“Science cannot happen in a vacuum. We scientists ought to be the most qualified to talk about our research and communicate it to others.” – Sarah Attreed

Sarah Attreed, PhD candidate in Environmental Health and Engineering (EHE) was a winner in both the Johns Hopkins 3-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition and University of Maryland Medical Center Maryland Thesis Showcase, coming in third and second place, respectively. In a masterful display of scientific eloquence and a TedTalk-style presentation, she rose to challenge herself and face a fear that many of us have: public speaking. Here in EHE, we congratulate Sarah for her achievement!   

Communicating science to the general public is a vital skill for graduate students to hone. 3MT challenges students to summarize their thesis research in one static slide and a three-minute oral presentation without notes. Founded by The University of Queensland in Australia, the goal of 3MT is “to develop students’ academic, presentation, and research communication skills” according to their website.

Currently, Sarah is training with Fenna Sillé, PhD, assistant professor in EHE, and she describes her research in her 3MT talk entitled, “Building a Better Vaccine.” In it, she explained the importance of designing more effective vaccines “that will work even in the most challenging environmental conditions.” In her one slide, she displayed a child being vaccinated with the words, “Make a child cry. Save his life.”

Sarah met the 3MT challenge and won, so I sat down with her to talk about her experience. Below are my questions and her responses:

Q: Why did you decide to participate in this competition?

I wanted to do 3MT for two reasons:

1) Public speaking abjectly terrifies me, but it’s an important skill to learn so I wanted to continue working on overcoming that fear. I’m usually a reserved person and I tend not to be outspoken, so moving outside of that comfort-zone can give me anxiety and discomfort when speaking in public. It has always been difficult for me, so doing 3MT served as a forum for me to face that fear. Scientific communication is an excellent skill and the only way we improve that skill is by practicing. This competition offers students a “low-stakes, low-pressure” way of practicing, even though there were important people watching, like University President Ronald J. Daniels.

2) I have always—felt­­ even before starting a master’s degree at NYU—science cannot happen in a vacuum. We scientists ought to be the most qualified to talk about our research and communicate it to others. We know it better than anybody, so why should we leave it to journalist to explain our research?

Q: Could you summarize your thesis project? What did you say for 3MT?

Hundreds of millions of people around the world are exposed to unsafe levels of arsenic through their food and drinking water. In addition to causing cancer, arsenic exposure is also known to increase one’s risk of contracting infectious diseases, and there is evidence that it can impair vaccine efficacy. No animal studies have yet been conducted to assess influenza vaccine efficacy with chronic arsenic exposure, or the mechanisms that may govern altered efficacy and immunogenicity, so that’s where my project comes in. One of the measures of immunogenicity we use is antibody titers, which I have found to be reduced in females that are exposed to chronic, elevated levels of arsenic in their drinking water.

A key component of a well-crafted 3MT talk is plain language; in other words, one cannot speak in jargon. An example of jargon is the word “immunogenicity,” which I did not use in my 3MT speech. “Antibody” was the sole jargon-y word that I used, and I had a simple statement to explain it. When crafting my speech, I thought back to when I used to take Spanish in college and how I would have to find ways to describe big Spanish words I didn’t know. If there’s a word we don’t know, we usually circumlocute or “talk around it,” so I did the same thing here. Metaphors also work very well. Some competitors will carry a metaphor throughout the 3 minutes.

Q: What did you do to prepare for this challenge? Was there a process? Any tips that you picked up while doing 3MT?

The Professional Development and Career Office (PDCO) offered a few preparatory sessions ahead of time. When you sign up, they offer you some optional coaching sessions that orient you to the task and help you craft a winning talk. I highly recommended contacting them. Another good resource would be the Johns Hopkins Medicine Podcast. Each of these news bits is one minute long, so it gives you a good idea of how some of the best science writers distill only the most important information from a study. Toastmasters is another good resource for students looking to improve their public speaking skills.

One of the sessions offered by PDCO was about how to avoid jargon. It’s important to make the language understandable for a general audience. A good tip that I got from Kate Bradford, an Assistant Director at PDCO was to hold in mind one or two main ideas that you want your audience to leave knowing; make sure they’re super clear and always return to them throughout the talk. This helps to avoid losing your audience in the nuance of what you do.

Practice—and a lot of it—makes perfect. I learned some good techniques from a friend, Magdalena Fandiño, who is a fellow PhD student in EHE and had prior theater training. The first tip was to write down my speech, then start memorizing and practicing. Magdalena helped me break my speech down into discrete idea “chunks” before going through it systematically until it was clear and succinct. Realize that it’s okay to go off script and be flexible with your word choice. There were words I wrote down that were not what I ended up actually saying. If you expect to give the talk the same way every time, and you forget a word somewhere, you will be dead in the water once you’re on stage.

When writing it all down, write as you would speak. Remember that this is a verbal presentation, so colloquialisms are great, and use symbols, such as commas or whatever works for you, to remind yourself to pause or take a breath in strategies places. It’s good to make the talk more conversational, as it keeps the audience more engaged. No one wants a lecture. Giving the talk in front of people who are distracted or even faux-heckling was also a good tip. You have to be okay with people not caring. When I present, I like to look around for a few smiling, friendly faces and hold onto those people as visual anchors while I speak. Watching videos for self-feedback helps too. I would record myself or practice in front of a mirror to see if there’s anything odd or quirky I naturally do while talking and to ensure that I am placing appropriate verbal emphasis.

Finally, an interesting thing I did was to practice the talk while doing something strenuous like exercising. This helps with anxiety both by making you feel silly and also by forcing you to concentrate on multiple things at once. The talk becomes associated with having fun and actually seems to help with memorization. If you can give the talk while multitasking, then you can definitely do it while you’re standing still on stage.

I am grateful to Sarah for taking the time to share her experience. Here in EHE, we are proud of Sarah for facing her fear of public speaking and accomplishing her goal of communicating her science. This is a common phobia among people. Many claim they would rather die than speak in front of an audience, so it is perfectly normal to be afraid. As scientists, we must stand before the masses and explain our research, because we know what we do better than anyone, so we should be the mouth-piece that described our studies. We learn the art of scientific communication by practicing and challenging ourselves to speak in public. As demonstrated by Sarah, 3MT is a great venue for honing the skill and appreciating the importance of science communication.