Sabrina Badir from ETH Zurich, Lian Willetts from the University of Alberta and Shani Elitzur from Technion, Israel: These three young researchers won the last edition of the Falling Walls Lab Finale in Berlin on 8 November.
After their successful 3-minute-presentations we asked them a few questions about their work, the importance of science communication and the challenges young researchers face today.
May we ask you to explain your work in 3 sentences?
Shani Elitzur: My PhD research investigates and develops a novel technology for hydrogen production on-demand via the chemical reaction between aluminium and water. It is based on an in-house, patented, aluminium activation process that enables spontaneous reaction at room temperature using a small fraction of activator (up to 2.5wt%). The hydrogen can be used in fuel cells for electric energy generation.
Sabrina Badir: We are developing a diagnostic tool that measures the cervical stiffness in pregnant women. Monitoring cervical stiffness allows to reliably identify women at risk of preterm birth, thus solving the long-standing problem of preterm birth risk assessment and management in pregnancy.
Lian Willetts: Prostate cancer is affecting millions of people worldwide. Being diagnosed with prostate cancer is not a death sentence, but it becomes deadly when the cancer cells spread/metastasis from the prostate to bones and other organs. Since only a portion of all patients diagnosed with prostate cancer will be metastatic, we are working a non-invasive blood test-based technology to accurately predict who whose patients are.
How did you prepare your presentation for the Falling Walls Lab? What would you consider as the key elements of a good science presentation?
Lian: I prepared my presentation by first making a 3-minute-video about our work. At the University of Alberta, all applicants went through a morning of presentation training offered by the local organisers. After the training, we went through a semi-final competition and a final competition. This process of learning and competing in front of different committees helped with my presentation tremulously. In private, I practiced and experimented with various versions of my presentation in front of family, friends and whoever cared to listen.
A good science presentation, to me, is a presentation that tells a complete story on a topic with conciseness. A good science presentation should be easy to understand for people with or without the background knowledge on the topic.
Shani: When preparing my presentation, I tried to describe why our research is important, what we are developing, and how the world can benefit from it. Then I phrased my explanations so they would apply to a wide audience. Finally, I revised it, including only the main points.
I believe that a good science presentation is one that clearly conveys to the audience what is being investigated, what the main novelties are and how they were achieved. I think that a presentation should only include the main concepts and methods, and if someone is interested in the specifics he/she can approach the speaker. Usually, too many details are confusing for the majority of listeners and the beauty of the research may get lost.
Sabrina: I did not choose a different preparation for the Falling Walls presentation. But what I generally try when presenting to a broad audience is to explain the project in simple and short sentences and keep the story line very easy to follow.
What did you take with you from the Lab, first for your work but also for you personally?
Lian: At the work front, I left the FW Lab with full support from the judging committee and my peers. It has been motivating me to overcome the daily difficulties a scientist inevitably experiences more often than not.
Personally, I made good friends and networks not only in the science community, but also in the many other areas such as humanity and innovation. The FW Lab experience horned my ability and skills in communication, which is critical in any successful career development.
Shani: During the Lab I understood that a pitch can also be important in science. Previously, when I thought about presenting my research what came to my mind were detailed descriptions of experiments and analysis, their results, and possible applications. I believed that anything shorter does not suit a science presentation. Being part of the Falling Walls Lab made me realize that a short and concise presentation reaches a wide audience and can lead to interesting conversations, exchange of ideas and collaborations.
Sabrina: Work: Preterm birth is a transversal societal problem that needs worldwide interdisciplinary commitment to reduce suffering and save life years at a large scale, from developing countries to advanced societies. Being part of Falling Walls helped us to address this highly unmet need internationally. We got a lot of media coverage which is very important at this stage of the project.
Personally: I personally loved the networking possibilities at Falling Walls. Meeting so many smart and innovative people motivated me to keep on track.
In your opinion what are the main challenges and problems that researchers encounter at the beginning of their careers?
Shani: I think that typically a researcher has many uncertainties at the beginning regarding the planning of the career; finding a post-doc position then tenure etc. Another challenge, that is part of a researcher’s career at any stage, is the constant need to be innovative and stay cutting edge. Unfortunately, in some cases lots of time and energy can be invested in a research that does not provide the expected results and does not end with a breakthrough or major value to our knowledge. I think that in general a researcher at the beginning of his career is confronted with much more “unknowns” than his friends who chose other paths. It can be a bit scary but it also gives us the freedom to choose what we want to do.
Sabrina: I guess it is to convince people that what we are doing is the future.
Lian: Personally, I think the main challenges and problems are support and focus. Support can range from financial and career-based from mentors, peers, and granting agencies. I personally find everything interesting, so focus on a career-defining work can be difficult. The balance between what is interesting to a scientist and what is relevant to critical issues for us as human beings.