Third annual Science Slam becomes first virtual Research Slam

When MIT announced its pandemic polices back in March, all in-person events were canceled, including the Department of Biology’s third annual Science Slam. Instead, the department devised a new plan in tandem with MIT’s Alumni Association: a virtual slam featuring biology alumni. On April 30, roughly 300 attendees gathered via Zoom to hear nine graduates from Course 7 (Biology) and 5-7 (Chemistry and Biology) share their research.

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. These presentations aren’t just talks; they’re performances geared toward 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. Viewers could type questions into the Zoom Q&A function in real-time, and after the prizes were awarded the audience split into breakout rooms to connect with the top three finishers.

The judges included Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals; Bob Prior, executive editor of the MIT Press; Vivian Siegel, director of communications for the Department of Biology; and Ari Daniel PhD ’08, an independent science reporter who crafts digital videos for PBS NOVA and co-produces the Boston branch of Story Collider.

The nine competitors included alumnae currently working as graduate students, postdocs, and research scientists — as well as the associate director for research at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In order of appearance, they were:

  • Hanna Starobinets ’09, a research scientist at Genocea, who spoke about devising personalized vaccines that train the immune system to fight cancer;
  • Suzanne Epstein PhD '79, the FDA’s associate director for research, who spoke about targeting conserved viral proteins to formulate universal vaccines that combat all influenza strains;
  • Amy Norovich '08, a postdoc at Columbia University, who spoke about the ways male and female fish see the world, and how those differences impact behavior;
  • Helen Hou '10, also a postdoc at Columbia University, who spoke about how our brains distinguish the sounds we generate from the sounds others make, and what happens when disease interferes with this ability;
  • Maya Jay, '18, a graduate student at Harvard Medical School, who spoke about how the chemical dopamine helps the brain encode actions and learn behaviors;
  • Lori Huberman '07, a project scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, who spoke about developing a high-throughput functional genomics platform to study filamentous fungi;
  • Juhyun Oh '09, a postdoc at Massachusetts General Hospital, who spoke about designing antibody-based imaging techniques, which allow deep profiling of immune cells in a scalable fashion to treat cancer;
  • Alissandra Hillis '18, a graduate student at Harvard University, who spoke about using genetic tools to identify combinatorial breast cancer treatments that require lower doses and prevent drug resistance; and
  • Allegra Hawkins '14, a postdoc at Weill Cornell Medicine, who spoke about mapping tumors in order to understand the location and function of each individual cancer cell.

The event was moderated and co-organized by Joe McGonegal, director of alumni education. Like the Department of Biology, the Alumni Association has been hosting research slams for three years running. “It was a natural collaboration,” McGonegal says. “There were lots of moving parts, and given our lean staffing and remote production, I’m surprised the entire thing didn’t sink for one reason or another. There was plenty of room for improvement for sure, but for a pilot virtual slam I couldn’t have asked for more.”

McGonegal collaborated with Siegel, a judge and co-organizer, to plan the event. “It’s always a great treat to hear members of our biology community share their research in the slam format,” she says. “When Joe approached me about collaborating to hold a virtual slam, I immediately agreed. Hearing from our alumni was inspiring, and I hope we can do it again.”

There were four prizes: three awarded by the judges and another determined by the audience. Jay earned first place from the judges, as well as the honor of crowd favorite, while Hawkins and Oh received second and third places, respectively. The Alumni Association donated a total of $2,000 to MIT’s Covid-19 research funds in their names.

First-place winner Jay says that many scientists make a habit of describing their work in inaccessible terms — but conveying research to a wider audience is a critical skill. “The slam provided a perfect opportunity to share my graduate work with the MIT and alumni communities, while practicing explaining our science and its applications for anyone to understand,” she says. “Condensing complex science into a three-minute spiel is hard, but I appreciated the challenge and am glad the work paid off!”