Grad Students Launch GradTerp Exchange At MilkBoy ArtHouse
In graduate school, students spend most of their time learning to function as an expert, and that involves learning to communicate with other experts. But scholars must also be aware of the broader impacts of their research and its benefits to society. Learning to communicate to non-specialists takes practice, but it is necessary if researchers want the public to understand and support their work. Those who do this well reach a broader audience, increase their research capacity, and build the potential for uncharted interdisciplinary collaboration.
The newly launched GradTerp Exchange gives graduate students and postdocs a chance to hone this skill. Housed at the MilkBoy ArtHouse in College Park, the monthly series offers a comfortable setting for brief research talks by emerging scholars. This model has taken a foothold in academe over the last few years, with catchy titles like 'Raising the Bar' at the University of Auckland or Nerd Nite at many U.S. universities and locations.
At first glance, it seems simple to hold a beer in hand and talk about your research to a room of supportive colleagues. In reality, participants must prepare for this kind of venue. Upamanyu Ray, a mechanical engineering student whose research focuses on the mechanics of nanocellulose fibers, approached his talk by keeping it simple. “I wanted even non-scientists to understand what I was saying. Using good visual illustrations and speaking plainly really help. I included videos for better illustration and avoided too many technical terms. Where I did have to use a technical term, I explained the meaning of it rather than just resorting to jargon. Lastly, I tried to think about the applications of my work for the general public because I knew those questions will come. And I wasn't wrong,” recalls Ray.
Christine Hands, a graduate student in Dance, also focused on visuals. “Since many audience members may not have experienced a dance event before, using photos and videos was really important to making sure that my presentation was well-illustrated. I also gave the presentation a very personal spin. I always position myself when I present; it's important to be clear that I am non-disabled but grew up in a household with a disability. However, for the GradTerp Exchange, talking about my sister and our journey to make dance together helped make this presentation relatable and also concise,” observes Hands.
Adria Schwarber, a doctoral student in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences whose research focuses on characterizing climate models of varying complexity, has similar advice. “We are all probably most familiar with attending an academic conference, where our posters are filled with jargon and methodology details that are only going to be interesting to other scientists in our fields. The presentation has to change when you speak to, say, policymakers. In the past, I have talked to congressional offices by highlighting how my research could be used to help their constituents, such as farmers or city planners in the state or district. It definitely requires practice and my first congressional visit went very poorly because I am very methodologically orientated and tend to dive into the weeds of my work. Telling the story of my research is something I still have to work at, and it certainly helped that I attended several science communication workshops over the years. Also, when I am planning to present to a general audience or the public, I often run my ideas by my mom because she is a non-scientist, and she has no problem calling me on my jargon. Practicing in front of an honest audience a week in advance is very helpful because it gives you time to rework material, but that is an ideal situation and I know things can get pushed to the last minute. This is why taking every opportunity to practice is a good idea, like student seminars, conferences, or GradTerp Exchange,” says Schwarber.
Rianna Murray prepared by imagining herself as a member of the audience and considering what would interest her. “I tried to think about would be too much detail for someone with no prior knowledge of my topic to grasp during my short presentation. I also ended my talk with a slide entitled ‘major takeaways’ in order to reinforce the key concepts that I wanted people to remember after my talk. In other words, if you don't remember anything else from my talk, remember these 5 things! I also practiced several times to ensure that my talk did not go over the 15-minute time limit stipulated by the organizers,” says Murray, a PhD student in Public Health, whose research investigates contamination of private drinking water wells in Maryland, and the potential for animal farming operations to influence well water quality.
Cara Snyder, a doctoral candidate from Women’s Studies, gave a recent talk at the Latin American Studies Center to ready for GradTerp Exchange. She has also been reading Talk like TED by Carmine Gallo. Her dissertation, titled ‘Which team do you play for?’ argues that futebol in Brazil is a critical and contentious space where racialized, gendered anxieties take shape and where the pressure to adhere to heteronormative gender binaries is often viciously enforced.
Deanna Barath, also a doctoral student in Public Health, prepared her talk to discuss the health care seeking behavior and needs of Maryland Mid-Shore residents and the recommendations that were put forth to a legislative work group. “I had to think about the core of my research, reflect on its purpose, and tap into why anyone else would care about my research. Through this process I was able to change my typical academic presentation into a powerful story about rural Maryland,” says Barath.
All of the graduate students who participated in GradTerp Exchange so far--Hands, Barath, Schwarber, Snyder, Ray, Murray, Shilpa Reddy, Nooruddin Shah, and Kelsey Gray--had an educational moment through the experience of both planning for and participating in the event. “This was a completely unique experience. It was the first time I was exposed to the wide range of research conducted at UMD, by energetic students, in a succinct manner, and in a way that everyone in the room was able to understand. My favorite part was that while all the topics were so different, they all connected in one way or another, helping to relay the importance and influence of research in all fields of study,” says Gray, a bioengineering PhD student.
“It is important for us to offer these kinds of professional development opportunities to graduate students in a safe, collegial, and supportive environment. In addition to building valuable communication, it helps build a community of scholars across all disciplines,” concludes Graduate Dean Steve Fetter, who attended both events and enthusiastically supports GradTerp Exchange.
(By Anna De Cheke Qualls)(Photo Credits: Amanda Strausser)