34-28 weeks til thesis…

Oooooh wow… Have I been slack at keeping to my schedule, or what?!?! Trying to cram 6 weeks into a single post means this is a long read, but captures a very exciting period in my life.

The last month or so has been an absolute whirlwind and the time I usually set aside for writing here has been swallowed up – along with my gym time – by other, more pressing pursuits… It’s no wonder I’m feeling so off kilter at the moment.

TL;DR – Things got crazy. Crazy-great. Took lots of opportunities. Tested out new ideas and skills. It paid off!

 

It all started when I saw advertisements for a couple of science/research competitions. The Queensland Women in STEM Research Prizes was being held for the first time. It involved a short video and written summary of your work in plain English terms to best communicate your research to the public, a description of the benefit to Queensland in the application of the research outcome, and the usual short biography and abridged CV (publications, collaborations, track record etc).

I thought, what the heck – why not throw my hat in the ring? You’ve got to be in it to win it, and all that. So, I wrote up my entry, filmed a 3 minute video describing my PhD research project on my camera-phone standing in my colleague’s office (I “live” in an open plan student space and that just wasn’t going to work for this), and uploaded it all.

Being the inaugural year, I had no previous submissions to read through to get a feel for what they were after. I had no yardstick by which to measure my entry. I was flying blind. All I could do was present ResearchMe in the way that I thought was best for the intrended audience.

Entries closed on a Friday and the following Monday I received an email saying that I had made it to next round – open for public voting in the People’s Choice Award category and for the panel of STEM experts to vote for the Jury Award, each category awarding a $5000 prize to put towards professional development courses, conference attendance, etc. I have no idea how many submissions they received, but I was super chuffed to just make the final 50 showcased on the competition website.

Then the competition went live and I was able to read through the other entries. The videos were slick, obviously edited and polished by university marketing and media teams, with voice-overs, background music, transitions. So fancy! These women already had decades-long careers behind them  – how on Earth did I think I was worthy of competing alongside these established powerhouses?

I promoted my entry through my social media accounts and distributed it through my workplace email, but didn’t really hold out a large amount of hope. I have a very big family, and they all voted for me (albeit very biased-ly), but aside from them, I didn’t expect to win popular votes. Seeing the quality of the competition had absolutely knocked the wind out of my sails. As I tracked the progress of the leaderboard in the People’s Choice Award category over the course of the fortnight of voting, it was pretty clear to see who the winner was going to be. She was a great writer – her entry was smooth, authoritative, and perfectly targeted for quotation by media outlets. It was obvious that she had training in writing this way, and had that je ne sais quoi that some people just possess.

I resigned myself to the reality that I was not going to win anything. The People’s Choice leader was streets ahead of the rest of us, and I never considered that I would even register on the Jury’s radar. There were well established research projects with already observable outcomes and impact, why would they vote for some chick working towards her PhD dream to cure AMD… yeah, sure, let’s vote for her…

But they did.

Out of 50 entrants, I was ranked 5th by the Jury. FIFTH!

Thinking about this still blows my tiny little squishy mind.

The Jury were so impressed by the entries that they decided they couldn’t give a single award. They instead split the prize money between the top 4, meaning I missed out on a prize by a single vote. I am not the least bit bitter about that, I am absolutely genuinely stoked! I went from assuming nothing would come of my entry – other than a great learning experience in how to craft responses to best suit the audience – to jumping around in excitement and disbelief.

Why on Earth did I ever doubt myself?! I called my Dad and he told me to stop underestimating the power of my efforts. He’s so wise 😀

 

The second thing that happened was yet another entry in a competition. This time it was the international science communication competition run by the British Council, called FameLab. There was a similar submission process: film a short video of yourself talking about your work plus answer a few questions in an online entry form. They specifically stated that the video need not be fancy, just filmed on your phone or ipad was perfectly acceptable. They also specified that powerpoint slides and scientific jargon were NOT to be used, and such entries would not be accepted. They were looking for passion shining through in the research stories.

Instead of public voting, the Council would select 12 entrants to progress to the State Final. I was pleasantly surprised when I got the call to say I had made the cut! I had a little under a fortnight to get my presentation ready, so it was all systems go!

The whole idea of the competition is to present live to an auditorium and make your work interesting, accessible, and creative. You are marked on content, charisma, and clarity. I knew I could handle the content and deliver it with clarity, but how does one measure one’s charisma? …And gain more of it!?

I’m a stage performer from way back (dance concerts and musical performances for the last 20+ years…) but I’m playing a character when I step out onto that stage. I’m not Me. I’m wearing an armour of costume and make-up. I’m not vulnerable when I dance or act, because it isn’t me or my knowledge on display; no-one’s going to ask probing questions once I finish and take a bow, they just clap politely and wait for the next performance. I had to find a way to channel my usual performance ready self into a stage-version of my true self.

It was scary. But I got there, eventually.

I figured out what it was that I can do that not many other people can – what sets me apart – and ran with it. I decided to present my work via poetry and props, and think about my clothes and make-up as my usual costume armoury.

I’m in a band. I play a few different instruments, I sing, and I write the lyrics to a lot of our songs. Sometimes, when I’m writing for pleasure (as opposed to writing research articles…) my brain slips into lyric-mode and I write in rhyme without really thinking about it. It was actually the caption I wrote to an instagram post that set me off on this tangent. I had just finished re-shooting some footage with our ridiculously talented social media officer (for a reimagining of my original video submission to upload to the research institute’s YouTube channel). We were filming in the lab under the harsh fluoro lights so I had thrown some make-up on to make sure there was still colour on my face when it was captured by the camera. I don’t usually look like this for labwork so, naturally, I snapped a lab-selfie for posterity. I captioned it thus:

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“I am a scientist. This is our lab. We work to cure blindness, now isn’t that fab!?”

