Science in Plain English contest makes complex ideas sound simple

Jessica Shu

What do Popeye and cancerous tumors have in common?

Enough to lend insight to a possible treatment for T-ALL, a specific type of leukemia, according to biology senior Wesley Godfrey.   

On Thursday night, 14 UT undergraduate and graduate students participated in the Science in Plain English contest, where they presented complex scientific research to a lay audience. Given three minutes each, contestants were challenged to use simple language and surprising analogies to illustrate technical concepts in an interesting manner. Judges scored them on brevity, clarity, avoidance of jargon and speaking style.

“The contest, which began in 2015, aims to encourage student researchers to learn how to talk about their research so that non-scientists can understand and recognize the importance of doing so,” said Roxanne Bogucka, the event organizer.

Savannah Troy, an undergraduate biology student, won the audience favorite award. Troy’s research concerns the resiliency of white-crowned sparrows.

The overall winner was Lisa Strong, a biochemistry senior who gained a last-minute opportunity to speak when a contestant withdrew earlier in the week. She researches possible drugs that prevent cell processes that regulate cell division from malfunctioning and possibly leading to cancer. She compared the difficulty of drug-molecule binding to breaking into the CIA.

“I want to be a professor, so, naturally, I love the challenge of presenting a topic in a variety of ways,” said Strong, who recounted testing her speech out on her 14-year-old sister.

The first-place prize is $350 and entry to the 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science conference, where Strong will present her research to the scientific community. The Austin Radiological Association, which funded the event, donated both prizes.

“It’s important to support student initiatives and get young people engaged in the scientific community,” said Dr. Rob Milman, a diagnostic radiologist and representative of the Austin Radiological Association.

Clear communication is key to fostering public understanding of science, according to Norah Ashoura, a judge and the winner of the 2016 Science in Plain English contest.

“There’s a disconnect between what we do and what’s being conveyed in the media,” Ashoura said.

Researchers should keep the “headline,” or the most important part of their work, in mind when communicating to the public, similar to how journalists communicate information, according to Milman.

“People want to get excited about science, but jargon loses the audience,” Milman said.