It’s second nature for scientists-in-training to discuss their research with peers and mentors, but explaining complex scientific ideas to non-scientists can be daunting. Case in point: Titto Augustine, a senior postdoc at Einstein doing colorectal cancer research in Dr. Sanjay Goel’s lab. “I’m passionate about my work” he confided, “but when I try to talk about it with my family, their eyes glaze over.”
Recently, Dr. Augustine and Ph.D. candidates Melinda Ng, Esther Ndungo, Sabryia Stukes, Marika Osterbur, Julie Nadel and Saima Limi rose to the challenge. They presented their research projects to “everyday” people at the Bronx Science Consortium’s (BSC) second annual poster symposium.
Hosted by the Bronx Science Consortium—whose partners include Fordham University, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Montefiore, the New York Botanical Garden and Einstein—the event was held at the WCS’s Bronx Zoo. The Zoo’s Dancing Crane Pavilion became an exotic outdoor gallery where families with strollers mingled with strolling peacocks on a clear, sunny day. Visitors listened intently as the presenters—who also included 37 graduate and undergraduate students from Fordham and students from other universities affiliated with the partner institutions—described their work in lay-friendly language.
The event kicked off with an interactive warm-up session led by keynote speaker Bricken Sparacino. An accomplished actor, director and playwright, Ms. Sparacino is program coordinator for the Central Park Zoo education department’s Wildlife Theater program. She uses acting, theater and dance as “a kinesthetic bridge” to get school children, teens and adults engaged and excited about science. And she shows researchers how to communicate to a variety of audiences “without dumbing down the content.”
Against a backdrop of acrobatic antics performed by African Wolf’s monkeys in the mandrill forest visible behind the glassed-in classroom walls, Ms. Sparacino offered practical tips to the young investigators for giving an effective presentation of their work.
Using the learning-by-doing principles of kinesthetic education, she got the students up and moving. First, she had them explain their projects to the group in two sentences, using clear, simple words and body language aimed at capturing listeners’ attention and curiosity. She then asked volunteers to act out improvisational scenarios illustrating typical “don’ts” such as lack of eye contact, pacing, and talking too softly, and suggested ways to remedy these presentation faux pas.
“The Consortium has expanded the world for our Ph.D. students,” noted Dr. Victoria Freedman, Einstein’s associate dean for graduate programs in biomedical sciences and co-director of the BSC’s Communication of Science Collaborative along with Fordham’s Dr. Amy Tuininga. “Knowing how to explain science to people with no science background will benefit them throughout their careers.”
“Only 40 percent of graduate students will end up with the kinds of careers their professors have, so it’s important to have diverse skills,” added Dr. Tuininga, who is associate dean for strategic initiatives, partnerships & assessment at Fordham’s graduate school of arts and sciences, and also serves as Fordham’s co-director of the BSC.
“We need to talk about our work to the general public,” added Ms. Ng, who along with Ms. Ndungo is studying a novel European filo virus and comparing it to the Ebola virus. “If people understand the value of our research, they might help push for more funding.”
The Association of American Medical Colleges recently presented the BSC’s Communication of Life Sciences Collaborative Program its Building Bridges and Spanning Boundaries Award: Innovations in Research and Research Education. The honor recognizes those whose programs focus on institution-community partnerships and maximize research efficiency. Einstein and it BSC collaborators were among six programs recognized, along with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Washington University School of Medicine, University of Utah, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.
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