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Engaging Research at the 2022 SBU Postdoc Spotlight

Postdoc spotlight 2022 winners
Postdoc spotlight 2022 winners
The winners of the 2022 Postdoc Spotlight: Rafael Lengacher (third place), Tianqi Xie (first place) and Julie Burrill (second place).

A full house cheered 10 Stony Brook University postdoctoral scholars at the SBU Postdoc Spotlight, which was held in person — for the first time since before the pandemic — November 17 at the Charles B. Wang Center.

Postdoc speakers regaled the audience with short, five-minute presentations on their research while vying for awards for best talk. The talks were unique because speakers designed them for anyone to understand their complicated research — an important skill for any researcher who may attempt to explain their work to friends and family during this holiday season.  

Much like the popular forensics TV shows cited by second-place winner Julie Burrill from the Alda Center for Communicating Science, the Spotlight placed science in a larger context that connected to the audience’s common experience, and was often entertaining, too. The talks spanned a range of disciplines and topics, from promising new treatments for Parkinson’s disease to exploring Mars and Mercury from the comfort of our own labs to finding new ways to understand the most fundamental sub-atomic particles.

First-place winner Tianqi Xie, postdoc in the Department of Geosciences, shared how common rocks like feldspar can tell an exciting tale of meteor impacts and the conditions for forming life on other planets. Raphael Lengacher, postdoc in the Department of Chemistry and third-place winner, explained how he’s developing a groundbreaking new technique that can find cancer tumor locations with the resourcefulness of a carrier pigeon. Each talk also provided some insight into future breakthroughs, such as Burrill’s finding that using forensic touch DNA is not nearly as straightforward as those popular TV shows would have us believe. 

Postdoc spotlight 2022 group
The 10 scholars who participated in 2022 SBU Postdoc Spotlight November 17 in the Wang Center.

Postdoc speakers spent weeks crafting their talks with coaching from their peers and from the Director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, Kathleen Flint Ehm. 

“While the Postdoc Spotlight is technically a competition,” Ehm said, “the focus of our coaching and, indeed, the event itself, is on professional development. Explaining why your research is cool is a foundational skill for our postdocs, who are the leaders and innovators of tomorrow.” 

The SBU Postdoc Spotlight is hosted annually by the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, with sponsorship from the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Center for Inclusive Education. Like the Three Minute Thesis competition, which Ehm also leads, the Spotlight is an opportunity to draw these early-career trainees out of their departments and create community around their research.

“It’s so tempting for researchers to hunker down in their libraries or labs, but the Spotlight showed how much postdocs and the public have to gain when experts share their work with a general audience,” said Celia Marshik, interim dean of the Graduate School and vice provost for Graduate Education.  “The participants had clearly bonded across their disciplines, forming a community they hadn’t had during the previous years of the pandemic. And those of us in the audience learned so much about cutting-edge research on campus.” 

But above all, the Spotlight is fun. Xie agreed, adding, “The most fun part in my experience is not just studying and showing the impact of the natural impact event, but seeing the impact on the audience when the science is communicated properly.”

View video of the talks at stonybrook.edu/postdocs/spotlight.

2022 SBU Postdoc Spotlight Speakers:

Kaushik Mitra, Geosciences
Early Mars: Red & Dead or Green & Clean 

Zennur Sekendiz, Department of Medicine, World Trade Center Health Program
Understanding the Change in the Minds of 911 First Responders after COVID 19  

Indhu Varatharajan, Geosciences
Recreating the Surface of Planet Mercury on Earth 

Hassane Hamdaoui, Physics and Astronomy
Light Under the Spotlight 

Julie Burrill, Alda Center for Communicating Science (2nd Place)
Where is the DNA in forensic “Touch DNA?” 

Wenliang (Bill) Li, Physics and Astronomy
Seeing the Proton from Behind 

Athmanathan Senthilnathan, Ecology and Evolution
What Can Plant-Soil Interactions Tell Us About Forests? 

Tianqi Xie, Geosciences (1st Place)
The Impact of the Impact: What Does the Rock Say? 

Aswathy BS, Neurobiology and Behavior
The Rhythm of the Brain and Movement 

Raphael Lengacher, Chemistry (3rd Place)
The Search for Cancer – From a Needle in a Haystack to a Bright Flare

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