Cell biologists hone elevator pitches

Competition challenges scientists to summarize their work

A senator and a scientist walk into an elevator. If the scientist happens to be Navneeta Pathak or Kiani Gardner, science funding might also get a lift.

Pathak and Gardner won a contest at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology that required competitors to describe their research in a one- or two-minute spiel that the general public could understand. The idea is to get cell biologists more comfortable with explaining their work to nonscientists, said Simon Atkinson, chair of the society’s public information committee. About 20 scientists entered the contest, recording their entries on smart phones or a video camera set up in the exhibit hall.

The exercise can be useful for graduate students who struggle to explain exactly what it is they do to their parents, family, friends and neighbors, But the public information and policy committees had a larger target in mind when they devised the contest, Atkinson said. Scientists never know when they might encounter a member of Congress in an elevator or other cramped space, and the researchers need to be ready to dazzle the captive lawmaker in order to garner more support for research funding.

Ramya Viswanathan, a graduate student at the University of Virginia, is now prepared with a one-minute rendition of her research in case she should briefly encounter a prospective employer or her department chairman. “If I actually do run into anyone in an elevator, I can tell them about my research in two minutes without boring them,” she said.

Her fellow U.Va. graduate student Manisha Menon also tackled the challenge of making her work on the internal architecture of cells interesting to a wide variety of people. “It’s this tiny microcosm that they don’t know about or maybe even care about,” she said shortly after recording her entry.

Pathak, of the University of California, San Diego, had her mother-in-law in mind when delivering her two-minute pitch, she said. Pathak studies a protein that helps cancer cells drill through blood vessel walls so the tumor cells can spread to other parts of the body. Atkinson praised her vivid imagery and the way she seamlessly explained the few words of jargon sprinkled throughout her talk.

Gardner, of Duke University, also conjured a vibrant mental picture by describing how a protein she studies separates dividing bacterial cells much the way a rubber band on a water balloon pinches the balloon in two. Both Gardner and Pathak took home an iPad mini along with the honor of winning.

There is only glory for honorable mention winners Karen Colbert of Stanford University, Jayme Dyer of Duke University and Monica Clifford of the University of Toronto. Stanley Cohn, a cell biologist at DePaul University in Chicago, also received honorable mention for his entry, recorded in an actual elevator. But Cohn’s approach of grabbing his captive audience by the lapels and punctuating his impassioned diatribe on diatoms with pokes to the chest may serve as a cautionary tale for what not to do.

Tina Hesman Saey

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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