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Postdoc Spotlight Illuminates Cutting-Edge Research

Paola Cepeda

Five minutes never went so quickly.

Hillary Schiff, Neurobiology and Behavior
Hillary Schiff, Neurobiology and Behavior,

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 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.”

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.

Paola Cepeda
Paola Cepeda, Graduate School and Linguistics,

“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.”

— Lori Kie


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