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Why My Research Matters

The invitation came as a surprise to many of the 60+ nominees, all Brown University graduate students and postdoctoral appointees: Would you like to explain why your research matters to a general audience – in five minutes? After submitting videos, a round of semifinal talks and coaching, 10 speakers took to the stage as part of Brown Graduate School’s second Research Matters!, addressing topics ranging from how humans view robots to how social media can help protect cultural heritage.

“It’s a perfect push to develop a talk and to distill the entire dissertation in five minutes,” said Emily Contois, a PhD candidate in American Studies.  In her talk, Dude Food: Gender and Health in U.S. Popular Culture, Contois spoke about her findings on food trends that incorporate more fluid masculinities. 

Nicosia Shakes, a PhD candidate in Africana Studies who is preparing for the job market, was motivated by the opportunity to speak to a general audience about her research on women’s theatre and the power of performance. “Academics need to relate to different kinds of people,” she explained. 

“I’ve learned how to be brief and to convey thoughts in a few words,” she added. “All students should do this, including shy students.”  

“Developing the ability to effectively engage an audience with their research is extremely important for emerging scholars,” said Vanessa Ryan, Associate Dean of the Graduate School and the lead organizer of Research Matters!, which was held November 5 at the Granoff Center. “It’s incredibly important now, when society faces so many difficult choices, that these researchers are empowered to help shape the public understanding of how higher education and their research affects the larger world.”

The brief talks showcase excellent student scholarship and foster intellectual exchange across disciplines, while also raising the visibility of graduate students and post-docs and their contributions to the Brown University. Videos of the live talks will be featured on the Graduate School website. 

Alexandra Stephan, a Chemistry student who spoke about ways to stem catastrophic lithium-ion battery failure, hopes other Brown scientists will pursue this distinctive opportunity: “I am not a person who feels comfortable speaking in public,” she said. “Through this experience I have learned a lot of techniques to be comfortable, and that is invaluable.”  

For Kyle Trenshaw, a postdoctoral research associate in STEM education at the Science Center, Research Matters! provided him with a megaphone to tell faculty and administrators about methods of teaching, such as collaborative problem solving, that disproportionately benefit students of color and can be easily implemented in any STEM course.

Aditi Rawat, a master’s student in Public Health, spoke about her research in India on public perceptions of antibiotic prescrip­tions and whether these perceptions may affect the develop­ment of antibiotic resistance. In preparing for the talk at practice sessions, she realized she would like to be involved in public health campaigns. The bonus, she adds, was “meeting all these fabulous people and hearing about their research.”

Other speakers included:

  • Julian Saporiti, PhD student in Ethnomusicology, Think Twice It’s Alright: Street Performers and Public Space
  • Jennifer Thum, PhD candidate in Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Rocks, Drones and Instagram: The Interactive Dissertation
  • Torrey Truszkowski, PhD candidate in Neuroscience, Neural Circuits: How Brain Meets World
  • Meghan Wilson, PhD candidate in Political Science, How Monopoly Became Political
  • Xuan Zhao, PhD candidate in Cognitive, Linguistics, and Psychological Sciences, Through the Eyes of a Robot 

Alexandra Collins Mathwig, a doctoral candidate in History of Art and Architecture, served as master of ceremonies.

A selection panel, comprising faculty, staff and graduate students, identified 20 semifinalists, who were invited to present talks to the selection panel. Semifinalists and finalists flexed their storytelling muscles, receiving peer feedback and coaching. 

The inaugural event was held as part of the 250th Anniversary Fall Celebration on September 27, 2014.  

Article by Beverly Larson; photo by Peter Goldberg.