Tips to share your research in a way the public can understand

 “I am a bit nervous, and only used to giving lectures. How can I share my science with everyday people who are not scientists?” 

by Elsie Adaobi Chidebe, Tochukwu Ozulumba, Orode V U Aniejurengho 

Soapbox Science Lagos (November Team) 

At one of our 2020 online speaker training webinars, someone asked this question “I am a bit nervous, and only used to giving lectures. How can I share my science with everyday people who are not scientists?” We thought it was a question that resonates with most of us, that feeling of anxiety, where your tummy rumbles and your heart pounds before a talk. It is completely normal, and one we have all felt at some point in our STEM careers. To answer this question, we decided to share our team’s 4 tried and tested steps which we have used at different science communication events.   

Just Start – Be prepared  

Public speaking can be a bit challenging. It is important to have a plan and stick to it. Making an outline is particularly helpful as it enables you have a mental picture of the talk beforehand and also identify points in your talk where you have used a lot of jargon. Remember to keep it simple and avoid too much detail. You can start with an introduction followed by the body (the meaty part and demonstrations) and then a closing – a summary of the key take home message). Always stay focused and deliver the important messages. Think – what do I want my audience to say they have learnt? Do-prepare the outline (intro, demonstrations and summary. 

Get to know your audience – your talk is for them  

Spare your audience the unnecessary details and talk on the fascinating things about your research with its societal relevance. Explain these concepts by using everyday language instead of complex terms. Are there current issues or frequent practices in the society that your audience are familiar with? Can you refer to this in some way and incorporate it in your talk? For example, to highlight why it is important for us to wash our hands, you can use colour on your hands and then toucha surface to show the transfer of bacteria and contamination of surfaces. It is our responsibility to engage them in a way that will help promote interest in STEM. Think – who are my audience? Do – use relevant examples in your demonstrations, so your audience can easily connect with your topic of interest. 

Use Props – Simplify the complicated  

Find simple items around you that can be used to demonstrate what you will be talking about. For example, use a bunch of grapes to show the cocci shape of some bacteria, sew on some velcro to show things attaching and detaching, use water and food dye to represent blood, add coloured dyes to liquids to represent chemicals etc. This way, people can better understand and connect to your research. Think: how can I simplify my research? Do – get items or use simple demonstrations that people can see or touch  

Let go of the nerves – Practice! Practice! Practice!  

Remember to practice everywhere you can. You can practice your presentation before your colleagues to check that you have used accurate representations of the scientific terms you will be discussing. This is particularly important if you are working on sensitive topics such as cancer treatment, mental health, climate change etc., to ensure that your audience goes home with an accurate message. Secondly, practice before other people (non-scientists) so you can have a feel of how accessible your talk is. Think: How can I be confident and less nervous?  Do – use your outline and practice to a friendly audience that you know. Don’t forget you are the topic expert, you’ve got this. 

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I’ve always loved solving puzzles: Meet Kris Poduska

Dr. Kris Poduska, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Soapbox Science talk title: How light unlocks mysteries of the natural world

I’ve always been curious about how things work, and I’ve always loved solving puzzles. When I was an undergraduate student, I tried chemistry laboratory research one summer and I loved it! Every day was different: I worked with hand tools, computers, mechanical equipment, electronics…and people with interesting ideas. That experience made me realize that science research would perfect career choice for me. Now I’m a physics professor who runs a research laboratory, and I help other people get training and experiences that help them find what they love to do.

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Relationships I’ve made while doing my research make me love my work: Meet Julie Turner

Julie Turner, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Michigan State University

Soapbox Science talk title: Hyenas aren’t the enemy: insight into their lives, personalities, and social behavior

To me, relationships are one of the most fascinating aspects of my work. I’ve long been interested in animals that live in groups and have many types of relationships. As a kid, I jumped from obsessing over lions to whales and dolphins to wolves, always wanting to learn about their family interactions. That’s how I got interested in hyenas because they are as social as humans in really interesting ways. And it hasn’t just been the relationships that I study but also the relationships I’ve made while doing my research that make me love my work. I have made some of the best friends and partnerships as I have been doing my work. Now I have friends and family all over the world.

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Mentors shape and inspire research and career goals: Meet Katrien Kingdon

Katrien Kingdon, PhD Student – Memorial University of Newfoundland

Soapbox Science talk title: “The whereabouts of wolves: The importance of predators in our landscapes”

Q: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

My inspiration for a career in science stems from a life-long interest in wildlife that was always encouraged by my parents and our time spent outdoors. During my undergraduate degree, I became interested in how humans and their activities can impact wildlife behaviour while working with Dr. Marty Leonard, an inspiring woman in science herself. This introduction to research encouraged me to pursue further education here at MUN. Here, I have had the opportunity to work with many supportive mentors who continue to shape and inspire my research and career goals as a wildlife biologist.

