benefit from a slow, relaxing deep breath as well. The rest of the audience, however, was a mixture of mentors and professors; members of the general public; and in the far right of the room, back near the entrance: my mom.
Fuzzy neural networks
How in the world could I explain my research to people with such diverse backgrounds? . . . In three minutes!
In my first year as a grad student, I had relied on dazzling catch-phrases, such as “fuzzy neural networks,” “Gaussian distribution functions,” and “mobile technology informatics,” as a means of generating excitement for my research. I soon found, however, that the only one getting excited by my descriptions was myself. With each technical term I used, I began to realize, people would glance at a clock, as if they were considering the soonest possible moment it would be socially acceptable to change topics – or escape.
Pretend you’re the audience
How does a researcher share the passion, excitement, and potential of their research in a way that might elicit the interest of others?
Naomi Hirsch, project coordinator of the Superfund Research Program translation group at Oregon State University, gladly shared a tactic with me:
“Pretend you’re an audience member. How would you like someone else to share their research with you?”
With the help of Naomi, here’s the list I came up with:
- Make it personal to the audience
- Convey my passion and excitement about the research
- Offer pauses to let important information sink in
- Practice enough to make a presentation feel smooth, but not so much that it lacks spontaneity and excitement
- Practice with and get feedback from people who are not experts in the field
Can I go through it again?
“Three minutes, 20 seconds. Getting better,” my roommate, Morgan Erhardt, optimistically announced at the end of my 70th (okay, maybe seventh) practice run for the Scholar’s Insight competition.
“Thanks. Can I go through it again?”
His head gave a short curt nod. But his eyes darted around the room, betraying his polite manner and showing that his patience and obligations as a roommate were nearly up.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention one of the most important components of preparing a presentation: think about what you want to say before you say it.
Practice run eight. Here it goes:
Air pollution has a negative impact on everyone’s health, but there are some people such as those with asthma who are particularly sensitive to air pollution. The number of people with asthma, especially children, is increasing, and the types of air pollution that can trigger an asthma attack differ from person to person.
I want to give people with asthma the power to work with their doctors and identify what sort of air conditions trigger an asthma attack for them. I also want to warn people if they’re in, or heading towards, a place with air quality that might trigger an asthma attack. That’s why I developed an app . . . *
“Alright, Morgan. Start the timer again.”
If I can generate excitement and hope for even one person in the audience about my research, then all of my practices are well worth the time . . . for me. (If you ask Morgan, he might disagree.)
One mark of success: my mom, a savvy professional but not a scientist, now understands what I’ve been up to.
Many thanks to Dr. David Williams, Dr. William Baird, Naomi Hirsch, Jana Zvibleman, and the Superfund Research Program Trainee Program.
by Andy Larkin