Thinking outside the box: Your PhD conveyed through a photo … or dance!

A topic that has come up several times on our blog this year is how to make your PhD research accessible to others who do not share your lab-space, or your brain, 24/7. My fellow GradLife blogger Crystal challenged us PhD students to explain our research with an audience of ten year-olds in mind, while Zsofia challenged us to “explain the subject we eat, sleep and breathe in only 124 characters”. In fact, communicating our work to the public is an immensely important skill to develop. Why else do we do this research, than to advance scientific knowledge and have this knowledge impact the community at large?

While we are constantly encouraged to write “lay summaries” of our work (and, let’s face it, they never turn out to be completely free of scientific jargon, do they?), or “keep an interdisciplinary audience in mind” when putting abstracts together for conferences, the real challenge is when we are forced to think even MORE outside of the box!

This year, ACFAS (Association canadienne-française pour l’avancement des scienceshas organized a contest where researchers must capture the essence of their work in a photo, and provide a short description of what this photo represents. Whether you work on something as astronomical in scope as the sun’s magnetic field (as does Université de Montréal student Dorian Pirot), or something as microscopical as analyzing the protein make-up of muscles in the body in order to explain pathologies such as loss of muscle mass (as does Nicolas Sgarioto, McGill), or whether your work is centered upon something as medically and societally important as the brain activity of premature newborns (Marc Fournier, UdeM), and neuro-inflammation in the brain of Alzheimer patients (Baptiste Lacoste, McGill), this contest is a truly wonderful opportunity to challenge yourself to think of your work from the outside-in, and share your work with the community through the medium of photography and non-scientific writing. Photos and descriptions from the 20 finalists will be on display this weekend (June 15-17) at the Festival Eurêka!, at the Old Port in Montreal.

Soleil magnetique by Dorian Pirot
Fibres en bouquet by Nicholas Sgarioto
Cerveau en croissance by Marc Fournier
A l’attaque! by Baptiste Lacoste

And, if that is STILL not outside-the-box-y enough for you, you might want to look into conveying your PhD dissertation through dance (yes! You read correctly! DANCE!), like Queen’s University biologist Emma Ware. The annual contest “Dance your PhD” encourages PhD students to communicate their theses – from their general topic to their specific hypotheses – to the general public in a creative way. The founder of this project is John Bohannon – a Harvard researcher – and he says the idea behind the contest is to give young researchers a fun break from the constant pressure of fulfilling the requirements of their PhD degree. Although I admittedly would never be able to pull this off, I can truly relate to the idea that finding a creative outlet can dramatically boost your motivation for your work.

You can learn more about the “Dance your PhD” contest online through CBC, and even watch some of the mind-boggling performances on You Tube.

In any case, if you’re not one for dancing, and photography is not up your alley either, then you can take Crystal and Zsofia up on their challenge and push yourself to exercise this crucial communication skill by talking to your friends, your family — kids and adults – about your work. The look on their faces – ranging from excited smiles and nods, to creased foreheads and puzzled eyes – will indicate whether you are doing a good job of explaining your research or not!

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