Q: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

I love getting to do fieldwork. I find the hands-on components of research very rewarding and provide a unique perspective that you cannot get otherwise. For my research specifically, tracking wolves and investigating sites that they have visited provide additional clues on wolf behaviour. This can include the types of habitat that wolves prefer to travel through or rest in, and where prey are found at different times of the year. These details help inform the questions we are asking and the type of data we need. 

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Health and well being are just as important as profit, growth and knowledge: Meet Ashley Noseworthy

Ashley Noseworthy, Edgewise Environmental / Course Instructor at MUN

Soapbox Science talk title: How to speak Whale

Q: What are you most proud of and/or what have you learned from doing research/ maintaining your business- especially during the pandemic?  

There is no question that 2020 has been A YEAR! Each of us has had obstacles to overcome when dealing with a global pandemic in many facets of our lives. The world has been forever changed and change is not an easy thing to embrace, especially when it happens on such a drastic level. But I have learned, if I am anything, I am adaptable.

During the past few months I am most proud of the company’s resiliency and our ability to pivot to meet our client’s needs. Most of all, I am proud of us for completing our FIRST research and development project especially because it was during a pandemic. It is proof that innovation is an essential pillar to adaptability and embracing change. I have learned many things during the past 6 months both about myself and about science and business in relation to Edgewise. This is not an exhaustive list but includes the highlights:

– When it comes to marine mammal sound in the water – the pandemic has been an incredible opportunity to build our understanding during a period of less man-made noise in the water. It’s been dubbed an #anthropause

– Versatility is key: pivoting from working in close proximity with others to predominantly online has been essential for all. Despite the distance, this does not take less work, it takes MORE!

– It takes a village! In order to succeed during these trying times it takes the support of employees, mentors, friends and family.

– Balance is necessary. As a woman in science and business I could easily work 20 hours a day – and sometimes I do. My health and well being is just as important as profit, growth and knowledge. I have learned I underestimate this balance and  am working to do better!

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A zeal to find answers to the mysteries that make life possible: Meet Shreyasi Sarkar

My name is Shreyasi Sarkar, I’m a PhD candidate in Biochemistry at Memorial University of Newfoundland and my project title is:  Missing pieces to the diet-microbiota-health puzzle.

Q: How did you get to your current position?

A: Always wanting to be associated with science and finding answers to how the human body works, I started off with obtaining my Bachelors in Chemistry and Masters in Medicinal Chemistry from University of Pune, India. To aid myself in finding more depth into my main research question, I obtained a scholarship and decided to pursue my current PhD degree in Biochemistry at MUN.

Q: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

A: My father, a medical doctor, has always played a very influential role in my life which drew me closer to science.

In addition, as I mentioned in my previous answer, with my life-long prevailing question: how the human body works, and also with the zeal to find answers into the mysteries that make life possible, I decided to take up a career in science. 

Q: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

A: My research aims to find the links that connect our diet with our intestinal and our brain/mental health. Diet is the primary component to maintaining good health. In addition, all diseases begin in the gut (Hippocrates) and as mental health is taking a major toll in the current era. Thus, finding the links that connect them and those that can be modulated to set a mutually understanding tone between them, with an aim to cure intestinal and mental health disorders, is what is fascinating about my research.

Q: What are you most proud of and/or what have you learned from doing research- especially during the pandemic? 

A: I am very proud of how I developed very important skills of managing time and keeping myself organised and engaged during the pandemic. Even though I did have to start working (after obtaining special permission to have lab access) during the pandemic, it taught me how important it is to finish everything on time and not procrastinate. It is also very important to organise everything as things can get very convoluted during a stressful time like this.

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I’ve always been interested in different things: Meet Diana De Carvalho

My name is Diana De Carvalho. I am an assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland and I study what happens to our backs when we bend forward or sit.

I’ve always been interested in a ton of different things, from music and art to science and the way things work. I especially loved learning about the human body how we can apply the principles of physics to understand how we move, do things, get hurt or get better. This was the spark that led me to study science in university and ultimately to become a chiropractor. I loved helping people in clinic, but I also had a ton of questions about back pain that hadn’t really been answered yet. Especially why some people seem to be able to sit for really long period of time without back pain, and why other people can’t. So back to school I went! I finished my Master’s of Science and PhD in Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo and then started my position here at MUN in 2015.

Most people who have office jobs sit for the majority of their workday, so studying sitting is very relevant. Probably even more so now that people are doing their best to work remotely at home or limit their activity in the community in accordance with physical distancing recommendations. Bending for long periods of time is thought to place extra stress on the back and may lead to pain or injury. One of the most interesting things my research group has found so far is that experiencing pain during sitting happens to some people, not all, and can happen even if there is no history of clinical low back pain. It doesn’t look like there is a right or wrong way to sit to avoid this, but it would make sense that taking frequent breaks and moving around more would be helpful. We have lots of interesting experiments planned to try and answer these questions.

