MIT Research Slam showcases postdoc and PhD communication skills

The 2nd Annual Research Slam featured three-minute talks on cutting-edge research from across MIT in an engaging public showcase and competition.

Can you tell the story of a complex research project in only three minutes? Could a presentation emerge from extreme time compression transformed like a diamond from coal? The MIT Research Slam Public Showcase on April 11 put these questions and more center stage as the four postdoc and five PhD student finalists competed for cash prizes.

The ability to compellingly pitch scientific research to a smart but non-specialized audience is a bankable skill central to success in any professional context, within academia or beyond — and the MIT Research Slam competition provides a supportive but competitive arena to hone this skill set. The Research Slam Public Showcase gives each participant 180 seconds to present their research, a format embraced by over 200 universities around the world for annual competitions. Aside from the thrill of competition, these events provide opportunities for trainees to develop and showcase their research communication skills.

During the weeks leading up to the event, participants joined training workshops on pitch content and delivery, and had the opportunity to work one-on-one with educators from Career Advising and Professional Development (CAPD), the Engineering Communication Labs, and the Writing and Communication Center, all of which co-sponsored and co-produced the event.

Simona Rosu, senior assistant director of postdoctoral career and professional development at CAPD, explains why this event is of particular value to PhD students and postdocs: “The ability to present their research accomplishments in a clear, compelling, and concise manner to non-experts is a key skill for the career development of PhD students and postdocs. It will help them put together strong job application materials; shine in interviews, job talks, and networking; and compete convincingly for funding opportunities, whether in academia or industry.”

The finalists included five PhD students — Leonard Boussioux, Juana De La O, Reuven “Beny” Falkovich, Olivia Kim, and Vrindaa Somjit — and four postdocs — Maria Kanelli, Jamie Karthein, Constantinos Katsimpouras, and Scott Odell. Topics ranged from superconducting qubits to melting protons.

A panel of accomplished judges gave feedback after each of the talks. Alisa Machalek, team lead and science communication and outreach at the National Institute of Arthritis, Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease; Jermey Matthews, senior acquisitions editor at MIT Press; and Babak Movassaghi, CEO of Vitruvia Holding, served as judges. Following the event, Movassaghi reflected, “What a joy to be part of this year’s MIT Research Slam as a judge. Kudos to all the passionate PhD candidates and postdocs mastering splendidly the challenge to explain their complex scientific research in only three minutes.”

At the end of the night, Jamie Karthein was the judges’ choice in the postdoc category, Scott Odell was the runner-up, and Jamie also won the hearts of the viewers and walked away with the Audience Choice award for postdocs. After the competition, Jamie reflected: “What I found to be most valuable was using a new communication technique to engage with a broad audience about my very fundamental physics research. I enjoyed the opportunity to engage with the audience during the Q&A session.”

In the PhD student class, Leonard Boussioux took the top honor as well as the Audience Choice prize, with Reuven “Beny” Falkovich close behind.  Leonard summed up his Research Slam experience with enthusiasm: “Since I am interested in an academic position after my PhD, I found the Three Minute Thesis exercise highly insightful … I also realized that it is handy to be prepared to pitch anytime to any audience what I am doing with my time, and I saw myself naturally explaining what I do in the past few weeks.”

The first place finishers received a $600 cash prize, while runners up and Audience Choice winners each received $300.

A full list of showcase finalists and the titles of their talks is below. Video entries made public by the presenters will be available for viewing on the MIT Research Slam Youtube channel.

Research Slam organizers included Diana Chien, director of MIT School of Engineering Communication Lab; Simona Rosu, senior assistant director of postdoctoral career and professional development at CAPD; Elena Kallestinova, director of the MIT Writing and Communication Center; Alexis Boyer, assistant director of graduate career services at CAPD; Amanda Cornwall, associate director of graduate student professional development at CAPD; Viraat Goel, PhD student in biological engineering at MIT, Communication Lab Fellow, and representative of the Graduate Student Council External Affairs Board; and Pradeep Natarajan, PhD student in chemical engineering at MIT and Communication Lab Fellow. Prizes were sponsored by the MIT Career Advising and Professional Development.

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