A Grad Expo Recap: Lessons in Communication

Demetria Fischesser, winner of the Three Minute Thesis, gives her winning performance.

Demetria Fischesser, winner of the Three Minute Thesis, gives her winning performance.

This past Thursday, February 20th, 2019, graduate students of all disciplines gathered in the Great Hall at Tangeman University Center for one special occasion. The Graduate Student Expo, a prestigious event consisting of three competitions, gives students the opportunity to share their research and receive constructive feedback. The Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, perhaps the star of the event, asks graduate students to present and summarize their studies to a large audience in a mere three minutes. The Poster Forum acts as a way students can visually present their research in concise and comprehensible language, and The Creative Arts Gallery allows students to showcase their artistic works.

Too often students fall into the trap of assuming everyone understands their subject area, bringing about presentations that miss the mark. The Graduate Student Expo helps them refine their communication skills and perfect the ways in which they convey their graduate work. Adekunle Adebisi, a PhD student in civil engineering who won an award in the Physical Sciences & Engineering category of the Poster Forum, says the competition “was an opportunity to get an in-house critique before having to present it to a larger audience. Majorly, I wanted to know what people think and how they feel I could improve on what I am doing. Presentation, especially poster presentation, is more of an art than science. I've always known that to communicate your research to an audience, you need to use 'clear and simple terms'. It doesn't matter how technical the work is, you need to find a way of communicating it in a simple way to the audience.”

Zach Sterner, a biological sciences PhD student whose poster won an award in the Life Sciences and Medicine category of the Poster Forum, realizes the communicative value of the Expo. “As with any research, we work on such specific and often unknown things, so having a chance to inform someone that does not work in our field about the importance of our research is incredibly exciting,” he says. “The real reward is having people understand the work that I am doing and being able to realize how important it is. Seeing that lightbulb go off in their head gives me joy and solidifies my belief that I chose the right career path for me.”

What’s more, The Grad Expo requires public speaking. And although graduate students may be at the top of their academic game, public speaking can be daunting no matter the situation. It’s something that gets less scary the more you do it, and most students found that while the public speaking aspect of the Expo was what initially intimidated them the most, that they felt better as the competition started rolling. Anna Hutchinson, who won an award in the Social & Behavioral Sciences category of the Poster Forum, says that improving her public speaking skills was her main reason for entering the Expo. “As my confidence increased during the competition, I had no intention to win, as my goal was to strengthen my presentation skills.”

Kaitlin Hart, who came in second place in the Three Minute Thesis for her presentation “Understanding Anti-Mullerian Hormone”—the hormone involved in polycystic ovarian syndrome—says, “It was incredibly nerve wracking to present in front of so many people. Public speaking makes me so nervous, but watching audience members nod their heads and connect with my words makes the presentation worth it.”

Even our first place winner of the Three Minute Thesis, molecular genetics PhD student Demetria Fischesser, divulges that one of her reasons for participating was because of public speaking. “I decided to participate in the 3MT competition for kind of a strange reason. I was sorting through my strengths and weaknesses as a graduate student so that I could decide what to work at and improve upon. I identified public speaking as one of the skills that I really wanted to work on. I have always had a fear of public speaking and I decided, ‘You know what? I'm just going to put myself in front of a bunch of people under a pretty tight time restraint and give a speech. And if I can do that, maybe it will make other public speaking seem less daunting.’ As expected, it was pretty terrifying. But I honestly do feel like the experience as a whole will make me a better public speaker as well as a better communicator of science, which is a really important skill for trainees that we don't tend to focus on, even though we should.”

As it seems, the Graduate Student Expo is not only a great opportunity to discuss your research, but to learn the best ways to go about communication. The ability to successfully talk to someone, and to share information in creative and concise ways—whether that be face-to-face or on stage in front of hundreds of people—will get you very far, and perhaps even where you want to go. 


Written by Danniah Daher, graduate assistant to the graduate school office.