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Science is definitely for everyone: meet Hannah Wallace

Hannah Wallace is a PhD candidate in Dr. Rod Russell’s Lab in the division of Biomedical Sciences in the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial University. Hannah’s project is called “Pyroptosis: A Pathogenic Assault or a Mechanism of Protection?” which she likes to call “Viruses and the Cells they Kill” for short.

by Hannah Wallace

My initial interest in science was peaked by an older cousin talking to me about dinosaurs. The Parasaurolophus was (and, honestly, still is) my favourite dinosaur. From age six to about 13, I always told people I wanted to be a palaeontologist. Meanwhile, I was taking regular ballet classes and performing in musicals.

When I started Grade 11 Biology, I thought I was going to hate it but my teacher took the time to answer my many, many questions and cultivated my curiosity; I finished the semester loving biology! With that, I decided I was going to do a science degree after high school even though I really wanted to be on Broadway. I figured biology would be a safe backup plan.

My interest in viruses developed during my undergraduate years at the University of New Brunswick – Saint John thanks, in no small part, to my professor, Barb Dowding, MSc (Memorial University alumna). I enrolled in Barb’s Introductory Biology. It was the winter of 2014 and the Ebola outbreak in west Africa was just beginning. Who would have thought that world events and a class at a small university would conspire to produce a virologist?  Barb incorporated the Ebola outbreak into the course as a dynamic model to illustrate the power and importance of science in the fight against emerging viruses that had the potential to decimate the human population. At the time, there were no drugs/antivirals or vaccines to work against this virus. In retrospect, I was hooked on viruses.

In my fourth year, after taking several other of Barb’s courses, I arranged to do an independent study with her (which involved writing a large review paper). I could choose any topic related to biology that I wanted. I was torn between radiation-induced health problems caused by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster or the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in west Africa, the largest Ebola outbreak to date. If you read the title of my project, you can probably guess which one I finally picked. The tipping point for the decision was a book that I read over my Christmas holidays – The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. I am not the only virologist who was inspired by this book to pursue a career in understanding viruses and how they interact with the cells that they infect. The Hot Zone describes the events in 1998 when a filovirus (the family of viruses of which Ebola is part) was discovered as the cause of death of monkeys in a primate housing facility in Reston, Virginia. The book is a bit dramatic and not totally accurate but I was captivated by the world of virology. Even though I was concurrently doing an honours research thesis on sturgeon physiology, my Ebola review catalyzed my decision to study virology in grad school.

The most fascinating part of my current research is being able to study viruses and how they use cellular pathways to their advantage. I also love being able to contribute to the field of virus research, helping to understand how a virus can go from infecting a single cell to causing systemic disease. By contributing to our understanding of how viruses induce disease, I hope that we can figure out a way to block the progression of disease during viral infection.

 It has been very strange being a virologist during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. I have been doing more science communication than I ever dreamed and answering tons of questions from family and friends.

Research on SARS-CoV-2 is moving at an extremely fast pace and it has been challenging and rewarding to keep up with the newest developments. The biggest thing I have learned during the pandemic is that virology is even more crucial than I thought. It has been cemented in my mind that I absolutely want to continue to research viruses. The pandemic  has also instilled a drive to better communicate science to the general public because science is definitely for EVERYONE.  The pandemic highlighted, once again, just how important science itself is and how important science communication is for the general population. My hope is that the pandemic, despite its many negative effects, will inspire more people to become involved in science, to be curious, to ask questions, and to follow their dreams.

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Plastic society: from a Soapbox Science talk to a contract with an international company

By María Piquer-Rodríguez, Organizer of Soapbox Science Tucumán

This year was the first time that Soapbox Science celebrated an event in Latin America and in Spanish! Tucumán, a province in the north of Argentina held a Soapbox Science event in Spanish for the first time, where around 400 people attended. The event had huge media coverage and thanks to the great efforts of the media and organizers the particular case of a worm that eats plastic went viral and the main researcher received an offer from an international petrol company to further fund their research.

Dr. Carolina Monmany ( @CMonmanyGarzia ) works at the Institute of Regional Ecology (CONICET-UNT) in Tucumán, Argentina. She is the coordinator of a project that studies the usage of plastic in the world, the spatial expansion of plastic usage and recently registered a worm that can digest plastic. They were collaborating on a different project that studies pollinators and when collecting some of the beehives they found out that one of the plastics that covered one beehive had a hole. Looking carefully, they found out that there was a worm that could have potentially eaten the plastic. After doing some tests with these worm they discovered that they actually can eat different types of plastics (they even have a preference for some of them!), and what is more promising, they can digest these plastics! This does not mean that producing many of these worms could save the monstrous environmental problem plastic is causing on the planet, but it may be a first step towards rethinking solutions. As Carolina says, the first step towards solving the problem of plastic-waste is reducing its usage and production!

