Department of Biology hosts second annual Science Slam

Department of Biology hosts second annual Science Slam

Eight biology contestants get one slide and three minutes to explain their research and impress their listeners.

Raleigh McElvery | Department of Biology
April 30, 2019

Trainees recently took over the Tuesday Biology Colloquium for the second annual Science Slam, hosted by MIT’s Department of Biology. Topics ranged from the science behind cancer metastasis to parasites, hangovers, and, notably, poop.

A science slam features a series of short presentations where researchers explain their work in a compelling manner, and — as the name suggests — make an impact. These presentations aren’t just talks, they’re performances geared towards a science-literate but non-specialized public audience. In this case, competitors were each given one slide and three minutes to tell their scientific tales and earn votes from audience members and judges.

The latter included Mary Carmichael, founder and CEO of the strategic communications consultancy Quark 4; John Pham, editor-in-chief of Cell; and Ari Daniel, an independent science reporter who crafts digital videos for PBS NOVA and co-produces the Boston branch of Story Collider.

Among the competitors were six graduate students and two postdocs who hailed from labs scattered throughout Building 68, the Whitehead Institute, and the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. In order of appearance:

  • Rebecca Silberman, from Angelika Amon’s lab, who spoke about how there is something special about cancer cells that allows them to thrive with the wrong number of chromosomes;
  • Tyler Smith, from Sebastian Lourido’s lab, who spoke about his organism of choice, Toxoplasma gondii, and how these parasites provide insights into fundamental biology that classic “model” organisms do not;
  • Jasmin Imran Alsous, from Adam Martin’s lab, who spoke about the coordinated cellular interactions required for fruit fly egg development;
  • Darren Parker, from Gene-Wei Li’s lab, who spoke about the ratio of ingredients needed to concoct nature’s winning recipe for the perfect cell;
  • Sophia Xu, from Jing-Ke Weng’s lab, who spoke about the molecules responsible for the kudzu flower’s capacity to alleviate hangovers;
  • Jay Thangappan, from Silvi Rouskin’s lab, who spoke about the importance of RNA structure in splicing and its consequences for many important biological processes;
  • Lindsey Backman, from Catherine Drennan’s lab, who spoke about the biochemical processes carried out by gut bacteria that make poop smell bad; and
  • Arish Shah, from Eliezer Calo’s lab, who spoke about how developing zebrafish clear maternally-contributed molecules and replace them with their own, thus becoming “independent from mom.”

The event was moderated by former Slammers, postdoc Monika Avello and graduate student Emma Kowal. The duo joined forces with the Building 68 communications team and Biology Graduate Student Council to publicize the event and host two pre-slam workshops and a practice session.

Kowal, last year’s winner, was motivated to mentor this year’s cohort because, as she puts it, most scientists either don’t recognize the importance of clear communication or don’t recognize the challenge of doing it well.

“It is rare to see graduate programs devote training time to this,” she says, “but I believe it’s worth the effort. Taking the time to distill what excites and motivates us in our research not only inspires people to value science and even become scientists, but also helps us connect with each other — and remember why we love doing science in the first place.”

Avello recalls signing up for last year’s slam at the last minute, and “loving the experience.”

“I wanted to facilitate the experience of thinking hard about science communication in a fun and inclusive way for other graduate students and postdocs,” she says. “I really enjoyed watching everyone wrestle with the challenge of presenting their science in such a tight, condensed format, and ultimately developing their own unique story and style.”

There were two prizes, one awarded by the three judges and another awarded by the audience. Silberman, a fifth-year graduate student whose talk was titled “Does Chromosome Imbalance Cause Cancer?,” took home the Judges’ Prize, while third-year graduate student Sophia Xu claimed the Audience Prize with her talk, “Plant Natural Products and Human Ethanol Metabolism.”

Silberman said her favorite part was watching her fellow participants’ talks develop over time during the consecutive practice sessions. “Getting the opportunity to workshop my ideas and get input from Emma, Moni, and the other participants made the final presentation much less terrifying than it would have been otherwise, and made my talk much better,” she says.

Xu saw the Slam as an opportunity to practice presenting her research in an engaging way, and take a small step toward conquering her fear of public speaking. “I was overwhelmed by the support I received, not only from the organizers, but also from the other speakers,” she says. “It felt much like what I imagine a collaborative, friendly British cooking show would be like.”

Silberman encourages Department of Biology trainees considering participating in next year’s slam to “go for it.” She adds: “As grad students, we often aren’t challenged to distill our research down to its simplest terms. It was both harder and more fun than I expected.”