The 10 undergraduate students in the 2017 NIEHS Scholars Connect Program (NSCP) took to the podium in Rodbell Auditorium Nov. 17 to demonstrate their ability to effectively explain their research to a general audience.
This was the first year the program held the contest, which was hosted by the Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED). The so-called elevator speech format had participants speak for three minutes without notes before a panel of five judges, following a set presentation order. The competition is modeled after an internationally popular competition, the Three-minute Thesis Presentation.
“It was incredible to see the growth of our scholars as communicators,” said Suchandra Bhattacharjee, Ph.D., NSCP coordinator. “We are immensely proud of each of them, and thankful to our amazing team of mentors, who work tirelessly to make a difference.”
A close contest
The winner was Dhruv Shankar, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), who is majoring in biomedical engineering. His research focuses on the connections between variations in a gene called RMRP and problems in replication of mitochondrial DNA.
“This definitely means a lot to me,” said Shankar. “I appreciate the chance to talk about my project and help others understand what it is I’m passionate about.” Shankar added that he practiced his speech once for his lab partners, and a couple of times for the geese in the pond outside the cafeteria just before the contest.
Shankar’s mentor is Shepherd Schurman, M.D., associate medical director of the NIEHS Clinical Research Unit. “Dhruv has been a wonderful student,” said Schurman. “I think he’s going to be an excellent physician, as well as a great scientist.”
The voting was so close that an unplanned Honorable Mention was awarded to Simrat Arora, a senior biology major at UNC. Arora is researching the allergenic properties of the cockroach protein, Bla g 1. She is mentored by Lalith Perera, Ph.D., who leads the Computational Chemistry and Molecular Modeling Support Group.
NSCP goals and process
OSED Director Ericka Reid, Ph.D., said NSCP was created in 2012 to encourage students from underrepresented backgrounds to go into science, technology, engineering, and math, and more specifically, into environmental health sciences. Up to 10 interns are paid to conduct lab research during the school year and in the summer. They receive hands-on training and mentorship in biomedical research at NIEHS.
Each year, the student-scientists participate in a bootcamp to introduce them to NIEHS and laboratory work. Then, with the help of their mentors, each defines a project, constructs and tests a hypothesis, analyzes the results, draws conclusions, and reports the results.
“I thought all of our young scholars did a terrific job,” Reid said. “Learning effective communication skills will be essential for them going forward in their careers as scientists and health professionals.”
This year’s students are from UNC, Duke University, North Carolina State University, North Carolina Central University, and St. Augustine’s University.
(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison)