By Wendy Sarubbi | May 15, 2014 11:52 am

Many of us dread the idea of public speaking; in fact surveys suggest that it often tops the list of things we fear the most. So for scientific researchers who spend most of their time in the lab testing hypotheses and pouring over statistics, delivering presentations in a public setting can be especially nerve wracking. But being able to articulate your work is an essential part of being a successful researcher – and getting funded. That’s why the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences holds a yearly Graduate Research Symposium, where Masters and Ph.D. students present a year’s worth of research.

“You have to be able to present your work in a way that’s interesting to others,” said Dr. Mollie Jewett, an assistant professor who specializes in infectious diseases and organized this year’s May 5 symposium. “Many times researchers, especially new student presenters, are not just overwhelmed by the prospect of presenting to their peers, but also by the facts they want to present.”

Dr. Jewett mentored students for the symposium by helping them practice and improve their presentation skills. Faculty judges are looking for more than just facts, she said. They want a big picture overview of research told in a compelling way. “You’ve got to be able to explain the significance of your idea and it’s as much about being a good story teller as it is being a good researcher, which is a skill that takes practice,” she said.

The students’ research was on a variety of biomedical topics including treatments for heart attacks, cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

Ph.D. candidate Nicklaus Sparrow had presented his research on schwann cell myelination at poster sessions before, but speaking in front of a crowd of 100 peers and faculty was a new experience. “I have 15 minutes and it’s hard to know what to focus on as I have so much,” said Sparrow. “I’m nervous, the faculty is not there to prove you wrong, but they are scary as they know more than me.”

The 16 student presenters faced tough questions from faculty on everything from their hypothesis to supporting statistics.

Sparrow battled technical issues with his computer files during his presentation, and came away relieved but somewhat disappointed. “I could’ve done better,” he said and vowed to use the experience to make future improvements.

Student Patrick Cherubin was pleased with his presentation and even happier at the outcome of being one of the winning presenters. “I learn more every time,” he said of the feedback he received on his research — the anti-toxin properties of grape seed phenolic compounds. He acknowledged the support of his mentor Dr. Kenneth Teter, who continually pushes him to become a better researcher.

With ever increasing competition for grants, Sparrow said networking and communication are necessary to let peers know about your research. After all, they could end up on a panel that decides the fate of your next grant application.

“If you don’t have people skills no one will want to work with you and you won’t get funded,” he said. Sparrow believes people skills are as essential as intellectual skills, noting that funders like the National Institutes of Health are increasingly seeking team-based rather than individual projects to support.

Teamwork and communication was a sentiment echoed by Dr. Richard Peppler, interim director of the Burnett School, during his opening remarks at the symposium. “Collaboration is where science is today,” he said.

The graduate students who were well prepared and didn’t lose their nerve were rewarded with an appreciative audience and cash prizes, courtesy of donations from Burnett school faculty in honor of loved ones.

Winning presentations included:

1st Place Ph.D. Presentation: Julie Horton (Mentor: Dr. Daniel Kelly)

Biomedical Sciences Award ($250) (Sponsor: Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences)

1st Place M.S. Presentation: Aaron Owji, (Mentor: Dr. Steven Ebert) Kalyani Parthasarathy Memorial Award ($250) (Sponsor: Dr. Sampath Parthasarathy)

2nd Place Ph.D. Presentation: Debarati Mukherjee (Mentor: Dr. Jihe Zhao) Everett W. Cole, Jr. Memorial Award ($100) (Sponsor: Dr. Alexander Cole)

2nd Place M.S. Presentation: Patrick Cherubin (Mentor: Dr. Kenneth Teter) Maya Singla Memorial Award ($100) (Sponsor: Dr. Dinender Singla)

3rd Place Ph.D. Presentation: Thywill Sabblah (Mentor: Dr. Stephen King) Everett W. Cole, Jr. Memorial Award ($50) (Sponsor: Dr. Alexander Cole)

In addition, awards were presented to Jeanette Galloway for Burnett Research Support Staff of the Year 2013-2014 and Dr. Deborah Altomare for the Burnett Research Mentor of the Year 2013-2014.

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