Communicating your research with Three Minute Thesis winner Imogen Swift

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Communicating your scientific research can be challenging – and one especially tricky challenge has been tackled by PhD student Imogen Swift (UK DRI at UCL), who recently won the Three Minute Thesis competition at University College London.

In this competition, researchers must present their work to a non-specialist audience in three minutes or less, using only one PowerPoint slide. Imogen, who is based between the Zetterberg and Sogorb-Esteve labs at the UK DRI at UCL; and the Rohrer lab at the UCL Dementia Research Centre, researches fluid biomarkers in frontotemporal dementia (FTD). She framed her presentation around the story of Rachel – a woman for whom FTD runs in the family – before explaining her work and how it can help families like Rachel’s.

We spoke to Imogen about her winning presentation, and she shared her top tips for communicating scientific research.

Imogen Swift Final Picture

First off, what motivated you to take on the Three Minute Thesis challenge?

My main motivation was increasing awareness on this lesser known condition. FTD is much less common than Alzheimer's, and a lack of awareness sometimes results in people with FTD being mistreated or their symptoms being misunderstood. For these individuals, it’s good to acknowledge that others can understand or at least sympathize with their situation.

Also, one of my colleagues did the challenge last year, and she really enjoyed it. I thought it would be a great opportunity to see if I could actually squeeze the amount of work I've done into three minutes. It was an exciting project, and I’d definitely recommend it.

In your presentation, what key things did you do to make your research relevant and understandable for a non-specialist audience?

The main thing was making it personal and telling a story. For my presentation I referenced the story of one of our study participants who we know quite well. She very kindly shared her story with us, and I found that it added an important personal touch.

I also talked to my family a lot and they are all non-scientists. They're very supportive, sometimes overly critical, but that’s often handy. I would present and say, “You guys know what I'm talking about?”, and they all said no, and then I’d go back to the drawing board. My family’s input really did help; I'd recommend testing your science communication out on non-scientists, because you'll really get an outlook on how it’s received.

One challenge of the Three Minute Thesis, as well as science communication in general, is sifting through your research and selecting which parts to communicate. For your presentation, how did you go about doing this?

I have about 10 projects as part of my PhD, and so there's a lot of things I could have chosen to present. I thought about which of the projects was easiest to explain and had the highest impact. And what the audience would engage with most – after various conversations with our participants, I thought, what would they most want to know? As many are interested in partaking in clinical trials, I think they would want to know if the trials will work, so I made sure my presentation covered that.

Many say that a major part of science communication is storytelling, and I noticed you framed your presentation around a story yourself. Why do you think storytelling is so important, and what do you think makes up a good science story?

If you start with a story people can relate to, they immediately become invested, and then from there you can add in the science. As for what makes a good story, I think the personal story about someone’s life is really easy to get audiences to care about. I understand a lot of researchers wouldn't necessarily have insight into a patient, particularly if they work in the more fundamental science side. But I do really recommend speaking to people: going to support groups, going to charitable days and meeting people there.

I also think people can sometimes overdramatize or embellish personal stories, and there's a risk of making them sound more dramatic than they actually are. Ultimately, to make a good science story, accuracy is the number one thing.

Another challenge of science communication, especially with this presentation, is having to keep it really brief. How did you approach this?

The number one tip is to practice. I practiced my presentation maybe 40 times over the month or so. It’s a careful balance of practicing, but not making it like a script, or all the enthusiasm goes out the window. Ultimately, to be brief, you've got to be concise, and to be concise, you've got to practice.

Finally, if you had to give scientists three key tips for communicating their research, what would they be?

  1. Less is always more. If someone gives you 10 minutes to speak, never speak for 10 minutes – always speak for less. My slides will have very basic information, I will always simplify things more and then if people want to know more deeply about something, they can always ask me.
  2. Explain why your audience should care. To do that, you can think about why you care, then think why others would care from there. Imagine you’re at a party with lots of non-scientists, and they ask “So, what do you do?” And you talk about your research, and then they say “Oh, that’s cool, why do you do that?”
  3. Ensure your language is accessible. I’m looking at proteins in the blood, but I told my family about proteins, and they said, “What, like in meat or eggs?” What they think a protein is, isn’t what I think a protein is. So I changed the word to ‘molecule’, and then they said, “Yes, we know what a molecule is!” Think carefully about how your words are going to be understood.

To find out more about Imogen Swift's research, as well as that of the Zetterberg and Sogorb-Esteve labs, visit their profiles.

Swift's research profile
Zetterberg's UK DRI profile
Sogorb-Esteve's UK DRI profile

Article published: 8 August 2023
Banner image: Shutterstock/darkloom