Caro Monmany “in action”, taken by Cecilia Gallardo

Carolina presented their interesting findings at Soapbox Science Tucumán in September, where media picked the story and viralized it during the three weeks after the event, to the point that several companies contacted their team interested in working with them further in the great potential their discovery could have towards reducing plastic waste. Currently the team of Carolina are closing a 1-year contract with one of these companies that will further fund their research line and will potentially bring more interesting discoveries.

Something like this does not happen every day, and without the great support and framework of Soapbox Science it would not have been possible. The story of Carolina and her team can hopefully inspire new generations of Soapbox Science speakers and motivate researchers to continue working towards finding environmental solutions to the world’s biggest problems.

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We should demystify the misconceptions that science is only for “geniuses” and “crammers”: Meet Olukemi Titilope Olugbade

Dr Olukemi Titilope Olugbade (@titikemi2010), African Field Epidemiology Network (AFENET) / Obafemi Awolowo University Teaching Hospital, is taking part in Soapbox Science Lagos on 23rd November with the talk: “Platforms of Expression: Science, Soapbox and Social Media in Disease Surveillance” 

How did you get to your current position?

Thank you for your question. I got to my current position, by the personal decision I took to combine my expertise and interests, and advance my career. I am currently a physician-researcher and medical epidemiologist.

What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

My inspirations were childhood curiosity, the passion to develop solutions, seeing things differently, recognising trends & patterns, and being observant. Also, my Mum was an educational administrator, so naturally she guided and encouraged my science interests, invested in my science education and subsequently supported my science career.

What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

Everything about my field of practice is interesting. I work in the hospital, in the community, in the laboratory and remotely. I get to manage, solve and provide health interventions and solutions related to populations, public health and pathogens. 

What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

What attracted me to Soapbox Science is the surreal feeling I got when I found out the inspiration and motivation behind the idea. I connected with the vision immediately, because it represents three concepts I believe in: science, education, and inclusion.

I see how much Soapbox Science has grown, how it is spurring young people to love science, and lets them know that science is not abstract, but that it’s real, applicable to everyday life and that it’s exciting and fun. 

Sum up in one word your expectations for the day:

I expect interesting engagements and questions from the public and the non – science community.

I look forward to making new friends, meeting new potential collaborators, discussing what I have worked and I’m working on in my field of practice, mentoring people and encouraging young ladies to consider science as a career path.

If you could change one thing about the scientific culture in Nigeria right now, what would it be?

What I would want to improve would be the way science is taught. Science should be taught in an interesting and exciting way that makes it easy to relate to, appealing, practical in its application and hands-on.

In primary, secondary and even at the tertiary levels there’s the impression science is for nerdish, boring, anti-social or introverted people, also that STEMM is difficult, abstract, and boring. Many science students are not encouraged and there’s little reward or recognition for breakthroughs in our environment, compared to music, acting and entertainment. 

Many brilliant, innovative and creative people have left science, mid-stream, or even after graduation because of the rote way science is taught and delivered in our academic institutions in Nigeria. We should demystify the misconceptions that science is only for “geniuses” and “crammers”. These narratives and stereotypes should change. and we celebrate and motivate our own. 

Another thing I would like to see is the practical application of sciences and STEMM to solving problems in Nigeria. Young people are designing applications, software, medical devices, agricultural solutions, energy and power solutions and using genomics, data science and artificial intelligence to solve myriads of problems globally. We have a lot of persons in STEMM, however these interventions are not applied to our country specific problems. We have not optimised these skills, in the STEMM fields, and our STEMM gurus keep leaving as there’s no environment for them to thrive.

The government should partner with universities, academic institutions and young scientists to rapidly scale up these solutions, and adapt them to improve our economy and STEMM strengths.

Post graduate STEMM programmes and research should be grants funded and invested in with good mentorship, transparency and accountability. This will encourage Nigerian scientists to do more research, gain global recognition, reduce brain drain and improve our rankings.

What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

My topmost recommendation is Start Early! Science is a lifetime commitment and it’s a demanding journey.

So it’s important one gets on the journey with clarity of purpose in good time. In between the journey, will be school, work, more school, work, more school, marriage, spouse, family, more school, research, more school….. 

You keep learning and growing, and the learning never ends. You need a good support system and be able to ace self and time management.

For a woman considering a PhD, Know which STEMM field you’re interested in, Identify mentors, Identify a good institution whose culture, traditions, location, methods and modules fit what interests you and what you want to major in as either a researcher, scientist, academic or all of the aforementioned. Be available to learn. Volunteer to participate in events and activities related to your areas of interest and expertise, as this increases your value and visibility. 

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