Fifteen trainees at NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) took up the challenge to distill their biomedical research into a three-minute, plain language summary. The audience cheered the high-energy and often fascinating presentations that provided glimpses into a range of biomedical research topics, cutting-edge techniques, and impacts on public health.
As the latest in the popular Big Picture, Small Talk event, the Feb. 16 competition tasked the scientists with describing their work in language that a general audience would understand. In keeping with that theme, the participants were judged by a panel of volunteers from across the institute.
Three winners were chosen, and each will receive a travel award to attend the conference of her or his choice.
- Lee Langer, Ph.D., Chromatin and Gene Expression Group, Epigenetics and Stem Cell Biology Laboratory (ESCBL)
- Priya Jayaraman, Ph.D., Immunogenetics Group, Immunity, Inflammation, and Disease Laboratory (IIDL)
- David Scoville, Ph.D., Cell Biology Group, IIDL
Tammy Collins, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Office of Fellows Career Development, congratulated all participants on an outstanding job. “It was great to see so many take advantage of this opportunity to polish an important skill that doesn’t always get the attention it should. By that, I mean explaining to a lay audience the nature and importance of your research,” Collins said. “In an age of social media, there are lots of ways to spread the word about environmental health research, and it is critical to give people information they can understand.”
Trainees are not the only ones to benefit. “As someone who doesn’t come from a science background, I find the Big Picture, Small Talk series to be extremely insightful,” said Ian Thomas, from the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison, who served as a judge. “At only three minutes in length, these talks challenged the speakers to tackle the meat of why their research matters, while at the same time pressing them to explain that in a way that doesn’t require a Ph.D. to understand.”
So, what type of research do you work on?
The challenge was framed as a simple question, one that a relative, neighbor, or new acquaintance might ask. Add in the other two topics they were asked to address — the broader impact on society and what the presenter has gained personally from the experience — and the challenge might well seem impossible.
Yet all contenders (see sidebar) rose to the occasion. Some spoke without notes, and many opened with an attention-grabbing hook.
One trainee had only a 24-hour notice. “I found out yesterday, when someone else had to cancel,” said Simone Otto, Ph.D., from the Neurobiology Laboratory (NL). Otto discussed her new project studying how the Zika virus affects neural stem cells in the hippocampus, a region of the brain. Her presentation was as smooth and compelling as the others, aided perhaps by her experience explaining research in nontechnical terms as a volunteer writer for the Environmental Factor.
Thomas underscored the level of competition. “Picking three winners out of the fifteen who presented was a real challenge,” he said. “All of the talks were wonderful, and in the end, the three we chose were separated from the rest by a points margin that was barely in the single digits. That’s how tight these folks were. They were really, really impressive.”
This is the second year of the challenge, and similar challenges have been offered to summer interns at the institute, and participants in the recent Environmental Health Sciences FEST.