SBU shines a light on postdoc research

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Five minutes never went so quickly.

In that time, Stony Brook University postdoctoral scholars explained their research to cure infections caused by antibiotic-resistant yeast; design the perfect metal for medical implants; reduce occurrences of Lyme disease in Hispanic landscapers; develop lifelong habits of taste; predict suicide more accurately; and recreate the conditions of the Earth’s core, among others.

The annual Postdoc Spotlight, organized by SBU’s Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, gave willing postdocs 300 seconds to explain their research to a general audience. While many academic research events feature poster sessions and highly technical explanations, this program deliberately focused on a broader, and possibly more challenging, audience.

“I have a powerful fear of public speaking; I was afraid that the audience would be able to hear my heart beat through the microphone,” said Dr. Hillary Schiff, a postdoc in SBU’s Department of Neurobiology and Behavior. “As a scientist, communicating ideas and findings to an audience is a required part of the job. I wanted to participate in the spotlight for the opportunity to practice public speaking, for the free coaching, and for the chance to share my work.”

Most scientists recognize the need to communicate their science; communication is a core component of the definition of research. Yet what it means to communicate science often varies for each scientist.

“All postdocs know that the key to being a good scientist is being able to give a good talk. But that’s really hard,” said Dr. Kathleen Flint Ehm, office director. “The way that they think about their graphics and the framing of their talk for a general audience is the opposite of what they are trained to do. They are not trying to convince their peers that what they did is right and should be integrated into their field. A general audience wants to hear their story and what they bring to their science. They need to start the talk with what they didn’t know.”

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Ehm started the Postdoc Spotlight in 2014 with help from SBU’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. The Alda Center’s unique brand of communication training helps scientists and other researchers to explain their work clearly and vividly to a wide variety of audiences. The training helps speakers work to empathize with their audience and tailor their presentations accordingly.

“I have spent years refining what to say when people ask me about my research. Over time, I have been able to paint a better picture, but it still typically takes 30 minutes to explain all the pieces,” said Dr. Kevin Sackel, a postdoc with appointments in SBU’s Department of Mathematics and the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics. “I decided to do the Postdoc Spotlight for three reasons: one, to force myself to find a coherent narrative for my research that is accessible to the public; two, because I think even the most abstract math research has beautiful and engaging aspects that should be shared with the public; and, three, because I thought it would be challenging and I love a good challenge.”

This year, Ehm, who has taught communicating science for the Alda Center for four years, led the training sessions herself. Each postdoc could attend up to three sessions to practice their talks and get feedback from Ehm and their peers.

“Communicating your science means making it accessible to the general public without compromising the importance and attractiveness of your results,” said Dr. Paola Cepeda, a postdoc at the SBU Graduate School and an adjunct professor in the Department of Linguistics. “The training we received on science communication can be applied to this event and to our teaching, our grant applications, our pop-science articles, and our conversations with friends and family about the great things we do.”

The event is open to any SBU postdoc. This year, scholars from a variety of fields, including linguistics, geosciences, psychiatry and math, participated. In keeping with national trends, most of the participants, and most postdocs in the country, are working in biomedical sciences.

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In addition to the experience of giving a general talk to an audience of about 75 people, the postdocs were competing for cash prizes, provided by SBU’s Office of the Vice President for Research. The judges were SBU postdocs who previously competed in the Spotlight.

Cepeda took first place for her talk, “Untying the (k)Not: Understanding Negation.” Her research seeks to identify patterns that express negation across languages.

Schiff and Sackel tied for second place. Schiff’s talk was “You Are What You Ate,” and focused on how mice seem to have a window of time when they are young to develop an adventurous sense of taste. Sackel, who earned his bachelor’s at SBU in 2013, gave a talk, “Putting the Pieces Together,” which discussed his work on breaking up large complicated objects, belonging to a field called contact geometry, into simple standard blocks.

But more important, for Ehm, than the competition or the prize money was the experience the postdocs gained that will help them for life.

“The skills that they are learning through this event are critical, and will stay with them throughout their careers,” Ehm said. “These skills will help them to become faculty members. They will help them to teach undergraduates. They will help them in job interviews with a dean who isn’t in their specialty. This will help them with grant applications where the review board isn’t in their specialty. It will help them to be advocates and mentors. It will help them to talk to funders and explain why their work is worth funding.”