Clear Communication: A NIH Health Literacy Initiative
UTHealth postdocs translate complex science into plain English
HOUSTON - (April 15, 2011) - Science seems to have a language of its own. Heavy on acronyms, biomedical research can involve DNA, RNA and mRNA. At The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School, postdoctoral fellows held an April 12 competition to see who could do the best job of explaining intricate research in terms that were easy to understand.
The contest was the brainchild of UTHealth Postdoctoral Association President Alexander Hutchison, Ph.D., who said that being able to concisely describe research to a lay public is more important than ever. “Of late, there have been a number of different proposed budget cuts for research across the country,” Hutchison said. “In order to compete for an ever shrinking percentage of the budget, scientists need to be advocates for what they do.”
While simplifying complex topics is hard to do, Hutchison points to a PBS program on science called NOVA as a good example of doing just that.
Twenty-five postdoctoral fellows submitted abstracts for the contest and 10 were invited to give presentations to a screening committee. Six finalists were selected to compete in the final round. Postdocs are individuals with doctoral degrees engaged in mentored research and/or scholarly preparation.
“We asked the postdocs to pare the jargon and get rid of as many acronyms as possible,” Hutchison said. “We also asked them to show pictures. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.”
Finalists delivered 10-minute presentations to a panel of judges that included KTRK Channel 13 news anchor Tom Koch . The postdoctoral fellows addressed topics ranging from the use of a fruit fly model in brain research to an insight into a new role of glucose in cell signaling. Afterward, contestants took questions from judges and audience members.
“We were able to get researchers from several different scientific backgrounds to show videos, animations and pictures that described exactly what they were doing and how it related to a real world individual,” Hutchison said.
Participants were scored on the quality of the presentation, oratory skills, use of technology and ability to clearly answer questions. Top finalists received $800 for first place, $400 for second place and $200 for third place.
Rodrigo Fernandez-Valdivia, Ph.D. , who received an honorable mention in the competition and whose research involves glucose, said, “If we can let people know what we do and why it is important for human health, it will help to get support from the government and private foundations, which ultimately can help in our efforts to define molecular mechanisms implicated in disease development. This is important because this is where diseases originate.”
Nancy McNiel, Ph.D., associate dean for administrative affairs at the UTHealth Medical School, said, “It was billed as a competition to see how well our postdoctoral fellows could present complex material in a manner that is both educational and interesting to a lay public. I think they did a fantastic job.”
Ching-On Wong, Ph.D., took first place; Ransome van der Hoeven, Ph.D., second place; and Regina Nobles, Ph.D., third place. Receiving honorable mentions were: Fernandez-Valdivia; Chioniso Patience Masamha, Ph.D.; and Nadine Matthias, Ph.D.
In addition to Koch and McNiel, the judging panel for the first annual Postdoctoral Oral Presentation Competition included: Sandeep Agarwal, M.D., Ph.D. , assistant professor of medicine at the UTHealth Medical School; Perry Bickel, M.D. , associate professor of medicine at the UTHealth Medical School; and Rachna Sadana , Ph.D. , assistant professor of biology and biochemistry at the University of Houston-Downtown.