These humble beginnings signalled the start to a very fun hour or so of drafting the poem which essentially presents my entire thesis in rhyming couplets – in less than three minutes! I didn’t name this blog Science Sonneteer for nothing…

As for the props… I crochet in my downtime. I like hobbies that give me a sense of accomplishment, a clear visual indicator of progress. This is especially important if I’ve had a bad research day (or week!) and things just haven’t worked out. It’s good to have an activity to fall back on to prove to myself that I am capable of producing good work, even if it is with yarn rather than cell culture.

My research uses silk from silkworms … so I crocheted one! No pattern, just winging it based on the shaping I learned from my previous amigumuri pursuits.

Here she is! My colleague has already told me she wants one for herself. Hey! If this research career thing doesn’t work out, I could always start a custom crochet business! 😉

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Eyes for the facial detail
The day of the competition, the British Council ran a full day program of media and communication training with people in radio and the scicomm industry. It was a fantastic day, getting to meet the other FameLab contestants, sharing our knowledge and experiences, and learning from people in the industry as to what makes a good presentation, a good interview, a good sound byte, a good career. I took copious notes and was inspired by the non-conventional career paths of many in the room.

Above all else, it was a great distraction from the inevitable nerves. As soon as training was over though, they kicked in. I ran over my set, again and again. Where do I pause, which words do I stress, when do I pick up and put down each prop. All the things I had done a hundred times rehearsing into the night at home.

I was the first to present (random draw). This is a blessing a curse, but I decided I would just give it my best (as I always aim to) because, really, that’s all I could do. The blessings of going first are not having the nervous wait until your turn and not being psyched out if you feel that someone before you is far far superior to you. The downsides to going first are that you have no idea what your competition is like (but this is less important to me, because I figure you just do the best you can regardless of anything else), and the biggest issue – you are the most distant memory when the judges are deliberating at the end of the competition.

I took to the stage and gave it my all. There was eye contact. There was variation of pitch and pause. There was body language/movement, but not so much that it was distracting (although, watching myself back, I need to work on my arm placement, but that’s OK). There were props (that could probably be bigger now that I’ve see them from the audience’s perspective). And there was passion! My gosh, was there passion. I hope that by showing the audience how interesting I find the work, they will also find it interesting.

The audience clapped politely. I took my bow. Then came the questions.

All perfectly handle-able.

Nothing questioning the validity of my work (providing evidence of peer review was part of the application process, so I assumed this wouldn’t be their line of questioning). More about me, what drew me to the research topic, and how I came to choose poetry as the form to present my work. Totally do-able!

Still, no matter well rehearsed my presentation may be, it’s the questions that make me nervous. I feel like it’s impossible to be prepared for every possibility. What if they ask me about a statistic that I haven’t memorised? What if they ask me about a related field that I haven’t read about? (Hello Imposter Syndrome!) All I could do was stand there and do my best to be charismatic while coming up with answers off the cuff.

I left the stage, heart pounding, head spinning. It was over. That was it. All done. All over in a flash!

I removed the mic and handed it to the next contender, then took my seat, sat back and enjoyed the rest of the presentations knowing that I had given it my absolute best. Over the course of the rest of the evening I learned about the complexity surrounding who is responsible for antibiotic resistance, using lasers to scan war relics to reconstruct history, using isoptopes in teeth and the surrounding environment to uncover the history and identities of a long deceased community of people taken as slaves, how small gopher’s teeth adapt over generations if larger species are removed from the ecosystem, how reflected UV light is damaging our construction workforce, and how high-throughput testing is enabling the search for new drugs sourced from nature. These are just a quick snapshot of the many fascinating science stories I got to hear at the FameLab Queensland State Final.

An Audience Choice Award poll was run while the Judges deliberated. I was blown away by the creativity and charisma of many of the other presenters. Yet again, I did not think that I would have a hope at winning, but was simply grateful to have been given the chance to have the experience. The Audience Choice award went to a lively, energetic, and enthusiastic researcher called Barbara Hadley who gave a comical, creative, engaging presentation about how cancer spreads through the bloodstream. Barbara also won the Runner Up Prize! At this point, I was quite sure I knew who had won – in my mind, it was NOT me, and I was happy to have lost to this other person.

When they announced the winner I was shocked.

Me.

It was me.

I had somehow managed to beat these 11 other passionate presenters; people who, in my mind at least, I had already happily lost to.

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It sunk in and I couldn’t wipe the grin and surprise off my face. It took forever to fall asleep that night. It still doesn’t feel real. But I’m off to Perth for the Australian National Finals in May. Just getting to the state level was a massive boost to my confidence in scicomm. Making it to Nationals is just unreal.

I love science. And I love the doors that my scientific endeavours are opening for me this year. I’m seeking out those doors and knocking on them – hard!- but I also have to give thanks the organisations on other side who are opening those doors and deeming me worthy of letting through, too.

I see this as the beginning of establishing myself as a science communicator; a job that didn’t even exist when I first fell in love with discovery and wonder as a child.

 

These achievements are keeping me “up” while my drafts are torn to shreds and pieced back together again in a better form, while I wait impatiently to hear back from equally busy collaborators and for reagents to arrive for my next set of experiments, while I struggle to trek along the windy and precarious path to completing my PhD.

If that fails, there’s always crochet 😉

 

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