Nearly 300 spectators crowded into a lecture hall at the Ray and Maria Stata Center on a recent Tuesday to witness the first annual Science Slam, hosted by MIT’s Department of Biology.
A science slam features a series of short presentations where researchers explain their work in a compelling manner and — as the name suggests — make an impact. The presentations aren’t just talks, they’re performances geared towards a science-literate but non-specialized public audience. In this case, competitors were each given one slide and three minutes to tell their scientific tales and earn votes from audience members and judges.
The jury included Ellen Clegg, editorial page editor of The Boston Globe and co-author of two award-winning books, “ChemoBrain” and “The Alzheimer’s Solution;” Emilie Marcus, CEO of Cell Press and editor-in-chief of the flagship journal, Cell; and Ari Daniel, an independent science reporter who produces digital videos for PBS NOVA and co-produces the Boston branch of Story Collider.
Among the competitors were five graduate students and three postdocs who hailed from labs scattered throughout Building 68, the Whitehead Institute, the Broad Institute, the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. The storytellers were:
- Sahin Naqvi, from David Page’s lab, who spoke about the evolution of genetic sex differences in mammals, as well as how these differences impact the likelihood of developing certain diseases based on gender;
- Sudha Kumari, from Darrell Irvine’s lab, who spoke about her work investigating immune cell interactions — specifically how T cells communicate using physical contact;
- Deniz Atabay, from Peter Reddien’s lab, who spoke about the ways cells in flatworms self-organize during regeneration to re-form organs, tissues, and even neural circuits;
- Emma Kowal, from Christopher Burge’s lab, who spoke about her goals to demystify the ways in which certain noncoding regions of genetic sequence, known as introns, contribute to protein production;
- Xin Tang, from Rudolf Jaenisch’s lab, who spoke about a technique to illuminate the seemingly invisible changes in brain cells that trigger disease, using a glowing enzyme from a firefly;
- Nicole Aponte, from Troy Littleton’s lab, who spoke about her ability to manipulate brain cell activity in the fruit fly, and study how defects in neuronal connections contribute to developmental disorders;
- Karthik Shekhar, from Aviv Regev’s lab, who spoke about his efforts to identify and manipulate different types of brain cells, understanding how they assemble into complex networks to facilitate learning, memory, and — in some cases — disease; and
- Monika Avello, from Alan Grossman’s lab, who spoke about “bacterial sexology,” that is, how and why these organisms choose to block unwanted sexual advances from fellow bacteria.
Vivian Siegel, who oversees the department’s communications efforts, moderated the event. Siegel and the Building 68 communications team joined forces with three members of the Building 68 MIT Postdoctoral Association — Ana Fiszbein, Isabel Nocedal, and Peter Sudmant — to publicize the event and to host two pre-slam workshops, as well as one-on-one training sessions with individual participants.
“Participating in a Science Slam seemed like a great way for our trainees to learn how to communicate to a nonspecialized audience, which is something they will need to be able to do throughout their careers,” Siegel said. “We really wanted to develop a camaraderie among the participants, and bring trainees together from across the department to help each other tell compelling stories about their science.”
Kowal — whose talk was titled “Gone but Not Forgotten: How Do Introns Enhance Gene Expression?” — ultimately took home both the audience and jury cash prizes. Kowal completed her undergraduate degree in chemical and physical biology at Harvard before coming to MIT for graduate school. Her dream is to write science fiction, so she decided she’d better study science so she’d know what to write about.
“I really enjoyed seeing people get stoked about introns, and the fact that they enhance gene expression,” she said. “It's a great way to get comfortable explaining your project in a compelling way to a broad audience. Since you'll probably be telling people about your work for a while, I think it's a very good use of time to practice doing that.”