Chances are that the words “cool” and “engaging” don’t come to mind when you read the abstract of a scientific paper - if you ever do that kind of reading at all.
If you know any PhD students, you also know that it’s too easy to glaze over when they start telling you about the minutiae of their research. With tens of thousands of words dedicated to exploring every nook and cranny of their given subject, it would be hard to distil it into the basics.
Hard, but not impossible. There’s a growing body of communications challenges out there that aim to turn scientists into entertaining presenters, enabling them to get the message across without losing people’s interest.
"I believe that people in science need to have [these skills], otherwise it's going to be hard to be successful," says Noushin Nasiri, who just last week was the runner-up in the British Council competition for science communicators, FameLab Australia.
"If I just start talking about the facts and the data, it's going to be boring for a general audience," she says.
Nasiri is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, where she works in the Nanotechnology Research Laboratory, developing tiny biosensors that could detect disease by analysing a person’s breath - and catch it early, too.
"My project is analysing people's breath and detecting diseases in their breath before they can be detected in the blood," she explains. "When you detect a disease in a person's breath, that's the earliest stage, and most of the time, the chance of recovery is much higher."
Having lost a friend to late-stage lung cancer, Nasiri sees real life-saving potential in her research. With the biosensors she is developing, there could be an application for something as simple as a smartphone app, which lets people at high risk of diseases such as lung cancer or diabetes to have personal health checks every day, if necessary.
It’s this story that Nasiri has been telling for the past eight months in a series of competitions which finally led to the final of FameLab Australia. Even though she was rather scared at first, presenting her work in such a way gave Nasiri a chance to brush up on her English as well.
"I used to be a very good presenter in my own language, which is Persian - I come from Iran,” she explains. “The way I'm used to presenting in my own country is a little bit different from the way it's done in Australia, or internationally."
"During these eight months I've learned a lot, because I had a chance to be trained by professionals," she notes. Being able to present her work several times and receive feedback gave Nasiri a lot of confidence, and she believes her presentation skills have improved as a result.
"I'm really, really happy that I've had this chance," she says. “I had a chance to be invited by the British Council to the semi-finals in Melbourne, and that's how I got to the national finals.”
FameLab is a global competition aimed at getting researchers to explain a scientific concept to a general audience in three minutes. After winning the semi-final in Melbourne, Nasiri came second in the final which took place last week at the Western Australian Museum in Perth.
Last year, Nasiri also participated in a similar Three Minute Thesis competition, taking away the People’s Choice Award for a presentation on her cancer detection work (see video below).