Science communication – a message from one of our awesome alumni

How many of you break out in sweat at the mere thought of public speaking? It is one of the most common fears, and it used to affect me. But in 2014, I won an international science communication competition. This is my story.

As a student on the Marine Mammal Science Masters (2008-09), public speaking was my worst nightmare. I would dread the regular seminar sessions, during which we had to peruse a research paper and explain it to the rest of the class. The reading was great, the knowledge expansion was great – but the speaking part? Stuttering my way through someone else’s research whilst my cheeks flushed red and my notes trembling in my hands? No thanks!

The regular exposure to presenting must have paid off, though. After the Masters, I moved to Australia with my partner, both of us in pursuit of PhD projects. Whilst applying for scholarships and volunteering on marine mammal research projects, I was searching for casual work when a friend recommended contacting the local science and discovery centre. Outreach Science Presenters were in demand and I decided to take a chance. To my surprise, I was offered the job and soon found myself trekking around the whole of Western Australia to deliver interactive science shows to some of the most remote schools in the outback. Giving talks became my bread and butter. By stepping on stage six or more times a day, my anxiety started fading away, and the nerves of fear were replaced by nerves of excitement.

So when I commenced my PhD a couple of years later and heard about the 3-Minute-Thesis (3MT) competition, I knew I had to get involved.

3MT is the ultimate exercise in communication for graduate students; it was developed by the University of Queensland back in 2008 and has since then expanded to many other institutions around the world (including the University of St Andrews). The concept? An 80,000-word thesis would take roughly 9 hours to present. The challenge? Explaining yours to a generalist audience in 3 minutes or less.

First came heats at individual universities, followed by university finals. I not only made it to the Curtin University top ten, but won my heat, the final and the people’s choice award! “Great start!” I thought, before rushing to the other end of the state for fieldwork. Every day, whilst we bumped over the waves searching for dolphins, I would mutter my speech away to myself. Soon I could do it pretty much on default – scanning the ocean, driving the car, making dinner.

The international final came in the form of a Trans-Tasman Competition where representatives from over 40 universities across Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong competed in a wordy battle. The stakes were extremely high! But I love my research, and the opportunity to talk about it to a bunch of fresh minds is so exciting that my allotted time whooshed by, leaving me with a satisfied happy glow.

See Sarah in action at the competition here. -> youtube video

SarahsTalk

From a happy glow to a blush of surprise, I was ecstatic to be chosen as winner of the Trans-Tasman 3MT. I did the whole shocked-face, hug people in neighbouring seats, embarrassing acceptance speech thing. But what really got me buzzed was the accomplishment at having enjoyed something that just a few years ago would have terrified me.

So the moral of this story? Face your fears. Little by little, what petrifies you now could become something you love. If nothing else, practice makes perfect!

Remember that next time you’re asked to give a class seminar.

Sarah Marley